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Blood in the water

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There’s blood in the water of the franchise sector and the sharks are circling. JASON GEHRKE

Jason Gehrke: Photo by Studio 60

By Jason Gehrke

Blood in the water? At least that’s one way to look at the developments of the last few weeks, in which the closure of the 165-store fashion accessory chain Kleins was announced, as well as the declaration of another inquiry (the third in nine months) into the franchise sector.

Combine that with calls from a lobby group in the Sydney Morning Herald this week for franchising to be regulated by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) rather than the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), and you would be forgiven for thinking that franchising was in for a bumpy ride.

The current combination of events may not be the most desirable for the sector, but a brief look at history will show that franchising is remarkably resilient.

A summary of the Franchising Australia Surveys since 1996 demonstrates that franchising continues to attract new franchisor entrants to the sector who are not dissuaded by the prospect of increased regulation. While the sector grew by just seven franchisors from 1998 (the year in which the Franchising Code of Conduct was introduced) to 2002, in the four years to 2006 the sector added another 260 systems – an increase of 37%. (See table below).

Franchising Australia (year)

Total business format franchisors

Average number of franchise outlets

Average number of company owned outlets

Average number of years franchising

Average number of years in business

Franchisor increase from one survey to the next

Avg number of years franchising increase from one survey to next

1998

693

17

1

7

11.5

1999

708

22

1

8

11

2.16%

14.28%

2000

No survey

2001

No survey

2002

700

24

1

9

15

-1.14%

12.50%

2003

No survey

2004

850

26

1

11

14

21.43%

22.22%

2005

No survey

2006

960

22

1

10

16

12.94%

-9.09%

A summary of key franchisor data in Australia (compiled from Franchising Australia Surveys 1998-2006).

On closer examination, the increase in the number of franchisors over the period 1998-2006 is not matched by commensurate increases in the age of franchisor businesses and years in franchising. Over an eight-year period (1998-2006) the average number of years a franchisor had been in business increased only by four and a half years, while the average number of years in franchising increased only by three.

In other words, while the sector grew and “matured”, many of its participants in fact got younger, while other participants faded away.

The researchers noted that the net increase of 110 franchisors from the 2004 to 2006 surveys was obtained after identifying more than 200 new franchisors that had emerged during the two-year period, offset by the elimination of 100 franchisors from 2004 which could no longer be found. In other words, over the two year period, one franchisor ceased to franchise for every two new franchisors that commenced.

This indicates that despite its popularity as a method for business growth, franchising is not successful for all those “wannabe” franchisors who attempt it. This also begs the question: What then happens to their franchisees?

The terms of reference for the latest inquiry into franchising, to be conducted by a Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services and chaired by Queensland-based member for Oxley Bernie Ripoll, make no specific mention of sustainability or barriers to entry for franchisors that would have obvious implications for this influx of new franchisors.

The inquiry’s terms of reference are: “To inquire and report on the operation of the Franchising Code of Conduct, and to identify, where justified, improvements to the Code, with particular reference to:

  • The nature of the franchising industry, including the rights of both franchisors and franchisees.
  • Whether an obligation for franchisors, franchisees and prospective franchisees to act in good faith should be explicitly incorporated into the code (having regard to its presence as an element in paragraph 51AC(4)(k) of the Trade Practices Act 1974).
  • Interaction between the code and Part IVA and Part V Division 1 of the Trade Practices Act 1974, particularly with regard to the obligations in section 51AC of the Act.
  • The operation of the dispute resolution provisions under Part 4 of the code; and any other related matters.”

These broad terms of reference will likely see many of the submissions presented to the recent South Australian and Western Australian inquiries dusted-off and resubmitted (with any necessary changes). However what’s missing from this process is a Government-sponsored study of the sector to officially establish the size and extent of franchising in Australia for itself, rather than relying on public submissions alone as the source of information about the sector.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) surveyed the characteristics of small business in Australia in 2005-2006, including a tiny handful of questions about franchising. In April this year the ABS released its report from this survey, which found that franchising represents less than 7.5% of the entire small business population, and less than 10% of retail businesses. Beyond these two pieces of information, the survey’s references to franchising were limited.

With the researchers from Griffith University again conducting the Franchising Australia survey this year, there is little doubt that this survey’s results will be included in various submissions to the current inquiry. But without a Government-endorsed survey considering issues relevant to the inquiry’s terms of reference, many of the submissions are bound to represent subjective points of view or encapsulate individual experiences in franchising, rather than paint the broader picture.

Finally, it must be considered why such an inquiry has been instigated by a Parliamentary Committee and not the office of Craig Emerson, the Minister for Small Business? In a meeting with the Franchise Advisory Centre just the day before the announcement of the latest inquiry, Emerson reiterated that he had no special interest in further regulation of the franchise sector.

Only time will tell whether the “blood in the water” analogy has any real teeth (pardon the pun). What is certain is that there are interesting days ahead for the sector, and neither franchisors nor franchisees should take the status quo for granted.

 

Jason Gehrke is a director of the Franchise Advisory Centre and has been involved in franchising for 18 years at franchisee, franchisor and advisor level. He provides consulting services to both franchisors and franchisees, and conducts franchise education programs throughout Australia. He has been awarded for his franchise achievements, and publishes Franchise News & Events, Australia’s only fortnightly electronic news bulletin on franchising issues. In his spare time, Jason is a passionate collector of military antiques.

Click here for more Jason Gehrke blogs

 

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