25 years at LSU, hundreds of franchises, thousands of students
The phone call began the same way so many others have for Robert T. Justis, academic adviser to LSU’s Stephenson Entrepreneurship Institute. “Justis, we got a problem.”
This time the caller was McDonald’s. For the first time in company history, the franchise’s same-store sales had fallen. McDonald’s knew the reason: franchisees were great at running the stores, but they didn’t understand how all of the parts fit together, how marketing and promotion costs, for instance, translated to sales, and how that affected the bottom line.
McDonald’s wanted Justis to develop a business principals training program, an accelerated version of the material his students absorb over a semester, lessons that allow class members to craft an 80-page business plan. Oh yeah, and the franchisees had to be able to complete the training in three days.
Justis worked on the program for about two years.
“Guess what the secret was? …. The business plan,” Justis said. “We developed a kind of mini business plan.”
Over three days, franchisees churned out a 24-page plan that contained marketing, management, accounting, finance and legal sections. McDonald’s same-store sales increased, although Justis attributes that to an improving economy.
Seven years later, McDonald’s is still using the program, now translated into eight languages. Many other franchisors, including IHOP Restaurants and Kwik Kopy International, have also adopted a version of the training program.
“It has become a ‘thing’ in franchising,” Justis said.
One might say the same of Justis. He began working with entrepreneurs in the early 1970s as an assistant professor at Texas Tech University and with franchises in the early 1980s while at the University of Nebraska. Twenty-five years ago, businessmen and LSU alums Jimmy Maurin, Roger Ogden and Emmet and Toni Stephenson recruited Justis to LSU, where he established the Entrepreneurship Institute.
During his career, Justis has taught more than 6,000 students, presented research in 14 countries, traveled to dozens more providing franchising and entrepreneurship advice, and worked with more than 250 franchising organizations worldwide.
He is a founder of the International Society of Franchising and the Small Business Institute Directors’ Association and co-founder of the Certified Franchise Executive program. He has written a number of books, including the best-selling textbook “Franchising,” now in its fourth edition. Three of his books have been translated into Chinese; two are best sellers in China.
An LSU news release says, “His expertise has earned him the titles of ‘the father of small business education’ and ‘the father of franchising education.’” His honors include the International Franchise Association’s 2003 Free Enterprise Award (Justis was the first academic recipient); the Leavey Award for Excellence in Private Enterprise Education; a silver AXIEM (Absolute eXcellence in Electronic Media) award for his web-based training program “Seamless Selling;” and distinguished teaching awards at Texas Tech, Nebraska and LSU.
Despite these accomplishments and a name suitable for a comic book hero — Bob Justis, armed with only a business plan and the entrepreneurial spirit, the leader of the Justis League battle the forces of evil that seek to overturn the retail economy! — he remains stubbornly modest.
“I’m opposed to the story. I don’t want it,” Justis said.
But his supporters and friends, not to mention his boss, convinced/forced Justis to cooperate.
He admits his life has been “kind of fascinating.” He doesn’t know how many countries he’s traveled to as a consultant. He lost track around 45.
“I mean, it’s weird. But it’s kind of nice,” Justis said.
It’s also a path Justis never intended to follow, kind of ironic for a man who spends so much of his time lecturing on the importance of business planning.
After earning a Ph.D from Indiana University, Justis headed to Texas Tech. He planned to concentrate on researching organizational behavior, how individuals in large organizations behave. His dean, Jack Steele, had another idea.
The Small Business Administration was providing funding to help Lubbock rebuild its economy after two devastating tornadoes. Texas Tech needed someone to head the effort. Justis had to change his academic focus to entrepreneurship. In exchange, Steele promised administrative support, a part-time secretary, a full-time grad assistant and reimbursement for all travel expenses.
Justis, the only faculty member who had owned a business, was it, Steele told him.
“So I said, ‘Iick,’” Justis said. “He said if you give us three years to do this, then you can go do whatever you want.”
Justis has been working in the field of entrepreneurship ever since.
At the time, there were four other universities doing work in small business and entrepreneurship. Today somewhere around 2,000 two- and four-year schools offer entrepreneurship courses, according to the Kaufman Foundation. About 100 teach franchising.
A few years after Steele genially hijacked his career, Justis took at job at Nebraska. Sometime around 1982, three business people came in to ask for help on how to become a good franchise owner. Not long after, three other people asked for help in turning their company into a franchisor, the parent company that sells franchises.
“That’s when I made my fatal mistake. I said, ‘Yeah, we’d be delighted to help you,’” Justis said. “Oh geek. I found out really quick I didn’t know much about franchising.”
He quickly familiarized himself with the rules and regulations, but it took a few years before Justis understood franchising’s true power. These days he peppers his lectures with numbers that demonstrate franchising’s strength: U.S. franchises account for more than $1 trillion in sales each year. One of every 12 retail businesses in the United States is a franchise. A new U.S. franchise outlet opens every eight minutes, or more than 180 every day.
