20 exceptional franchise leaders of 2021 | Global Franchise
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Monday 16th May, 2022

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20 exceptional franchise leaders of 2021

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20 exceptional franchise leaders of 2021

Join us in celebrating 20 of the strongest franchise leaders from this year

This year has been one of franchising’s biggest yet, with brands managing to recover from lockdowns and come back swinging in a major way. Join us as we celebrate 20 of the most instrumental leaders in franchising, who have each taken their international networks from strength to strength.

Rob Price, CEO, School of Rock  

School of Rock has had something of a bumper year when it comes to international development, with the musical education franchise opening in not one, nor two, but three overseas markets: Taiwan, South Africa, and Spain – with the latter being the franchise’s first location on the European continent.  

The U.S. brand also celebrated the opening of its 300th school, and saw a boom in student figures, rising from 22,000 to 46,000. It also broadened its curriculum to include a greater range of diversity, including Black and female artists as part of its established repertoire of iconic musicians.  

The growth of School of Rock has been off the back of a tumultuous year for education across the board, showcasing the true resilience of this finely-tuned franchise. 

Laura Rea Dickey, CEO, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit 

Dickey’s Barbecue Pit has used the post-pandemic period of transition to become something of a frontrunner in the digital food and beverage scene, with the brand signing deals with the likes of Combo Kitchen to double-down on ghost kitchen expansion across the U.S.  

Internationally, Laura Rea Dickey’s team have also been working to spread the Dickey’s name far and wide. The barbecue operator launched in Singapore, Japan, and Sao Paulo during 2021, and announced plans to expand its presence in largely untapped markets such as India and Africa.  

At the core of this is a mentality of responsible, considerate expansion – something Laura told us about on the Global Franchise Podcast when she joined us earlier this year: “In an international market, we look at it as us being a guest,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to be conscientious and make sure that we make it a good place for the brand internationally.”  

Imran Sayeed, CEO, German Doner Kebab 

German Doner Kebab took a big step into the international franchising sphere this year, when it opened its very first U.S. location at the American Dream Mall in New Jersey. The brand also strengthened its Canadian presence and announced plans to open upward of 100 locations in Canada over the next decade.  

Elsewhere in the world, GDK also opened its first Saudi Arabian site in November, as part of a master franchising partnership in the region. Similar to its plans for Canada, this Middle Eastern agreement comprises 100 locations over the next five years. To facilitate such considerable growth, Imran Sayeed added to the international GDK team, with industry veterans Mike Brouwers and Georgina Cavendish coming on board.  

Anthony Geisler, CEO, Xponential Fitness 

It’s been a big year for Anthony Geisler’s fitness-focused parent company, Xponential Fitness. Not only did one of the group’s leading concepts, Club Pilates, sign master franchise agreements to bring 50 units to both Spain and Australia; the brand also focused on domestic growth, signing its largest-ever multi-unit deal to expand throughout the Dallas and Central Florida markets.  

Club Pilates wasn’t the only name under the Xponential banner to see considerable international expansion in 2021, however. Rumble, a recently-acquired boxing franchise, also signed an Australian deal to bring 100 clubs to the country. And on the tech side of things, Xponential Fitness launched its GO platform, to enhance at-home workouts for its customers. It’s this understanding of timely fitness trends that has kept the parent company on top.  

Philip White, president and CEO, Sotheby’s International Realty 

Following a year of record sales volume in 2020 ($114bn), Sotheby’s International Realty has continued its momentum this year with a number of international deals to take the realtor franchisor’s name even further afield.  

Conversion deals have seen new Sotheby’s International Realty sites open or schedule to open in Jamaica, Oman, South Korea, Bulgaria, and Spain. Notably, its growth into Bulgaria marked the brand’s 200th affiliated office in the EMEIA region, and in total, Sotheby’s International Realty now operates over 1,000 offices in 77 countries and territories worldwide. When it comes to international franchising, it rarely gets more global than that.  

Mike Bidwell, president and CEO, Neighborly  

Home services franchisor Neighborly has been on a tear in 2021, and has well and truly lived up to Mike Bidwell’s goal set out back in 2019 on the Global Franchise Podcast: to become “the Amazon of the home and property services sector.”  

This year, Neighborly acquired both Precision Door Service as well as London-based plumbing brand, Pimlico Plumbers. The parent company was also acquired itself by KKR, a global investment firm that has allowed Neighborly to accelerate its growth and development to unprecedented levels. In fact, as of 2021, the brand comprises 29 brands with more than 4,800 franchises. In total, its network serves upward of 10 million customers in nine countries around the world.  

