The Class War is Over, and We Lost

January 30, 2009

redstallionFranchising is one part of a bigger picture.

Increasingly, it is more difficult for good people to do ignore this hollowing out. You make your choice by choosing to do nothing.

My brother-in-law Leo ran a gas station and then had a Red Stallion franchise. His dad ran the same 2-bay Sunoco garage in the east end of London, Ontario for decades.

When I was just starting into looking into franchising, about 10 years ago, Leo said something that I remembered when I watched the video below:

Franchising is just a part of the puzzle, Les. They’ve been screwing small businesspeople for years and years.

It’s like a lot of things” is what Gordon Pitts said this to my wife in 1998 when she called about franchising. Pitts is the  editor at The Globe and Mail newpaper, Canada’s national business daily.

Below is a video 9:43 video with Bill Moyers interviewing economist Dean Baker and journalist Bob Herbert. Dean is a frequent contributor to Beat the Press weblog where his comments seem ring true.

These are my impressions:

  1. Franchising is only one part of  an ongoing economic clear-cutting of non-elites.
  2. Predatory actions are the new American Dream, including small business lending.
  3. The media is not asking for solutions, they’re part of the problem (bias is not recognized).
  4. Listen to the nuns: chicanery happens when you neuter the watchdogs.
  5. Bailouts have zero accountability (paying out the elites who got us in this mess).
  6. Debt enslaves. Usury is a forgotten concept.
  7. Any collective impulse such as unions (or Independent Franchise Associations or national groups of IndFA) is ridiculed which maintains the elite’s control.
  8. Employers simply terminate troublemakers: It’s cheaper to drag it out for 2 to 3 years and pay a small fine, if anything at all. Ditto in franchising.

I never really thought about class warfare before.

  • I think about it a lot more lately.

NFC to AUS MPs: Contempt from the McContemptible?

September 17, 2008

The Franchise Council of Australia, FCA and it’s Chairman John O’Brien (CEO of PoolWerx Corporation, BTW), is right: Dead right.

  • The NFC seems to be acting AS IF it were the nation’s pique franchising body.

When I observe the recent interplay between AUS federal politicians and the NFC (see Franchise Council hits back at critics), I get a little teary-eyed.

It just seems like old times.

I am reminded of how the Canadian Franchise Association, CFA, dealt with a provincial politician called Tony Martin, who has since moved onto federal politics.

They treated Mr. Martin with contempt.

Tony and I worked together from 1998 top 2001, trying to get the 1st franchise law for investors in the province of Ontario in Canada. We failed to get a decent one and everything has been frozen since. (see Arthur Wishart Act (Franchise Disclosure), 2000, especially S3 and it’s pathetic, and still undefined and unargued, good faith provisions).

What we did succeed at (and in spades I might add) is leave a very interesting paper trail. The Information Sharing Project has collected all of these tasty little documents. Think of it as a www, digital record of very some very stupid comments.

As a example, please note Tony’s April 2000 press release below calling the Government of Ontario to investigate or “probe” the CFA.

Investigate Franchise Association Abuses: Martin
Tony Martin, MPP

April 4, 2000

TORONTO – The Consumer and Commercial Relations Ministry should investigate the Canadian Franchise Association over its failure to help Ontario franchise holders, NDP MPP Tony Martin said today.

The CFA is advising the Conservative government on proposed changes to provincial laws governing franchise agreements. But the association is under fire from hundreds of its own members for its indifference to their complaints, the NDP Critic for Consumer and Commercial Relations said in the Legislature today.

“The CFA has been of no help to many hundreds of entrepreneurs who lost their shirts in shoddy franchise deals,” Martin said. “Instead of taking the CFA’s advice this government should be sending in ministry staff to thoroughly investigate this association’s failures.”

Martin raised the case of Brenda Hope, a mother of two from Coldwater who lost $90,000 as a Chemwise Inc., franchisee. For more than a year, the CFA has refused to look into Hope’s complaints, although it endorsed Chemwise as a member.

Similarly, the CFA has refused to accept a registered letter from Bulk Barn franchisees who have a series of complaints against the franchisor. Martin was also refused when he tried to deliver the letter. The Sault Ste. Marie MPP called on Consumer and Commercial Affairs minister Bob Runciman to act now to protect small businesspeople.

“Perhaps the minister can convince the CFA to live up to its responsibilities to mediate franchise disputes. If he can’t, we need a full-scale probe of this group. It’s the least we can do for hard-working families who lose everything in dubious franchise deals,” Martin said.

