By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Sharon Dillard, 56, is the president of Get A Grip, Inc., a family owned and operated franchise company based in Albuquerque. Prior to starting the company in 1999, Dillard spent 17 years in Dallas as a cosmetics executive. Get A Grip, which refinishes kitchen countertops and bathtubs, has been featured on Entrepreneur®’s Franchise 500® list of franchise companies in the United States and Canada since 2007, currently ranking #316. In this Q and A with Late Blooming Entrepreneurs, Dillard discusses her company’s achievements and challenges as well as what it takes to succeed at entrepreneurship.
Why did you want to start your own business?
I’d reached a point in my career where I was looking for something to challenge me and engage my curiosity. In 1998, my son, Ryan, visited family in Albuquerque. During his visit, he discovered resurfacing – where you could restore worn bathtubs and countertops without removing them. Recognizing the growth potential of this unique business, he told my husband and me we had to look into it.
So I went to Albuquerque– and I saw that I could take a patent and process and market it. It was never about the money. It was about the challenge and the accomplishment. I began dividing my time between Dallas and Albuquerque. Six months later, I left my executive position to begin concentrating on marketing and advertising for Get A Grip.
That was the tipping point – having Ryan present the opportunity. Then my husband, Cub, brought his 30 years of sales and finance experience. Eventually, our other son, Austen, joined the company as well. Today, Get A Grip leads the resurfacing industry in over 30 locations across the country.
Was your relatively late start in business ownership a positive or negative factor?
Certainly, being older brought with it the wisdom that comes with age and work experience. It also brought a sense of realism in terms of setting and achieving goals. My long career in the fashion industry taught me that keeping things fresh is necessary to survive. Fashion and remodeling aren’t that far apart, really.
I also had learned the importance of ensuring quality, safety and excellent customer service, as well as the value of a win-win attitude when interacting with vendors, suppliers, employees and customers.
What’s enabled you to succeed when so many entrepreneurs haven’t?
Our innovative franchise program continues to grow even in these trying times, primarily from word-of-mouth referrals from existing franchises and dealers. The program set up, which is low cost to enter and royalty free, allows the franchisee to benefit from its growth far more than the headquarters. We work hard, especially in a struggling economy, to control the costs of supplies for franchises and dealers. Without them, we have no business.
What principles did you follow to build your business?
We’re very deliberate and consistent about decision making, whether it relates to researching and developing new products or buying a building for our headquarters. There’s no manual for success, so each step we take is thoughtful. We constantly reevaluate everything we do.
Whenever we were over our heads, we found the right experts, such as attorneys who specialized in franchising, public relations/marketing experts and accountants. Leveraging the expertise of others is key to any successful business.
How would you describe your customer service philosophy?
It’s all about providing quality service each day because word of mouth gets out very quickly. Part of good customer service is finding good quality people who want to work for us because of our reputation. Our employees now look for us instead of us looking for them, and many have been with us for years.
How do you “live” your key principles?
We could have gone anywhere in the country to build the Get A Grip business. We chose Albuquerque as our home because it provided a smaller market to introduce our concept, test ideas and products, and grow at a comfortable pace. In addition, Albuquerque provides a training environment for our franchises and dealers that doesn’t overwhelm them or us, as larger cities could.
We love and appreciate the New Mexico lifestyle – relaxed and with an emphasis on quality of life, plus great weather. Work/life balance is important to us as a company and something we emphasize with all employees. It is also part of the reason for our steady growth, low employee turnover, and our ability to purchase a new headquarters building in the middle of a recession.
What obstacles did you encounter as your business got off the ground?
Going into a male-dominated business, I had to make sure that I knew what I was talking about. Also, I had to change my appearance when calling on accounts. At first, I wasn’t getting business because I dressed like I was still in the fashion industry. I bought a pair of jeans and cowboy boots, went back out and picked up several accounts.
It was good to start slow and build the business to a place where we needed a showroom. We started in a garage, which meant we lost customers because we couldn’t show them what the product looked like after application. When we bought a new headquarters building, we moved into an office with a showroom. I was worried about paying for the building, but the move was a good decision. We picked up additional business because of the showroom.
We also took a big leap to become a franchise company. It required finding financing and the right advisers, as well as stepping up our internal operations. It was definitely the right move for us.
What are the pros and cons of owning a franchise?
Everyone hears that buying a franchise is expensive, that the headquarters doesn’t support you, etc. As we developed our franchise program, we saw how it could be different and benefit both headquarters and the entrepreneurs who wanted to be franchises. Except for a few business elements (branding and product/technique use), our franchises operate very much like independent businesses.
Get A Grip began offering franchises in 2007, and now offers a home-based opportunity with low start up costs and franchise fee, a two-week hands on training program, a complete system for running the business, and exceptional ongoing support. Our network of 30 franchises and dealers is in 17 states around the country.
Do older franchise owners tend to do better than younger ones?
Our most successful franchise owners come in all ages. The things they have in common are great business sense, great networking skills and the knowledge that they don’t have to do everything themselves – that they should rely on experts to help them with the things they aren’t good at.
What advice would you give to someone who’s over 40 and wants to start a business?
The same advice I’d give anyone: If you’re considering starting or becoming part of a service business, you must do your research. Talk with business owners in the field in which you’re interested, talk to franchise owners. You’re not an island. Take advantage of opportunities to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others.
Also, get organized and find the best people for your business. Those two things have helped me the most.