Catherine Monson, president and CEO, Propelled Brands 

Catherine Monson has been a franchising mainstay for years, and became the CEO of FASTSIGNS International, Inc. back in 2009. This year, she spearheaded the creation of Propelled Brands, following the acquisition of tech repair concept NerdsToGo by FASTSIGNS in 2020.  

The creation of Propelled Brands facilitated the acquisition of more franchise brands outside of the FASTSIGNS remit, including Suite Management Franchising, LLC., which was acquired this June.  

In a commitment to make the franchise space as inclusive as possible, FASTSIGNS also created a diversity and inclusion committee this year, which consists of eight franchise leaders from within the brand.  

Monson oversaw all of this activity while also continuing her role as chair of the International Franchise Association; a position she initially entered in 2020.  

Eric Gatoff, CEO, Nathan’s Famous 

The ‘Flavor of New York’ has been expanding beyond its NYC roots in 2021, with Nathan’s Famous recently signing a partnership with French brand Tommy’s Diner to begin serving the Nathan’s menu in its Europe-based, American-themed diners.  

Similar to its frontrunning QSR peers, Nathan’s Famous also prioritized virtual locations and delivery this year. In fact, in July, the brand announced that it had managed to double the number of locations it operates due to its adoption of the ghost kitchen model. This format allowed Nathan’s to develop its two brand-new concepts: Wings of New York, and Arthur Treacher.  

Continuing the virtual trend, Nathan’s also signed a deal in October with Branded Virtual Kitchens Canada, Ltd., to offer Canadian entrepreneurs the opportunity to serve the Nathan’s menu without any investment from the franchisor.  

Beto Guajardo, president, Focus Brands International 

The Focus Brands International portfolio has seen something of modernization this year, in line with the biggest trends and updates within the QSR industry. Schlotzky’s, for example, announced a new tech-driven store prototype, while Moe’s Southwest Grill has been on a journey to modernize many of its locations; including those in the Greater Atlanta area.  

But the group’s efforts to make its restaurants as accessible and consumer-friendly as possible don’t just stop in the States. In Egypt, Focus Brands International opened its first Middle Eastern drive-thru location, with Cinnabon launching the new model as part of Egypt’s first-ever drive-thru mall.  

It makes sense that the group would be so ahead of the curve when it comes to consumer QSR trends, as when Beto Guajardo joined us on the Global Franchise Podcast this year, he was particularly candid about the problems that the industry is facing in this post-pandemic landscape – and how his organization is striving to fill in the gaps.  

Todd A. Penegor, president and CEO, Wendy’s 

Wendy’s made a considerable push to penetrate the European market this year, with the iconic U.S. burger brand launching its first U.K. location in Reading, just outside of London.  

On its network-wide development, the brand also announced that it would be pursuing non-traditional locations moving forward. This is in line with other moves we’ve seen in the QSR industry, as consumers eschew the traditional dine-in experience in favor of more customizable food experiences.  

In fact, 30 per cent of all future Wendy’s sites were announced to follow this new direction. This came after the company took a step back and recognized that in major U.S. cities, one Wendy’s location catered to 135,000 people. With a push for non-traditional, the brand can reach more customers than ever.  

David McKillips, CEO, CEC Entertainment 

CEC Entertainment, the parent company of Chuck E. Cheese and Peter Piper Pizza, has really pushed for international growth this year. Childrens entertainment concept Chuck E. Cheese already operated beyond its U.S. roots, but in 2021 it stamped its mark on the European continent with the brand’s first franchise signing in Europe via Romania. This was alongside additional overseas development, such as a flagship site opening in Bahrain; a further step into the G.C.C. region.  

David McKillips himself became CEO of Chuck E. Cheese shortly before the global pandemic, but managed to navigate the brand through that tricky period while also working through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Needless to say, the Chuck E. Cheese of the future is going to be an evolution of what consumers have come to know.  

Eloi Gómez, CEO, Jeff 

Initially co-founded by Eloi Gómez in Spain, laundry franchise Mr Jeff has since grown into an international family of brands under the Jeff banner, with more than 2,000 locations around the world.  

This year in particular, Mr Jeff launched its American footprint, building off the back of its strong international development experience. And after the initial launch in Queens, New York, industry veteran Peter Stern was appointed managing director for the U.S., to ensure continued growth in this key market.  

Tom Gordon, co-founder and CEO, Slim Chickens 

Tom Gordon’s Slim Chickens has seen immense growth both domestically and internationally this year. Back in July, the brand announced that it had already signed 254 multi-unit agreements in 2021 – with growth continuing from there.  

