Multi-unit franchising has been around almost as long as franchising itself. Today, this type of franchise model is commonplace and may, in the future, eclipse the traditional “ma and pa” unit franchise approach to growing a franchise system.
A multi-unit franchise occurs where one franchisee owns and operates a number of units in a franchise system. The number of units can vary from a small handful to hundreds and some multi-unit franchisees are even public companies.
In the early years of the evolution of business format franchising as we know it today, the classic model was the sale of one unit to a single franchisee. It was rare for franchisees to own more than one unit and rarer still for a franchisor to grant to a single franchisee the right to open several franchised units, in a given territory, over a specified period of time.
The growing popularity of multi-unit franchising is partly attributable to the economies of scale for the franchisee, which allows the sharing of costs over a number of units including administration, labour, inventory, management and local advertising. For the franchisor, it is easier and more cost effective to manage a franchise system with fewer, more business savvy, better resourced franchisees, but with the same number or more units. Multi-unit franchising reduces the franchisor’s cost of marketing their franchises, assisting in the establishment of each unit, managing necessary system changes and head office operational support. It often brings with it a better quality of product and/or service for the customer and a greater likelihood for profit for the franchisee, by spreading the business risk over a number of units and increasing the margin of profit for the successful units.
These benefits, and more, have been proven time and time again; even to the point that there are many examples of super successful multi-unit franchisees who have gone public or been the purchase target of private equity funds.
There are a number of ways for someone to become a multi-unit franchisee. The most direct way is for the franchisor and the prospective franchisee to intentionally negotiate a multi-unit franchise agreement providing for many things, including the number of units to be opened, the territory in which the units will be opened, and the timeframe in which they will be opened. Additionally, such an agreement will set out how much the initial franchise fee will be for the development rights and for each unit, which may differ from a single unit agreement. This is so, because the franchisor will not have to train the multi-unit franchisee for each unit opening and other initial costs incurred by the franchisor may be lower for such things as the selection and securing of sites.
Alternatively, a franchisor may have a policy of allowing franchisees to acquire more than one unit over time. This could be done through the sale by the franchisor of new units to an existing franchisee or by an existing franchisee buying existing units from other franchisees in the system. Sometimes, franchisors (often new franchisors eager to grow) will grant rights of first refusal for additional units to close a deal. This is very tempting for the neophyte franchisor and regarded as a low cost concession. However, the characteristics of a good multi-unit franchisee may not be evident at the beginning of the franchisor/franchisee relationship and the franchisee’s ability to acquire more units based solely upon the desire of someone else wanting to join the franchise system is not the best way to implement a multi-unit franchise strategy.
The Multi-Unit Franchisee
As mentioned above, multi-unit franchisees differ from unit franchisees in many ways. A multi-unit franchisee has to be able to create and guide a strong management team at the unit level for several units, not just run a single unit. A multi-unit franchisee will need access to more capital than a unit franchisee. And a multi-unit franchisee will have to contend with system, market, legal, environmental, product offering and many other changes over a much greater territory and workforce than a unit franchisee. If a franchisor is embarking upon a deliberate multi-unit franchisee strategy, more units can be opened sooner and the cost of assisting with openings and ongoing support of units would likely be lower than with a single unit franchise program. However, the franchisor will have to choose candidates without knowing for certain how well they will function within the particular system. If the multi-unit strategy is to grant additional unit franchises to existing unit franchisees, then the pace of growth may be slower, but the quality of multi-unit franchisee may be better. The challenge, however, is that quality multi-unit franchisees may not have the patience to start as single unit franchisees.
Another consideration is how many units should one multi-unit franchisee be allowed to own. The easiest answer is to allow one multi-unit franchisee to own as many units as they can run profitably. But that may be too facile an answer. Some other considerations are:
- The risk in dealing with a far to powerful and influential franchisee when problems arise;
- Will the multi-unit franchisee maximize sales (from which most franchisors earn their core revenue) and not just maximize profits? and
- If the multi-unit franchisee runs into financial or other difficulties, will the impact on the system be too great?
Franchisors have discovered that there is a growing appetite among prospective franchisees for multi-unit arrangements and that, if handled well, the franchise system can grow faster and be more profitable than a single unit growth strategy. And franchisees have discovered that their bottom line can be greater and their chances of success are improved by operating multiple units. Private equity and lending institutions are riding this wave as well, as they end up with a more sophisticated borrow/partner and much reduced risk.
Having said all of this, from all perspectives, multi-unit franchising requires a higher degree of planning, more problem solving mechanisms and a greater attention to details than is the case with traditional unit franchising. For those who are up for the challenges, the rewards can be considerable.
* Edward (Ned) Levitt is a Certified Franchise Executive, a partner at Dickinson Wright LLP, Toronto, Canada, and provides legal services to Canadian and international clients on all aspects of Canadian franchise law. He was General Counsel to the Canadian Franchise Association (2000-2007) and is a member of the American Bar Association Forum on Franchising, the International Bar Association and the International Committee of the International Franchise Association. As a member of the Ontario Franchise Sector Working Team, Ned was instrumental in the creation of Ontario’s franchise legislation and has had significant input in the franchise legislative process throughout Canada. Among his many publications is the leading text, Canadian Franchise Legislation (2001, LexisNexis/Butterworths). Ned can be reached at 416.646.3842 or firstname.lastname@example.org.