The MPP has proposed his own legislation, Bill 35, that is far tougher than the government’s Bill 33. The Martin Franchise Bill would require full-disclosure of franchise contracts, a dispute resolution mechanism, the right to associate and the freedom to source products outside of the chain when not trademark related.

-30-

Information: Gil Hardy at (416) 325-7118 or Robin Cantin at (416) 325-7324
http://www.ontariondp.on.ca


Sue Big Franchising: franchisor, lawyers, lenders, sales agents, developers

September 2, 2008

Neil Hickman, with wife Michelle and their children Lewis (6) Lauren (11) and Holly (10), moved here from the UK for a better life but have lost their life savings after investment company failures. Photo / Martin Sykes

Good job: Naturally, raise enough doubt to have the contracts set aside as unenforceable because they were based in fraud.

More body parts are washing up on New Zealand’s shoreline in the continuing Blue Chip scandal.

See my post on the family on the left, Kiwi scams touch all classes of immigrants and the New Zealand Herald’s original article, Immigrant banker put $1.7m in Blue Chip).

The Herald says this week:

The investors claim the agreements are unenforceable.

They say Greenstone and the Blue Chip group had an agency relationship, including a profit-share arrangement. They are also taking action against three Blue Chip-recommended lawyers over the advice they gave – Jonathan Mathias, Zeljan Unkovich, and Hamilton firm Foster, Milroy & Turketo.

Okay but Jenni McManus and BusinessDay.co.nz really gets into the details in Blue Chip investors sue their lawyers:

Eight out-of-pocket investors in bankrupt property company Blue Chip are suing their Blue Chip-recommended lawyers for breach of duty for their handling of millions of dollars worth of apartment purchases due to settle within weeks.

They say lawyers Jonathan Mathias, Zeljan Unkovich and the law firm Foster Milroy & Turketo who habitually did Blue Chip work, were recommended to investors for legal advice when buying apartments in the Barclay development in downtown Auckland about two years ago.

The investors claim they were dissuaded from using their own lawyers by Blue Chip, who they say told them its property schemes were complex and their own lawyers might not understand how they worked.

But Mathias, Unkovich and Foster Milroy & Turketo regularly did Blue Chip-related work and knew how the schemes operated, the investors say they were told. Some say Blue Chip threatened not to pay their legal fees unless they used lawyers Blue Chip recommended. Specifically, the plaintiffs allege the lawyers failed to advise them of the implications of the transactions they were signing or to give them any advice about the documentation.

So its the lawyers and franchisor only? No: Here are the lenders, sales agents…

The claim is part of the first significant lawsuit against Blue Chip. Other defendants have been named as Greenstone Barclay Trustees, GE Custodians (a lender), Tasman Mortgages and Executive Mortgages (mortgage brokers) and Blue Chip associate Bribanc (now know as Vault Realty).

Fraud claims have been brought against Tasman and Executive, where it’s alleged one or both fraudulently altered the loan documentation for one investor whose income was misstated, and mortgages were obtained from GE Custodians on the basis of fraudulent conduct.

…but last if not least, the property appraisers.

Described by Dale [Paul Dale, the Hickman’s lawyer] as naive and unsophisticated investors, the Hickmans also relied on a valuation from Blue Chip associate Bribanc Real Estate that they did not even see. Dale is arguing that, as with several plaintiffs’ properties, their apartment was over-valued.

They are seeking an injunction and although I am not a lawyer they appear to have to satisfy a pretty low legal standard:

…all the plaintiffs need prove is that they can mount a credible argument against the developers and Blue Chip.

Whatever happens, there were no aligned interests or a conspiracy to commit fraud. Only a nut-job would ever think such a thing.


Susan Kezios: one tough cookie

September 1, 2008

I had the great fortune of meeting Susan Kezios, the president of the American Franchisee Association in 2000.

She was brought to Toronto from their Chicago, U.S. offices to give expert witness testimony to the Ontario legislature Standing Committee on Regulation and Private Bills on March 6, 2000.

As you can see, Susan knows her stuff and is fearless in speaking her truth.

The American Franchisee Association was very important to me establishing the Canadian Alliance of Franchise Operators.

She is, however, not without a well-developed sense of black humour. As an example, this is how she left the 13 or so Canadian politicians and various industry hangers-on after her 45 minute “lively” chat about the state-of-the-union in North American franchising:

The Acting Chair: Thank you for your presentation. Safe trip home.

