Mary Ann O’Connell: Shining a Light on Women in Franchising

“I didn’t know what franchising was, my background was in theatre,” says Mary Ann O’Connell, CFE and President of FranWise® Franchise Consulting.

Born and raised on Long Island, NY, O’Connell attended State University of New York where she honed her acting skills. With the intention to pursue theatre post graduation, O’Connell quickly discovered that regardless of whether or not her talent was up to par, there were people who wanted it much more than she did, who were willing to go places she wasn’t.

With the need to earn a living and an itch for warmer weather, O’Connell moved to California. Here she found a job in sales, which soon after led to real estate. But with the crash in 1979 real estate in California wasn’t in good shape.

At this time O’Connell’s friend, Thomas, King was offered the first Money Mailer franchise from owner, Kris Friedrish. King and O’Connell started the franchise together. “I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t understand it, but I said sure, I’m in,” explains O’Connell.

As the first franchisees for the brand, O’Connell and Thomas became business partners of two franchisees for 11 years. When their personal relationship evolved to marriage and then divorce, he kept the franchises and O’Connell went to work for Money Mailer, Inc. as their Vice President for Franchise Support Services. After about seven years as VP, she moved on to Great Clips, a no appointment hair care franchise.

Hired to develop southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah areas, O’Connell put her commercial real estate knowledge to use while learning lots about how companies can do well via their franchisees. Where the only revenue Great Clips generated was through royalties, the company was 100 percent devoted to making a system with good returns. However, because the system was so well thought out, O’Connell found herself “a little bored,” and after two years of executing the same daily tasks, it was time for another career change.

Switching to the consulting business, O’Connell started her own company, O’Connell and Company, Inc. Seven years later she began operating under the brand name, FranWise®.

The Consulting Business

O’Connell’s interest in consulting developed as a result of her prior jobs. Her interaction with franchised clients at Money Mailer gave her insight to their mixed feelings towards their franchisors, and her experience of establishing Great Clips during their growth phase taught her how a company should operate to be successful.

“I thought I could help companies come together and I had some really great practices for building success in their own companies, not at the expense of their franchises but in conjunction with them,” says O’Connell.

In the first steps of her career as a consultant, O’Connell thought she would simply be helping clients through the necessary actions to become a successful business. It only seemed logical to write these steps down.

“I had no idea that for most people this was a difficult task,” she explains. “I’m not trying to brag, but I seem to be genetically wired to write stuff down. So I started writing manuals.”

Today FranWise® is known for their manuals. Currently catering to 18 clients, FranWise employees three in house writers and outsources their other needs.

The Women’s Franchise Committee

Involved with the IFA, O’Connell is the current Chair of the Women’s Franchise Committee (WFC), a committee dedicated to inspiring and encouraging women in franchising.

Prior to being appointed this position, O’Connell and Los Angeles attorney Shelley Spandorf recognized the lack of a local women’s franchising branch, and thus started the Women’s Franchise Network for southern California. The network encourages women in different markets to hold meetings driven by various subjects.

It was the involvement with the network that led O’Connell to start attending WFC meetings, and after applying for a committee position a few times, O’Connell was appointed to the committee seven years ago.

“I was very flattered. It’s an amazing group of women and so many women in the IFA are applying to the limited number of seats available. It really is an honor.”

Meeting twice a year; once at the public affairs meeting every September, and then again at the annual convention in February, the committee host a string of conference calls to keep connected.

As one of the most well attended IFA events, The Women’s Leadership Conference is held the day before the annual convention. Open to women and men, the event begins with a luncheon. Here the committee recognizes a particular woman who has contributed greatly to other women in franchising, and presents her with the Crystal Compass award.

The afternoon is spent listening to a keynote speaker, usually a CEO of one of the top companies. Afterwards a panel reviews the topic and shares ideas about what they’ve learned. Next the WFC presents a case study based on a company that has experienced hardships. The audience discusses different ideas before the actual company is revealed,  then the company explains what they have tried to do, where they currently stand, and their future plans.

“It is a tremendous learning opportunity for women, no matter where you are on the leadership curve,” says O’Connell. “The goal is to help more and more people become leaders in franchising.”

O’Connell believes women in franchising is important as it is an opportunity for women to enter into a leadership position. Referring to an article about Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg few years ago where she cited the lacking progress of women in business leadership positions, O’Connell reiterates how these stats haven’t changed since the initial push.

