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Secrets of a Successful Franchise

Angel Cartagena wanted to work for himself, with the support of a national chain. He chose well and his store is thriving


by Elaine Pofeldt

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Angel Cartagena, 54, gets a real charge out of running his Batteries Plus Bulbs franchise. It’s a career he might never have considered but for a health scare seven years ago. He began seeing double driving home from the airport after a business trip; when a nurse tested his blood glucose level the next morning, it was dangerously high. Cartagena was shocked to learn he had diabetes. “The doctor said he only had one other patient who was not in a coma at this high a sugar level,” Cartagena recalls.

When Cartagena revealed he was working 70-hour weeks as a project manager for a cable TV contractor, overseeing a team in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico, his doctor advised him to cut back to 40 hours. Cartagena’s managers agreed to reduce the size of his territory, but when nothing had changed two months later, he says, “I knew I had to take matters into my own hands.”

Realizing that the best way to control his schedule was to be his own boss, Cartagena began looking into buying a franchise. Divorced and with his two children grown, the former Air Force security officer had the financial freedom to try something new, but he didn’t want to risk his retirement by starting an untested business from scratch. His military pension would not kick in until age 60. “It’s scary when you put out so much money,” says Cartagena. “But I knew that I had a better chance with a franchise than doing it on my own, where I wouldn’t have the name recognition.” He liked the idea that a franchise chain would give him support in areas like researching the latest merchandise to sell.

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While Cartagena was new to owning a business, he had good management skills from his previous careers: leading 75 officers in the Air Force and a large crew at the cable TV contractor. He also knew he could handle the sales side of business ownership, having recruited for the Air Force back in the eighties. “That’s definitely sales,” he says.

The Hunt: Finding the Right Franchise

Cartagena began researching well-known businesses, such as the UPS Store, FedEx Office, and Quiznos sandwich restaurants. Visiting stores in the franchise chains that interested him, Cartagena narrowed down the list. One chain was courting him aggressively to buy a particular location, but he learned by chatting with retailers in the area that the previous owner had gone broke.

To make sure he picked a winning franchise, he hired a franchise attorney to tackle the due diligence on his leading choices. He decided on Batteries Plus when his research revealed a lot of growth potential, given the explosion of digital devices powered by batteries. The fact that executives in the corporate office at Batteries Plus had invested their personal money to buy franchises "impressed me and my attorney,” he says.

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Cartagena quit his job and bought a franchise in 2007. To raise the roughly $230,000 to open his brand-new location—a fee that covered the initial franchise fee, inventory and the build-out of the store—and cover the roughly $5,000 monthly lease for the building, he sold a house he owned. “You have to have money to sustain yourself the first two years, before you can start paying yourself,” says Cartagena, who plowed early profits back into the business. To give himself more of a cash cushion as his franchise became established, he took out a $60,000 loan, backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, at 6% interest, about 18 months into running the business. “I was getting low on funds,” he says.

To learn how to run the store, he took a four-week program at the Batteries Plus training center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his son, Angel II, 28, who recently left Batteries Plus Bulbs to become a conductor on the Long Island Rail Road. Together, they learned the company’s procedures and got up to speed on the batteries they would be selling. On Saturdays, they worked in a Batteries Plus store alongside experienced employees.

Open for Business!

For the first ten days after Cartegena opened his Union, New Jersey, store in January 2008, a representative from Batteries Plus worked with Cartagena and his startup team: Angel II and one part-time employee. After that, they were on their own. The store has done well. Already, Cartagena has matched his six-figure income from the cable company “probably working 25 to 30 hours less a week.” He’s lost 25 pounds and cut back his diabetes medication now that he has time to walk regularly and pay more attention to his diet. With the franchise thriving, he is considering opening a second store.

Cartagena says the biggest surprise in running the business is how much on-the-job training he gets—from his customers. “Customers educated us on batteries, what their needs were, what the batteries were for,” he says. “Now we’re experts.”

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To make sure the business keeps growing, Cartagena sets weekly goals for retail and commercial sales for his team. “The mindset is different,” he says. “When you’re salaried, you know your salary is guaranteed, whether you do what you’re supposed to do or not. When you run your own business, you have to make that sale or complete the work assignment to get paid.”

One factor in the store’s growth is his relationship with the parent company. Cartagena fills orders from about 45 corporate customers with facilities near the store, such as Anheuser-Busch, which keeps sales humming on days when foot traffic is slow because of bad weather. “The royalties we pay Batteries Plus Bulbs are well worth it, for what they do for us,” he says.

And, in contrast to driving around in a patrol car, as he did for 21 years in the military, his work is never boring. “There’s no monotony here,” he says. “You meet new people every single day. The first thing I do in the morning is say, `What can happen today?’ You never know.”

What Angel Cartagena's Experience Can Teach You

The Most Important Thing I Did Right: “The smartest thing I did was doing my due diligence—and deciding to choose this over other operations. I opened the fourth store in New Jersey. Now we’re up to 10 stores.”

The One Thing I Wish I Could Get a Do-Over On: “I should have gotten an SBA loan before I opened,” he says. Banks typically look at several years of business history when evaluating loan applications. Had he applied before going into business, his banker would have relied more on his personal finances to evaluate the loan, making it easier to get. “When you have money in the bank, they can use that as collateral,” Cartagena says.

The One Piece of Advice I’d Give To Someone Reimagining Their Work: “Don’t be afraid of career change,” says Cartagena. “People who are mature are better decision-makers than younger people.” Maturity, he says, has helped him exercise discipline on things that might have been harder for him when he was younger, like downsizing from a house to a two-bedroom condo to free up cash for the business, and not buying more inventory for the store than he needs.

Photo credit: Andrew Lichtenstein