June 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Franchise nation

By Alice Pung
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“I had never worked in a better restaurant.” That was what my uncle told us about one of the first jobs he had after arriving in Australia. He wore gloves and a uniform to work; the kitchen was stainless-steel sterile and everything ran like clockwork. If you were a strict Taoist vegetarian, as he was, you could still eat the vegetables and the apple pie without worrying about contamination from meat products. The food was all quality-controlled. That restaurant became the only kind of non-Oriental restaurant my parents would ever visit, and the embodiment of everything that was good about the West. So inspired was my father by the business set up by the McDonald brothers, he decided that his own would also be based on the franchise model.

In the early '80s, Dad was keenly aware of the importance of blending in. A recognisable franchise logo outside your shop meant instant credibility. With the logo, you were no longer a little ethnic store, but a bona-fide Australian business, a trustworthy one, where things like customer service and consistency mattered. My father hoped the sign would deter hardcore hagglers and the uniforms would signal uniformity. And ethnic gangs would not torment his business like they did back in Cambodia.

In Australia, franchising is often seen as an unwelcome infiltration of American monoculturalism. But as much as we'd like to disbelieve it, franchising is distinctly our culture, perhaps even more so than it is America's. Australia has more franchises than any other nation on Earth. We have three times as many franchises per capita as the US. Franchising makes up 14% of our GDP, and franchise businesses employ more than 600,000 Australians. The overwhelming majority - 93% - of Australian franchises are domestic brands.

Buying a franchise is not the same as buying a business; it is buying into a way of doing business. The franchisor usually starts a pilot shop, and if it goes well, assigns to the franchisees the right to use the business name and market and distribute the franchisor's goods or services. When it works properly, the franchise company acts like a friend and mentor to the small business that buys into its protection. According to the Franchise Council of Australia, franchises give proprietors the resources to compete against the large corporations that dominate Australian retailing - the consummate model of small, local businesses fighting it out with the foreign mega-companies. Franchising fits perfectly into our battler narrative.

Never was this more evident than when, some years ago, my father and I went to the annual National Franchise Expo at the Melbourne Convention Centre. Mums and dads seeking to start mum-and-dad businesses wandered up and down past the exhibits which promised the dream of the pioneers: Lifestyle, Security and Independence. Janine Allis, the founder of Boost Juice, was a working mother of three who had built a multimillion-dollar business. And now, for as little as a few thousand dollars, you too could buy the ability to be your own boss.

Dad and I had gone to the Franchise Expo because there was a slight possibility that we would meet Australia's legendary Franchise King, a man who lives in suburban Mooroolbark and reputedly still drives an uninsured '80s Volvo. While we did not meet Jim Penman that day, we saw some of his franchises advertised: Jim's Mowing, Jim's Dog Wash, Jim's Bookkeeping, Jim's Permaculture, Jim's Windscreens, Jim's Test & Tag. Dad thought that Jim's innovations were awesome for their ordinariness. He said that migrants had a way of working like oxen, while locals used brain over brawn.

To my dad, Jim Penman was the epitome of the enlightened Australian - with research interests in history, anthropology and zoology, and an interest in China; business acumen and a frugal nature; and nine kids. But I thought Dad really admired him because he seemed like the consummate Chinese, a wealthy scholar-entrepreneur with a lot of children. Jim wrote his autobiography, Surprised by Success, about starting his business with $24 of photocopied leaflets and a second-hand lawnmower. The book could be downloaded, free, from his website. In it, Jim wrote about his earlier business failures. In his young adulthood he had wanted to sit around all day on a beanbag reading science fiction, while subcontracting the jobs, but that didn't work. We admired Jim for his honesty and for his disregard for protecting his intellectual property. Even his PhD thesis could be downloaded from the internet.

Our fascination with franchising led us to seek professional help. Dad and I consulted the franchising experts. These are companies that help individuals turn their successful shop into a franchise - every small-businessperson's dream. One man told us about another Asian client, who was starting a chain of bakeries, and showed us the nifty little orange take-away boxes he had designed. Who would want to buy more bread? we wondered. But then Breadtop opened in Footscray, in Melbourne's west, and Asian people kept buying the bread, probably for the same reason my parents bought franchised food: consistency, lovely packaging, no possibility of getting food poisoning. Whenever we travelled as a family around Australia, my parents were anxious about any town that did not have a McDonald's or a KFC, because there was too much risk and uncertainty.

My uncle returned from a recent trip to China with a laminated menu from McDonald's, to show us that instead of Apple Pie they sell Taro Pie. He thought that the opening of the first McDonald's in Beijing, in 1992, was "one of the greatest signs of democracy, because anyone could use their toilets. And young people saved up their money to have memorable dates there." To use a McDonald's toilet is a privilege taken too much for granted these days.

When I searched the list of exhibitors for this year's Franchise Expo, I realised that we really are a nation of innovators. HydroDog Mobile Dog Grooming franchises come with a "unique all-weather mobile salon shaped as a Big Blue Dog", which also serves as a moving billboard. Foodcube, from Queensland, specialises in coin-operated vending machines that fry frozen chips and nuggets in 90 seconds and dispense them with salt and sauce and a napkin, while Goop Guys specialise in temporary "peelable" surface protection - perfect for the Mediterranean and Asian markets, with their propensity for plastic-covered furniture. Dad would love all this, I thought. For the six-days-a-week business operator, the franchise expo is a veritable theme park.

At the last expo we went to, Dad and I visited the Franchise Council of Australia stand. The representatives considered us seriously, as they did all the ordinary Australians who passed through hoping to glean the secrets of small-business success. With all this free business help, anyone could succeed, my father believed. "If people weren't lazy, if they knew how to save, and if they were half smart, they would be able to make it." Franchises, he believed, democratise capitalism. "Look at that!" said Dad, pointing to Jim Penman's profile when we passed his stand. "Amazing. Jim's made it to New Zealand, England and Canada!" Here we are, I thought, Australians spreading our culture throughout the world.

Alice Pung

Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She is the author of Unpolished Gem, Her Father’s Daughter, Laurinda and Writers on Writers: Alice Pung on John Marsden.

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