RegionF Exclusive: Harish Babla Talks About Franchising, Pet Peeves And Beating Jet Lag

Harish Babla, Managing Director of Franchise Mind Corporation (USA), was recently in Singapore for a newly setup company, Global Franchise Masters, which is headquartered in the Lion City. RegionF caught up with the passionate franchise guru and picked his brain. Here's what we got.


RegionF: You've worn the hats of both a franchisor and franchisee. Comparatively, which role presented tougher challenges?

Harish Babla: Both roles are challenging in their own way. A franchisee has to execute the plan and meet the goals and objectives for themselves. The franchisor's role is probably more complex because it really is two businesses. First, they have to grow their franchise company by adding franchisees and that in itself is a business. Secondly, franchisors also have to ensure they have programmes and services, to a certain degree, to ensure their franchisees are doing well. Having this dual role makes the franchisor's function a little bit more complex, and this complexity adds to challenges because there's more to do.

RF: Do you have any advice for today's franchisors and franchisees?

HB: As a franchisee, that was a very long time ago but I had no regrets and it was a wonderful journey. I would advise anyone who is a franchisee to be focused on making sure their product or quality of what they're doing is great, the customer service they are providing is of the highest basis to ensure customers are coming back and always be focused on following the franchisor's system and growing their business. As a franchisor, I would say make sure you have sufficient capital when you start. The last thing you want is not having enough capital to provide what you need to do for the franchisees. Secondly, have processes in place because if you don't have them then you don't have a system. Without a system, franchisees will improvise and create their own system. Thirdly, make sure that you are doing everything you can in the best interest of the system, and that system will do what's in the best interest of the franchisees. You have to support franchisees because if you have a short term view and take short cuts then your franchisees won't be there. The whole franchisor-franchisee relationship is interdependent. The franchisor's responsibility is to integrate the system which has to be good but it doesn't have to be perfect because it's an ever-evolving thing. As long as it is a good system and in the interest that franchisees are going to do well, then you have the right intentions.

RF: Many young franchises are springing up. Do these young businesses have the necessary tools to support a franchise system?

HB: I don't think it is about the number of years you have been there. More so, I think it is about the discipline that the founders of the business are bringing. Some businesses are run like a mom-n-pop so there's no system. But other businesses, even if they have only been there for two years but because the founders bring a certain sense of business discipline so they have got the starting point right and have a clear vision of what the business needs to be. These people are probably more ready so its not about the length of time but rather the mindset. If someone starts a business with the hopes of one day becoming a big chain and integrates good systems from the first day, then this person is ready for being a franchisor. Whereas if someone sets up shop and just wants to see what happens and then a friend come along and says, "You should franchise this" and all of a sudden, "That sounds like a good idea". Even if they have been there for five years, it doesn't matter because they don't have a clear idea of why they want to franchise and shouldn't be franchising. I think the question is not so much about the infrastructure and creating an operations manual but rather the mindset of whether they are prepared for the role of a franchisor.

RF: Franchise Mind is a business support services organization that educates, strategizes, guides and mentors both franchise and SME clients. Have you ever engaged a client that was absolutely resistant to change or negative feedback?

HB: Usually if we take on a client for mentoring purposes, they tend to be open-minded and we wouldn't take them on unless they are open to receiving feedback. But in the classroom which is a public environment, anyone can come to our classes. There are people who come and still be resistant to the new ideas so sometimes you wonder why are they there. I'll give an example for a place I've gone to and our normal classes are for two days. For the first half of the first day, this person is sitting in the front row and he is the CEO of a company. He's really trying to figure out what he is going to learn here and half a day is wasted because I know he is not listening. By the middle of the second day, he starts asking questions that were covered on the first day when he wasn't paying attention because by the second half of the first day, he realizes that he is going to learn something new but has already missed out on some of the information. So you do get people like that once in a while. Everyone who has been in business for a little while think they're smart and you have to be smart in order to be in business. However, franchising has its own culture and you have to ready and always look at how to improve yourself.

RF: Having gained a wealth of experience dealing with different franchises both in the U.S. and across Asia, what would you say is the biggest difference in business mentalities between the two continents?