Ms Kezios: Thank you, especially with all the franchisors out there, right?


Oz Churning “Debate”

August 12, 2008

Jason Gehrke writes a weblog called Franchise tips and trends in http://www.smartcompany.com.au. His latest article, Churning: The dark side of franchising, is predictable.

I tried to submit a comment but was unable.

Here is what I would have submitted:

First the industry experts said “There is no churning.” Second, they say, “Well, yes, there is but…There’s just a few bad apples.” And, now, they add: Proving how bad a franchisor abuses their franchisees is difficult anyway (so why bother?).

Who are Australian small business investors going to believe: Franchise experts who keep changing their stories or returning foot soldiers from the franchise front? I have every confidence that people recognize BS when they see it.

1. Churning is a cluster of franchisor behaviors that results in financial catastrophe for the investor. These exercises of discretion within the incomplete contract are perfectly observable, auditable and quantifiable.

How often the abuse happens is irrelevant. Every franchisee knows what happens when you step out of line. Crucifixion was a very effective behavior modification technique.

2. There are no “good” systems or “bad” brands. The ability for franchisors to exercise their discretion in an abuse way (opportunism) arises from the very heart of the relationship. In franchising, the franchisee owns the majority of the store’s assets but the franchisor controls them. It is its great strength and its great source of abuse (it’s someone else’s money).

Attributing intentions (Oops sorry to cut your head off, there buddy. Does it ease your pain that I, admit, am an idiot?) means less than nothing. A family’s bankruptcy forms do not list someone else’s intentions.

3. To say that it is difficult to prove predatory business practices is a misrepresentation.

In Ontario, Canada, Gillian K. Hadfield presented a very simple rule to determine if a franchisor’s behavior was opportunistic: Would the decision in question have been made IF the franchisor HAD owned the franchisee’s assets THEMSELVES? If no, then the franchisor likely abused their dominant contract and economic position.

Example: Would the franchisor voluntarily pay the same price for the products that they FORCE their franchisees to buy from head office? Yes or no. Would they buy or shop around and get better value from another source of supplies? Is the contract being used to squeeze a hidden franchise tax from captured investors? Same thing with head leases, equipment purchases, renewals, etc.

Big Franchising wants everyone to stay asleep and they have a +30 years Oz history of saying anything to maintain their dominance. Get Smart.

Franchising is Unsafe at any Brand.

Les Stewart MBA
Midhurst Canada
lesstewart.wordpress.com


Legitimate business or Scam?

July 28, 2008

John Tozzi writes an interesting article on business opportunities for BusinessWeek Online.

The Internet is littered with offers for home-based business opportunities that promise big profits for easy work. But many of these offers, which range from envelope stuffing to medical billing, are really scams that prey on people’s aspirations to work for themselves.

Michael Webster (bizop.ca) is quoted as saying:

While some home-based business scams target vulnerable people such as the unemployed, experts say anyone can be taken in by the right pitch. “The techniques are no different in kind from the ordinary marketing techniques that normal sales people use. They’re just selling nothing,” says Michael Webster, a Toronto lawyer and the author of a blog on business opportunity fraud. “Anybody can be a mark on any given different day. Even I could be.”

This is very generous of Michael.

This article [and don’t forget the slide show] highlights that scammers are not without skill or charm that can hoodwink even an especially knowledgable professional, including a wary trial attorney.

  • Only about 5% of fraud victims ever report their loss.

Let’s not forget that Richard Solomon, a 45 year U.S. franchise veteran, believes that the large majority of new franchise offerings are just selling nothing [impossible to determine + from – RE: advertising mask + sham business].


Solomon on Modern Franchising

July 27, 2008

Richard Solomon on Blue MauMau: Competent Risk Assessment Through Killer Pre Investment Due Diligence.

Absolutely right on the money.

Richard’s statement of problem:

The hoards of potential investors with access to over $ 500,000, coming out of downsizing companies and merger resulting reductions of work forces, have brought sharp practitioners to the small business opportunities field. These phony franchise opportunities masquerade as real business prospects, using the same descriptors as the legitimate franchise opportunities.

