Lindsey Gentry, an Army veteran who recently obtained the rights to open new Erbert and Gerbert's sandwich shops in Texas, explains how her time in the military prepared her for becoming a business leader, and tackling the many challenges in her chosen business venture. For more tips on building a transition plan to a civilian career, visit the Military.com Transition Center.
Can you briefly talk about your military background and experience?
Lindsey Gentry: I came into the Army in October of 2006 and that was immediately following graduating from law school. I ended up getting selected for the military police branch, so I headed off to Fort Leonard Wood for some MP training. I ended up being the distinguished honor graduate from my class, so that was good.
My first duty assignment was Fort Hood which was the installation I ended up at for the rest of my military career. I was on Fort Hood not even five hours when I found out I was going to deploy. When they say Fort Hood is a gateway to the desert, they're not lying. So at that time, 2006 and 2007, you didn't come into the Army thinking that you wouldn't deploy. If you came in to serve, you were going to get deployed and you were going to serve. I embraced that idea. I deployed for fifteen months to Camp Liberty in Baghdad, spent part of my time as a platoon leader, and finished up the rest of my time in Iraq as an XO [executive officer] for a company.
Coming back [from Iraq], I got a great position at the warrior transition brigade at Fort Hood. The program tries to either get those soldiers back in the fight, or transition them successfully into the civilian world with a lot of assistance. I got to know a lot of Soldiers who sacrificed a lot. It was a very humbling experience, a very challenging experience, but altogether enriching because I got to be involved with something so important. And that's how I finished out the last few years of my Army career. I was fortunate enough to be able to command and be able to influence and affect soldiers who were dealing with a lot, and I took that really seriously. That was a wonderful, wonderful thing, and I didn't leave for lack of love for the military, I left because I had this vision of what I wanted to do with my business dreams. If it came down to it, I could have done the Army forever.
Did your entrepreneurial goals and the fact that Erbert and Gerbert was your favorite sandwich shop in college influence you?
Actually I did my undergrad at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, which is the city that the company's headquartered out of. My friends and I would be there every week hitting up the Erbert and Gerbert's sandwich shop downtown and loved it. At the time I didn't think, "Someday I want to own one of these." I've always known that I wanted to be a business person in some respect. Even when I was in law school, I always felt that I would combine my legal knowledge with business pursuits. So I kept brands in the back of my mind that I really liked. When it came down to me picking a brand to buy into, when I met the team running [Erbert and Gerbert's] and directing its future, I was sold.
What else about Erbert and Gerberts attracted your attention?
I love the product – the product is definitely, in terms of the flavor profiles in my opinion, superior to a lot of brands out there. So I'll be selling a great, great product. The team, from the CEO to his supporting staff, is very user-friendly; they're involved, caring people. They really get involved in every aspect and some of the support I've received from the highest level of this company in terms of helping me through my site selection process, just the coaching and mentoring, is unique. You probably wouldn't get that kind of attention from another company. It's unique when a CEO just calls up and says, "Hey we just wanted to check in and see how things are going." That kind of team mentality is something that I learned in the military, I know how it works. When I saw that spark with these guys, I knew that was going to work for me.
Were there any other skills or experiences from your military career that helped you in starting your franchise?
Oh man, it's just endless how the military prepares you for something like this. Absolutely, just on a basic level, the confidence level that different leadership positions in the Army instill in you and build in you gives you the ability to go after something like this. When you're in the Army, they build you up slowly by giving you more and more leadership, and before you know it you're leading in a way that you couldn't imagine when you first started. The confidence-building and leadership-building in the Army is so essential to tackle something like owning a business and run it because there's a lot involved in this that requires guts.
And of course on the organizational level, the Army is very methodical. Having that background of mission planning and meeting deadlines and all those kind of things that, when you're in the military are just a norm that you take for granted, are very unique and can make you very successful in the outside world. Really mastering the fundamentals has prepared me to run a business in terms of communication and the desire to lead people. Right now, I'm working on site selection for my first location. I have a lot of really good deals that are in the works, a lot of balls in the air that we're waiting to see where they land. I learned in the Army that I love leading people, I love mentoring people, and coaching people -- I truly desire that in the business world. I want to help develop other people, not just run a business and make money. I really want to develop and coach other people on how to do some of this as well.