HB: There are some cultural things you'll see in some countries, not so much as in regions. You'll go to some countries where people generally don't show up on time so the value of time is different. If a class is supposed to start at 9 o'clock, some people will stroll in at 9:30. In other countries, people are very punctual, in fact they're earlier. Also, some people will have no problem taking phone calls in the middle of the class and these are senior executives who have paid money for two days of learning. I guess that part of it is from a learning stand point.

Overall, the common factor I see everywhere, which is also my pet peeve, is that people do not spend enough time to learn and improve themselves. I don't speak just as a franchise educator because the world around us is changing at such a rapid pace. You see that especially in technology which is a big part in today's environment and, as an example, I have seen senior executives say they don't understand social media. But wait a minute, don't say that because now you have just put yourself in a position where you are not a forward-thinking business. It is not an issue of judgement of whether it is good or bad, it is what it is. I'm not saying you should do it but at least understand it because it has implications on your business. I'll give an example of a leading edge technology. For the last few months, there's been a lot of press about 3D printing. I have actually had one of the leading scientist in this area to speak at one of my conferences 20 years ago. At that time, he had said we are going to see 3D printing become a reality in our lifetime. Today, there's already lots of 3D printing going on. So the question becomes, can someone ignore that technology or look at it and think if this technology is going to have any impact on their business and what do they need to do to make adjustments. You cannot put your head in the sand and ignore it if it is already there because when it is already there, someone else has already taken it and gone further than you and now you are left behind. In this day and age, information changes at such a rapid pace that you have to be aware and alert beyond your business to see where threats come.

RF: As a personal development speaker, you are constantly able to hold your audience's attention. But this is an ability most people don't possess. How did you pick up this particular skill?

HB: I guess I'm blessed with some natural qualities in there. One thing I try to do is not be a fake. It has to be content that is delivered from the heart from real experiences. When you do that, then you are speaking with some authority. I take stories from around the world and try to relate to those stories. I think my story-telling is probably a big part of holding the audience's attention but the stories have to be relevant and able to connect in the classroom. Having been in franchising for over 30 years, I've seen all aspects of it. I think that becomes an important part. For the second part, I do spend quite a bit of time for my personal development on learning what adult education means and what do I have to do to improve my skills as an educator. I spend time to understand how to impact the audience and there is a science behind adult learning that I take time to make sure I am staying up to date.

RF: For all the seminars you conduct, is there a particular topic that always gets you excited whenever its on the agenda?

HB: Anything to do with business and franchising is my passion. I'm not an authority on large businesses but I love to see franchise organizations and SMEs. I believe people who started those businesses should be commended because being an entrepreneur is not easy. People who chose to do that, my hats off to them. They need all the support and passion because they are creating so much value for customers and employment opportunities. Look at a franchise team, the impact of what they are doing could be global. These people deserved so much credit so I'm excited when I'm around them.

RF: The seminars you conduct are held around the world, requiring you to make regular adjustments to different time zones. What's your secret to beating jet lag?

HB: Ignore it! I try to adjust my clocks and sleeping habits to the destination. Many times, I'll arrive at a city and the next day I'm teaching so I have to be ready. No choice.

RF: You've held multiple roles - franchisee, franchisor, Managing Director of a company, personal development speaker, among others and all with great success. Yet, you don't seem to be taking your foot off the pedal any time soon.  What prompted all this energy?

HB: When you're an entrepreneur, that's all you have. Entrepreneurship is what it is and that's why even with all these full schedule, we started a new company headquartered in Singapore called Global Franchise Masters. What we are going to do with these brands and taking them globally is going to be a big task. We selected BrainFit Studio because they came into a very special category. BrainFit Studio is a really good brand having been around for 12 years, solid programmes and good founders. There are only a few brands that we are going to take on because when you're accepting the responsibility for complete global development, its not like you can take on hundreds of brands.

RF: So what's next for 2014?

HB: Franchise Mind is expanding into different countries. We started out strongly in Asia, we have some very good presence in South America and now we are starting to get more into Eastern Europe. So 2014 is really about getting more into Europe than we have been in the past. We are also expanding and taking on some franchisors who are forward-thinking and putting them into one-on-one mentoring. What we find is that while at the seminar it is great and they get good information, we don't feel the impact after they leave the classroom because we don't really know what they have done. So now it is about having these well-meaning businesses benefitting from an experienced guide, which is what mentoring is all about.

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