Does he see Any Protection?:

That Rule [FTC Rule, or similar disclosure type scams] does not, however, provide any reliable investment protection. The reason for this is that when you have parted with your total initial investment of upwards of $ 350,000 or more, and are on the hook for a ten year lease and to repay a large SBA business loan, and have personally guaranteed the performance of the franchise agreement (as they all now require), and have agreed to pay upwards of $ 100,000 to the franchisor as liquidated damages if you fail (which they all now also require), you have no resources left to pay for expensive litigation when you realize you were defrauded and are just plain broke. You are looking at bankruptcy as your only avenue of escape.

Richard versus Les: I agree with 100% the diagnosis. We part company regarding post-signing franchisor opportunism.

The problem, for me, is after you sign, the franchisor reserves the unilateral rights to:

  1. turn into the most predatory S.O.B. operator imaginable [sign with Dr. Jeckyll who turns out to be Mr. Hyde].
  2. Force you to sell to him your very high volume and profitable store at 15% of its value.
  3. Or sells the whole system to a sleaze ball.
  4. Or goes bankrupt/insolvent [new squeeze, divorce, switch teams, boredom…who know/cares?: result is the same for investor].
  5. Or decides your store looks good on Son #1 or the moron brother-in-law.
  6. Or [screw u du jour: a hundred other ways of excercising their discretion in an opportunistic way].

Yes, Killer Due Diligence works if the franchisee:franchisor relationship were to stay the same over the first term of the contract. But it does not.

  • Pretending that the “good guys” will stay “good guys”, is too much of a leap of faith for me. I believe individuals are much more complicated that good or bad, black or white, evil/honest, etc.

I think the temptation to coerce more cash from a practically defenseless franchisee is too great for the vast majority of businesspeople.

I don’t think that franchisors are any more greedy than anyone else. I just think their situation [monopoly on supplies, renovations & equipment, $ from top not profits, etc.] gives them more opportunity to act selfishly than most business situations.

  • BTW: I have zero doubt that if the roles were reversed, the vast majority of franchisees would be just as nasty. [Sorry…franchisees have just the same human strengths and weaknesses as anyone else. Easy to be morally superior when you have never been seriously tempted.]

For now, For the subordinate party, I say: Franchising is Unsafe at any Brand.


Franchising is much riskier than independent business

July 24, 2008

The franchise industry is well-known for its hyperbole bordering on propaganda.

For the latest example of these half-truths and silent misrepresentations see a recent modestly named article: Franchising to the Rescue.

In my opinion, this is an unnecessarily biased and dangerous article for small business investors.

It’s assumption is that franchising is a safer investment than independent business. That claim has been exploded for at least 10 years and totally ignores the recent New Zealand experience with Blue Chip and Green Acres.

  • No mention, either, of the two Australian state franchise inquiries and the upcoming national Oz industry probe. [see an excellent Oz resource, BakersDelightLies.com]

All the credible academic research comes to the opposite conclusion: Franchising is much riskier than independent business.

Research: There is an big quality difference between true academic work [published in refereed journals, funded by public money] versus private research [biased, paid for by interest groups]. It is not enough to say that there are no reliable statistics and then go ahead and spout off unsubstantiated figures.

  • Everyone knows the public remembers the numbers while forgetting the qualifications.

Publishing these self-serving guesses [with zero opposing opinions] is bordering on reckless media behaviour. Mom-and-Pop investors are risking their life savings and homes, after all.

Timothy Bates: In 1996, this university professor published an academic study that rocked the franchise industry. Bates was contracted by the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Adminstration to look at survival patterns of franchised and non-franchised businesses.

Survival Patterns Among Franchise and Nonfranchise Firms Started in 1986 and 1987 concluded the following [see S.B.A. Research Summary, Related Bates paper]:

  • young independent small firms had a better chance of surviving than small, non-corporate franchises,
  • while franchise firms were better capitalized than non-franchise firms, about 62 percent of the franchise firms survived, versus 68 percent of the non-franchise or independent firms,
  • average profit was much higher for the independent businesses; profits were negative, on average, for the franchise firms,
  • franchises purchased from a previous owner were riskier than franchise firms started from scratch, and
  • only 49 percent of the franchises started by women in 1987 were in existence in 1991, compared with 67 percent of the independent firms started by women.

Within the report itself, Bates said:

…the franchisee route to self-employment is associated with higher business closure rates and lower profits for the young, largely noncorporate firms, relative to independent business ownership. p. 8.

U.S. Government: On June 24, 1999 Dr. Bates appeared before the U.S. House of Representatives’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law. The Oversight Hearings on the Franchising Relationship were called to review the state-of-the-union in American franchising. Click here for a .pdf copy of his testimony.

