Mike Kernaghan, 51, is chief executive officer of That Franchise Group, which includes Weed Man, Bin There Dump That, Truly Nolen Pest Control, Christmas Décor, Downsizing Diva and Skedaddle Humane Wildlife Control.
This is the only thing I have done since graduating from university. I befriended the founder, Des Rice, at university. He was your typical rags-to-riches story, starting out with a $500 loan from his father. He and his wife would knock on doors to ask people if they wanted help controlling their weeds. I still remember the Weed Man truck pulling up to our house in the seventies and I remember the jingles. Des would attend career days. I stumbled upon him in my last year and he offered me a job the day I graduated.
My advice is to have a mentor like Des if you possibly can. He was patient and said that all good things are worth waiting for. Small businesses are a journey, he said. Sadly, Des passed away five years ago. He was only 62. I have a lot of fond memories of working with a real serial entrepreneur.
The name Weed Man is a double entendre we have been using since the seventies. We used to say "Get great grass from the Weed Man." Today we don't try to run away from the connotation, but we certainly don't ignore it.
I had to grow into my shoes. My first job in 1987 was as his national technical manager. He had 40 franchises operating in Canada but his concept was "a guy in a truck," a blue-collar franchise. I started travelling around the country and helping troubleshoot the franchises. There was a great deal of emphasis on the technical aspect back then. They were adding new services. They started off as weed control, but then looked at fertility and seeding to augment the business model.
I didn't stay in a technical position very long. Less than a year and a half after joining, there was an opportunity to attend a franchise show to present your franchise operation's opportunity. The person in charge had a health issue and I was tapped on the shoulder. Not knowing that I couldn't do it, I went and returned with two cheques for two franchises. Des at that time thought that maybe my ability was wasted where I was. So he put me in charge of recruiting and I continued on from that path. By my early 30s, I was chief operating officer.
He would always say 'Show me the results' and I had to do that. At a very early age, I was placed in a leadership role. Looking back, I was way over my head but no one told me I couldn't do it. By 1996, I had sold out the country. There was nowhere you could put a Weed Man where we didn't already have one, from Newfoundland to Victoria, B.C. Not long after that we became business partners and I began to invest with him and alongside him.
The U.S. was a big scary place for a little lawn care company. Once we sold out Canada, we moved into the U.S. and the U.K. My role is to help [our U.S. partners] exploit and grow the brand in the United States. That is without a doubt the biggest part and the faster growing part of the Weed Man. About four years ago, they surpassed us in size. Lawn care in Canada is seasonal; there, it's year round. We spent a lot of time reinventing ourselves but didn't want to depart too much from our core values.
It's a lot of little businesses, creating a large company. Now we have 620 units (a territory with a franchise agreement) across North America. Each franchise employs 15-25 people, so we have a huge impact. We have over 300,000 customers of Weed Man alone in Canada. I say we are the Stedman's of lawn care. We're very folksy.
I spend a lot of time mentoring younger people. My average day now is realizing that I used to be one of the younger guys in the room and now realizing that I'm one of the oldest guys. I'm still looking for new investors, I'm looking for talent and I develop talent and mentor. In franchising, the support staff is the sustaining resource or back office for the franchisee.
I spend a great deal of time working with franchise operators since nothing gives me more pleasure than working with a husband-and-wife team to understand their goals and dreams and help them achieve them. In many cases they invest their life savings, so they put blind faith in us, and it's my job to make sure they get the best out of their investment.
Not everyone is set up to be an entrepreneur. We know that our models work and we do our best to vet [potential franchisees] but sometimes someone fails inside the system and when I see them exit, I wonder about what could have been. I'm disappointed when I don't see them succeed.
There are still a lot of people out there who want to be their own boss. In franchising, there is much more transparency for investors now. When I started in the eighties, there was no regulation or legislation but now it's quite robust in Canada and the United States. So when franchise investors take a look at us, we don't leave anything to the imagination. There is nothing that investors won't be aware of. The other trend is buying multiple units and buying other brands. So they [a franchise owner] may add a pest control company or a wild life control company. Tim Horton's and Wendy's were doing that for years, but for franchises, this trend just started in the last decade.
As told to Leah Eichler
This interview has been edited and condensed.