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While COVID has provided a crash course in survival and adaptation for all Canadian companies, none were threatened more than small to medium-sized businesses.

In the fight to survive, seven of 10 small businesses took on an average of $170,000 in debt during the pandemic. A 2021 Statistics Canada survey found that more than a quarter of businesses with one to 100 employees saw revenue drop at least 30 per cent in 2020. About 100,000 businesses active in February, 2020, were closed by November – most of those tending to have both fewer employees and assets.

Running or launching a business is hard enough, and COVID upped the ante. While no business model was pandemic-proof, one can provide increased stability to those just starting out: franchising.

Across Canada, 1,300 franchise companies generate 45 per cent of all retail sales – over $1-billion a year – and open 4,300 new outlets annually. It’s a popular model, for good reason.

In the face of a disruptor like COVID, franchises can respond to change as a collective, strategizing together about how to maintain operations, meet customer expectations and adapt to evolving regulations. At COBS Bread, for instance, we created a COVID committee that still meets to this day, researching updates from health agencies and on governmental regulations, and brainstorming solutions that save individual business owners the tremendous amount of time and energy they would have to spend to do so alone.

Franchises mitigate risk with a proven system and structure that brings support and, of course, brand recognition. In hard times, consumers will turn to brands that have built up loyalty and trust. While many independents certainly possess such qualities, franchises carry brand trust built over years, which drives deeper resiliency and customer confidence around safety.

Amid turmoil, a franchise system enables each business owner to focus on what’s most important to their individual operations, while the franchisee-support office helps manage uncertainty, invests resources as needed, and provides the most pertinent information that franchisees need to apply to their operations.

COVID exposed the stark need to adapt at lightning speed – something that franchises can achieve by scaling change more easily across a shared network. COBS Bread has nearly 140 bakeries across Canada, and we responded to necessary shifts in store capacity and changing customer behaviour by offering pre-sliced bread for the first time, allowing customers to get in and out quickly and so helping to increase revenue. This was a simple yet effective change that could be rolled out efficiently without diluting a brand known for strong customer service and quality baked goods.

Outside of tumultuous times, other key factors make the franchise route appealing for the entrepreneurially inclined:

Strong operational and training support: A helpful support office and team of regional managers can ensure franchisees are set up for success, with everything from ordering supplies to streamlining operations. Extensive, continuing training can further promote career and business growth.

Peer-to-peer mentorship: The breadth and depth of a healthy franchisee network is filled with solutions, best practices and new ideas to help pivot as needed, from navigating challenges and implementations large and small. It also offers the important cultural aspects of peer-to-peer mentorship and camaraderie.

Access to marketing and technology: Promoting a business can eat time and money – from advertising to social media to loyalty programs. Franchises offer a deeper pool of expert marketing resources so that franchisees can focus on core operations and keep capital costs down.

Buying power: Franchisees benefit with lower prices by buying in bulk through the franchise network. Amid a pandemic or otherwise, this can make all the difference in staying competitive, and open.

Franchising is, of course, not the approach for everyone. It requires the passion of an entrepreneur who is flexible to a certain degree, but ultimately there are guidelines and standardized processes that must be followed, as predictability drives brand value. Franchises also operate on a different growth model than independents, and will require leaders to figure out how many units they can run successfully.

Still, in the end, franchises offer a safety net against recessions – and pandemics. So long as one chooses a company that aligns with their passion and has a track record of success – even during turbulence – this is fertile ground to grow as an entrepreneur, build an outfit that becomes a staple of the community, and achieve personal and economic success.


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Aaron Gillespie is the president of Vancouver-based COBS Bread, with nearly 140 bakeries across Canada. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for October, 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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