Bates:

Findings of my research indicate that new and small franchisees are more likely to discontinue operations than independent startups, and this holds true when firm and owner traits are controlled for statistically. One clear-cut finding was that franchisees starting by purchasing the firm from a previous owner were riskier than franchisees starting from scratch. A person entering self-employment by purchasing an ongoing franchise risks acquiring a firm that is more likely than a de novo startup to go out of business within the next few years. [my emphasis]

These Kiwi industry gentlemen know all about


Legal Aid used to fund franchise lawsuits

July 23, 2008

Now here are a couple of novel ideas from New Zealand.

Maria Slade at the ever-vigilant New Zealand Herald reports today that the 2,000 investors who have lost over $84-million in the Blue Chip franchise collapse are being encouraged to apply for legal aid to finance their attempts at getting thier money back.

Commerce Minister Lianne Dalziel says she is:

interested in helping Blue Chip investors find ways and means to access legal advice, particularly in this case where lack of funding is a barrier to legal recourse.

This is a first: I have never seen a publicly funded legal aid program used to fund a franchise legal action.

Not that surprising that the New Zealand government doesn’t want to touch the Blue Chip mess with a 10 foot pole. It’d raise too many questions about lax commercial regulation, I’d imagine.

  • Something about creating a very friendly feeding ground for massive consumer fraud, targeting Kiwi senior citizens.
  • International financial market laughingstock? Or some other alarmist conclusions.

The second is that the the lawyers and valuation firms are being scrutinized for their professional competence.

Law firm Ellis Law, together with barristers Paul Dale and Daniel Grove, are acting on behalf of several hundred of them. Activity includes taking legal action against solicitors over allegedly negligent advice they gave on the investments.

Valuers who provided allegedly inflated valuations on properties sold through the Blue Chip scheme are also in the lawyers’ sights.

But we’re missing a key ingredient to the Blue Chip fraud sausage: The lenders. Where are they in this fiasco? The last time I checked, there should be some type of regulation or lapdog self-regulation to cover these lenders.

  • Could it be the government is handing over the heads of the small fries [no-name lawyers and valuators] to avoid looking responsible for not regulating lenders sufficiently?
  • The Kiwi government knew or would have been reasonably been expected to know that lax or no lending regulations causes loss.
  • When the chickens come home to roost, the government blames everyone except themselves.

This fraud would have been impossible without a source of funds. I suspect the government was asleep at the switch as $ millions fed this humongous scam.

  1. Remember: Sue the SOBs with insurance, when you don’t have the cojones to sue the government and Her Majesty’s ministers.

Hadfield on Opportunism

July 17, 2008

Gillian K. Hadfield wrote Problematic Relations: Franchising and the Law of Incomplete Contracts in 1990. It remains the gold standard of defining why franchising remains such a difficult area for the law to deal with.

See here’s the rub: Franchisors legitimately require discretion because no contract could ever be written that would exactly specify, to the penny over many years, through market changes what each party will do. That’s fair.

What is not fair is when a franchisor exercises his discretionary powers in a way to strip a franchisee’s [and their family’s, usually] labour, life savings, credit worthiness and future earnings. This is possible largely because the investment is trapped [sunk cost] and dependent on the franchisor’s whim.

The Problem for the Law: Did a franchisor have a legitimate business reason for doing what it did OR is it just acting as a predator? This is what judges have a hard time dealing with.

You can can download a copy here.

Hadfield’s 2000 expert testimony to the Ontario government is also presented here. She presents an excellent judicial test for opportunism and I got to help with the overhead projector.

  • Opportunism fueled by sunk costs: the most important and distinguishing characteristic of franchising. If you aren’t talking about opportunism, you are wasting your time.

A very useful thumbnail sketch of Problematic Relations is provided by Michael Webster here. The franchisors problem is quality control but that is fairly easily solved.

The franchisee’s concern is defending against opportunism.

The incentive that causes a business with sunk costs to stay in operation despite losses makes franchisees vulnerable to franchisor behavior known as “opportunism.”

Because the franchisee will continue to operate even if it is not recovering its sunk investment, the franchisor can make decisions that induce such losses without the franchisee going out of business.

When these decisions benefit the franchisor at the expense of the franchisee, the franchisor opportunistically extracts a portion of the franchisee’s sunk costs.

It is this point: franchisees will continue operating a losing business [long past the time an independent business would have abandoned it] because of their sunk costs.

 


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