Lawrence “Doc” Cohen, a veteran of the franchise industry who first franchised Great American Cookies 32 years ago, became the first-ever franchisee inducted into the International Franchise Association’s (IFA) Hall of Fame.
The award, which was presented to Cohen at the IFA’s annual convention last week in Las Vegas, recognizes individuals who have contributed to the advancement of the IFA and the franchising community. The Hall of Fame includes quick-serve greats such as Dave Thomas, Ray Kroc, Fred DeLuca, and Col. Harland Sanders.
Cohen, whose company, Houston-based Cookie Associates, also owns TCBY, Coffee Beanery, and Pretzelmaker units, recently spoke with QSR’s Sam Oches about the honor and his opinion on the state of the franchise industry.
How surprised were you to be given this honor?
When I heard the news I was pretty surprised. No franchisee has ever gotten it before, and I never thought I’d be a candidate for it.
You’ve done some great things for the franchising world, but in your opinion, why do you think you’ve been honored with this award?
I like to think it’s because I’ve always believed there was a necessity, even so far as a requirement, to give back to industry that has helped make people successful. That’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my involvement with the IFA. There’s a poem called “The Bridge Builder” [by Will Allen Dromgoole]. When I was in college I first read that poem, and it really struck home for me, and I’ve tried to live up to it all my life.
In what ways?
The story is about an old man who is traveling and comes to a deep, wide chasm and he can’t cross it. So he crosses, and when he gets to the other side he looks back and decides to build a bridge across it. He builds this bridge, and another passerby asks why he built the bridge since he had already crossed the canyon. He said, ‘I was able to do it, but somebody following in my footsteps might have a more difficult time. So I’m building this bridge for him.’ It’s something that was meaningful for me when I was 17 years old. There were a lot of people along the way who helped me get to where I am today, and I feel like if I can make that easier for those who come behind me, I should do it.
Why is it that you’ve been so inspired to work for the advancement of the franchising industry?
I’ve been in retail all my life. Thirty-two years ago, I was an early victim of corporate downsizing, except back then we just called it getting fired. I was vice president of a drug-store chain, the company was having some issues, and we sort of eliminated my level of management. Franchising enabled me to achieve my American dream. I was able to get into a business I did not know; I was taught the business. I learned how to do it. Somebody else had developed the concept, which made it much easier for me to come in and start my own business. We say in the franchising business, ‘For yourself, but not by yourself,’ so I always had that back-up. It worked and it was a great way to do business. Still is.
What’s your opinion on the state of the franchising industry today?
I think in any business there’s always more work to be done. I think we’ve come a long way in the 17 or 18 years I’ve been affiliated with IFA. When I joined IFA there weren’t any franchisee members; I was one of the first. I think that step back in 1993 took IFA to a whole other level, and it’s enabled various parts of franchising to come together. Franchising is in many, many ways a partnership. Certainly not in the legal sense, but in the practical sense it’s a partnership between franchisors and franchisees. Both have to be successful for the system to survive.
Bill Rosenberg, founder of Dunkin’ Donuts, always used to say, ‘You can’t have a franchisor without a successful franchisee, and you can’t have successful franchisees without successful franchisors.’ The thing that’s so interesting about franchising is you have this sort of quasi partnership, and both parties need to make a profit, obviously.
What are your plans for the future of your franchise company?
We have sort of held back in the last couple of years. We’re now looking at some expansion opportunities; we’re actually looking at another franchise outside of what we already do. We’re very optimistic about the future. We’re getting back into the mode of growth. I’d like to create another 500 jobs for people.
How different are things now than when you joined the franchising industry?
It’s changed tremendously. I’m very fortunate that I was able to get a franchise. I think if I had to go through the process that’s in place today for most franchises 32 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Back then, franchisors were not nearly as sophisticated as they are today. If they had looked at my financial statement, they probably would have laughed at me. I didn’t have one. Today, No. 1, franchisees are much more sophisticated and have much more education than I had in ways of getting financial advice and competent legal advice and developing a business plan. I didn’t know what a business plan was. Today, I wouldn’t think of going into any business without having a business plan.
What is your opinion of the younger generations that are now getting into franchising?
I think that the current generation is much more analytical. I think the current generation is much more apt to say, ‘Why do we have to do it that way?’ I sort of said, ‘That’s the way we do it here.’ Today, the younger generations want to know why. ‘Why do we have to do that?’ I think it’s good, it keeps us older folks on our toes. Even the kids in our stores, [we’ll say] ‘Here’s how you make a cookie.’ They say, ‘Why do we do it his way? Why do we use our right hand for this and our left hand for this?’ I think that’s fine. It challenges us to focus on if there is a better way. Maybe there is a smarter way. I think it’s exciting.