“The article got me very interested so I studied who had signed up to attend the convention in 2011,” says O’Connell. “We [women] beat the national stats by a bit, but not hugely.”

Comparing women in franchising to those in the supplier sector, she says the numbers are much lower and that there are a lot more opportunities for women to be in supplier type positions.

“In franchising, many companies are conceived by women, started by women, nurtured by women and go on to become major economic forces. We need to shine a light on that and keep it going,” she says. “We need to make sure that once a group of men discover the company and want to buy it that they don’t push all the women out. We need to be given better tools so that we speak the same language men do, communicate to them and with them, and then we will have a better opportunity to not only maintain, but also gain more leadership roles. I think franchising is the avenue where we’re going be able to do that.”

Recalling the Women’s Liberation Movement, O’Connell remembers her mother unable to have a credit card in her name, and how hard it would have been to get a job without advanced degrees. Finding inspiration in remembering how little women had not so long ago, she expresses the importance of staying on top of things.

“I want to make sure the young women who are coming up realize how hard fought the gains were. I’m single, I own my own home, I own my own business, I have my own credit and I never take it for granted because when my mother was my age she couldn’t have those things,” stresses O’Connell. “I’ve been extraordinarily lucky and fortunate in what I’ve been able to do, and I’d like to help other women to be able to do the same. I love that we have traction, and that’s what I would like to help other women maintain. Lets keep these options open.”

The desire to not go back to the old ways inspires O’Connell to encourage women to get involved with the IFA.

“Once your involved you can tap into the brain trust of all the men and women who are in franchising and those who came before you. So many opportunities are laid out in front of you.”

The benefits of gaining their knowledge helps franchisees build confidence and in turn, do better. By getting involved and showing up, “the rest kind of happens from there.”

But being a passive joiner doesn’t help anybody. “Contribute what you’ve learned, get involved on a local level, and if nothing else, make friends,” says O’Connell. “The franchising world is amazing. I can’t figure out why it’s as unique as it is, but the people who are in franchising are an extremely giving group.”

Making Friends

Some of the best moments in the business revolve around the people you meet. A prime example of this is when O’Connell met Susan Black-Beth, CFE, and COO of Superwash Inc.

Meeting at one of their first conventions, the pair chatted and went their own ways. A few years later O’Connell attended another convention where Black-Beth was speaking. Reaching out to her, a great friendship began. Today the pair, along with Rose Shiflett and Thelma Ramey of Plan Ahead Events, is the brains behind Dealmakers’ Summit.

The second year in action, the annual invite only event aims to match emerging franchise brands with franchise centric equity funds. Held in Chicago and set up as a “shark tank,” franchisors present in private their business to equity representatives then fund reps set up private meetings with the franchisors they are interested in.

“Our job is being the match maker. We coordinate the times, find locations and hope the deals get done.”

For Potential Franchisees

“Do your homework, there are no short cuts. Don’t fall in love, look at it as a business. You have to be hard with yourself. You have to sit down and know what your risk tolerances are,” says O’Connell.

Emphasizing that a lot of people sign up for franchising because they want to be their own boss, O’Connell notes how it’s important to realize you’re still going to have a boss, your franchisor, telling you how to do things.

“As a franchisee you have to understand what you’re giving up and no matter how great the brand is, it’s going to be excruciatingly hard work. Know if it’s what you really want to do, and if you’re okay with someone else telling you how to do it,” explains O’Connell.

The Future of Franchising

If O’Connell knew 13 years ago what she does now, she would have started things differently. Going into business undercapitalized, O’Connell has spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how to do more with less. Luckily with the economy and franchise industry on the rise, she is surmounting this obstacle.

“I think franchising is going to grow more and more. As we become more of an information based economy the job opportunities are less, and for every piece of software and technology used to make things more efficient, it means more people are out of work. These people are going to have to find opportunities to fend for themselves, and since many people don’t really know how to do that with a degree of success, I think franchising is going to be turned to more and more,” says O’Connell. “We really are the answer to the information based culture.”

Mary Ann O’Connell is CEO of FranWise® and Chair of the Women’s Franchise Committee.

A long time volunteer for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Big Sisters, today the single, successful O’Connell is actively involved in local politics and Share Our Selves, a multipronged social services organization. Her sister Judith was her first role model, her fearlessness about knowing what she wanted and going for it “redefined independence.”

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