Domestically, the ‘better-chicken’ brand made its Georgia debut toward the end of 2021, and has big plans to grow in Iowa throughout next year. And alongside its success in the States, Slim Chickens has also been growing its U.K. presence in 2021 after launching in the country just a few years ago; opening sites in both Bournemouth and Birmingham in August.  

Julien Zaal, co-founder and CEO, The Avocado Show 

The Avocado Show was founded in 2017, and was based off a desire to create aesthetically pleasing plates of food that were tasty and also sustainable; especially considering the impact that avocado farming can have on the environment. After a successful launch in Amsterdam, the brand announced it would develop to other key cities throughout Europe.  

This year, the avocado-centric concept delivered on that promise with a launch in Madrid in February, and an opening in London in September. Its founders Julien Zaal and Ron Simpson have big plans to increase the brand’s footprint in key European cities, with an announcement last September that it had signed 19 sites across the continent.  

Betsy Hamm, CEO, Duck Donuts 

Betsy Hamm was previously COO of Duck Donuts, but transitioned into the CEO role this year following the brand’s acquisition by NewSpring Capital, a Philadelphia-based private equity firm. Alongside this new role came a real push for international development, with Duck Donuts announcing growth into both Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  

Domestically, Duck Donuts also hit a notable milestone back in February with the opening of its 100th location. It may have a relatively modest footprint now, but this donut franchisor is shaping up to be a true international competitor.  

Kuba Jewgieniew, founder and CEO, Realty ONE Group 

Kuba Jewgieniew founded Realty ONE Group back in 2005, and created the business with a 100 per cent commission model – making real estate professionals the core of everything that the business does. This aligned with Kuba’s goal when founding the organization, to act as “the catalyst for change in the real estate industry”.  

It seems that change has caught on, because just this year, Realty ONE Group expanded its footprint into entirely new markets, including Singapore, Spain, and Costa Rica. In total, the brand now boasts more than 17,000 real estate professionals across 400-plus offices.  

Tariq Farid, founder and CEO, Edible 

Chocolate-dipped treats franchisor Edible’s founder, Tariq Farid, has been getting involved with the next generation of franchisees this year. Specifically, in July, Babson College opened the Tariq Farid Franchise Institute thanks to a gift from its namesake. The new school is designed to advance learners’ understanding of franchising, and empower the next generation of franchise entrepreneurs.  

Edible has also been working to keep up with industry trends this year, with the brand unveiling a new U.S. store look in May, which is built for efficiency. The organization also opened its first ghost kitchen site at the beginning of the year; taking in more than $130,000 in just the first week.  

Ned Lyerly, CEO, CKE Restaurants  

As the parent company for both Carl’s Jr. and Hardees’, CKE Restaurants has had a year filled with growth and development. It began 2021 by announcing the opening of its 300th location in Mexico; marking 30 years since the brand entered the country for the first time.  

In May, CKE hit yet another milestone with the opening of its 1,000th site, followed by the announcement that it planned to double its international footprint within five years. And if that wasn’t enough, Carl’s Jr. also signed an Australian franchise agreement in July, as well as unveiling plans to develop throughout the U.K. off the back of its existing European success.  

Sami Siddiqui, president, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen 

Despite being a recognizably American QSR brand, Popeyes has been on an international tear this year. In March, the brand signed a multi-country agreement with plans to develop in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan. A month later, Popeyes signed another deal with Gulf First Fast Food Company to begin opening in Saudi Arabia, and in September, it was announced that the U.K. would get its first Popeyes before the end of 2021 at Westfield Stratford City, in London.  

On the consumer side of things, Popeyes also partnered with rapper Megan Thee Stallion this year to release a new sauce and co-branded merchandise. The partnership also included a six-figure donation to Houston Random Acts of Kindness, a Houston-based charity.  

Michael Browning, founder and CEO, Unleashed Brands 

This year has been one marked by multiple franchise acquisitions and mergers. One of the best examples of this is Unleashed Brands: the parent company of Urban Air Adventure Park, Snapology, and Little Gym, which was founded by Michael Browning in July. With a goal to help kids “Learn. Play. Grow.”, Unleashed Brands is looking to aggregate the “highly fragmented $30bn industry” of children’s enrichment.  

The latest development to come from Unleashed Brands is the appointment of Nancy Bigley as president and CEO of Little Gym; bringing with her years of franchise development knowledge and experience. After building firm foundations this year, we could see a lot more from Michael’s Unleashed Brands in 2022.  

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