“So we love franchises. A-a-a-ah,” Justice practically sings to his students. These sorts of noises punctuate Justis’s conversation and lectures, as if all the enthusiasm that can’t be expressed in words must escape, quietly, another way.
Ogden, who joined Maurin and Emmet Stephenson in recruiting Justis, said he, and his sincerity, stood out from the get-go.
Ogden said he never really doubted LSU would get its man; midwinter in Lincoln, Neb., is no fun.
The average temperature in Lincoln is 17 in December, 14 in January and a toasty 18 in February, according to the National Weather Service.
Ogden said it was obvious franchising was going to be a big part of small business growth and development, and establishing some expertise in that area would give LSU a competitive advantage.
Justis was doing as much as anyone in the relatively new field, Ogden said, but the most pleasant surprise was that Justis’s skill as a teacher was even greater than his franchising expertise.
Charles D’Agostino, executive director of the Louisiana Business & Technology Center at LSU, said Justis uses humor to connect to students.
“Some people are just kind of mundane and dry, but he really spiced up things and he was funny,” D’Agostino said. “When he gets up in front of the class he’s a performer, very animated. That’s why the students like him.”
Justis’s classes also feature talks by franchisees and entrepreneurs.
Mark George, who owns 70 Wendy’s franchises in Texas and Louisiana, met Justis in 1999 while escorting Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas to a talk at LSU. Justis asked George to come back the next year to speak to the franchising class. George has been back every year since.
“The university is all about knowledge and the academic side of learning, but this particular class in franchising, it was really about wisdom,” George said.
By tapping the experience of people who are running their own businesses, Justis’s students can save themselves a lot of time and money, George said.
Shawn Usher, president and chief executive officer of information technology services company Sparkhound and the student Justis came closest to flunking, said Justis’s teaching methods, including the occasional noise, are unconventional.
Almost the entire grade for the entrepreneurship class is based on the business plan, which Justis allows students to complete as many times as they want, said Usher, whose company has locations in Baton Rouge, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth.
The idea is that students walk away knowing how to start a business.
“He would give these little tips that seemed sort of off the cuff, but if you sort of thought through and dwelled on them a little bit, there were lots of gems that you could take away from it,” Usher said.
Those things helped Usher realize he wanted to start a business, and today he’s still applying the same principles he learned under Justis.
Usher was an IT consultant when he took Justis’s class, which met at noon, and he had trouble getting to all the classes. Usher wound up writing the plan for a group whose business was high-end children’s clothing promoted via trunk shows, basically parties by a sponsor, and then sold by catalog. Usher wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, knew nothing about children’s clothing, and even less about trunk shows.
“You can imagine what that business plan looked like,” Usher said. “It was a gift that I walked away with a B in that class.”
But Justis said the real gift of his entrepreneurship class is learning how to develop a business plan.
“I just think that that knowledge of how to put a business plan together is priceless,” Justis said.
Students leave with a tool that can take them up and above anybody else, Justis said.
Part of a business plan’s power is that it helps organize a person’s thoughts, he said. Most business people would have a hard time telling someone all the products and services their companies provide.
“But if … they have to write it down on a piece of paper, ooh, folks, then there’s a difference,” Justis said. “Because if you write it down then you can share it with others and say, ‘Yeah, we need to have this, or we need to change this, we need to do this.’”
The Stephensons, the benefactors of the Entrepreneurship Institute, issued a statement saying no one is more noble than a great teacher, and Justis is one of the greatest.
For proof, one has to look no further than his former students. The list includes Jack Warner and Brandon Landry, founders of Last in Concepts, the parent company of Walk-On’s Bistreau & Bar, Happy’s Irish Pub and The Roux House; Jude Olinger, chief executive officer of The Olinger Group, a New Orleans marketing and research firm; and Kevin Langley, co-founder of Ellis Construction in New Orleans, who just recently completed a term as global chairman of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization.
Justis said one of the great things about education is he gets to work with so many brilliant students … who can’t stand him for about two-thirds of the semester.
“I’ve got one class right now that hates my guts …. They hate me,” he said.
Those students are revising their plans and some are still failing, he said. It generally takes about three revisions before the students understand what Justis is looking for, what information they need to develop in an area and why.
But at the two-thirds mark, the lights start to come on. And by the end of the semester, Justis’ budding entrepreneurs have a business plan they can take to a banker, angel investor or venture capitalist.
Some bankers in town can recognize students who have taken Justis’s class by their business plans, he said.
Justis said he plans to keep lecturing and consulting for four years or so. He joked that he could retire now but he knows his wife, Sue, would get tired of him being underfoot.
Sooner or later, she would call him in for the “kitchen talk,” Justis said. That’s the conversation that starts with “I love having you home” and ends with her asking him to find something to do for a couple of hours a day, preferably something that requires leaving the house.
George said students should take advantage of Justis’s expertise while they can.
“He’s just a great resource, not only inside the university and outside it. He’s a true asset to LSU, Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana,” George said. “I’m just very, very fortunate to say he’s a friend of mine.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Nov. 27, 2012, to correct the spelling of Jude Olinger’s first name.