What were some of the challenges in starting the business?
There are a lot. You know the reality is when I started looking into a franchise, it was a time when the economy wasn't doing very well. Banks were closing their doors, they were not saying, "Yeah we'll give you loans." I had done things to invest and save, but I was still looking to finance this project through a bank because I'd prefer not to forward 100 percent of my cash into it, of course. So I was knocking on the doors of banks and at that time a lot of banks weren't even interested in looking at the financials or the business plan if you said "restaurant concept." It was an automatic no because the failure rate in the restaurant industry is pretty substantial. Of course that's decreased when you buy into a franchise, there's a much higher rate of success in franchises which are proven systems. The financing piece was frustrating. We got there, we got it done, but with doors being slammed in your face a lot, you have to be real good at being told no, shrugging it off, and moving on. That's a skill you have to acquire, you have to say "Okay, next?" If you can't take no, you won't make it.
Did you approach Erbert and Gerbert's first, or did you look for financing first and approach the company with a plan?
The way it works with most franchises, and the way it worked with Erbert and Gerbert's, is that you present your personal financials. You show a certain amount of net worth, and from that point they're able to do business with you if you meet their personal threshold. Once I had gotten approved by them and met all their criteria, we were able to go through the contract phase. I was able to buy my piece of the business, buy my piece of the pie, and become an official franchisee. At that point, once I owned my right to open a location in this area, I started to approach banks for my personal financing.
As for other challenges? What I'm going through right now in terms of place selection process is a tough one. Texas didn't suffer quite as much as other states when it came to the economic downturn in the last couple of years. Texas has stayed somewhat competitive in terms of the commercial real estate market. A lot of cranes are still out there, and you don't see that in a lot of other cities. Texas has continued to build and continued to grow and attract a lot of attention nationally. You see that all the time: Texas's numbers are looking better, unemployment lines, all of that. Getting a great site, that home run site, is competitive; that's been challenging. Of course, when you're the newbie and you're bringing a new brand to the state, you've got a little bit of a hill to climb. Definitely not impossible, but you have to be willing to go the distance because there's a process that goes with the whole beginning phase.
There are still businesses that are opening here, not closing. There are a lot of brands penetrating this market. That's a great thing, but it also means I have to fight for my piece.
What did you have to learn "on the fly?"
Truthfully, it's a constant learning process, a very humbling process. You're always around subject matter experts whether it be accountants, franchise attorneys, commercial brokers, or just whoever: a whole variety of people on your team who know more than you do. And that's why you have them on your team, but it's very humbling because there's a whole new jargon and a whole new set of things that you have to learn. So, it's constant learning for me, and I expect it to be that way for a long time.
Prior to having the ability to take this leap in life, I had been studying and reading anything that I could about business and about franchising for a long time, anything I could to learn what I could about it. But still, there's that idea of getting in and doing it that teaches you the most.
It sounds like your military experience really helped you with your leadership ability.
Oh absolutely. I am smart enough to know what I don't know, so that's when I go to people and say, "Hey, guide me on this, mentor me on this." But at the same time I know that I have to make the decision on my own. I have to take the advice, parse it out, and take what applies, what I think doesn't, and still have the guts to go in the direction that I think is best. There's great advisement behind me, but I still have to make those choices.
Can you take us through a typical day of running your business?
Right now it's kind of all over the place. When you ask me question later in the year when I have everything up and running I'll have a different answer for you. For example I'm currently on the road to look at a location in Austin. Locations come up, great opportunities present themselves, my broker gets on the phone with me, and within twenty-four hours I make sure to go see whatever kind of locations we think might have potential. There are a lot of conference calls, a lot of talking to subject matter experts when I'm looking through deals and I need to understand different points of construction terms and all those kinds of things. Right now I'm jam-packed looking at locations and getting on the phone talking out deals and trying to figure out how to make everybody happy in a deal so we can get construction rolling. Some days I'm truly at the mercy of finding out what some of these developers will do. In the army, we have a lot more certainty with what will happen, not so much in this process.
Do you have any advice for veterans who are interested in opening up their own franchise?
You can't start too early when it comes to thinking about steps that you have to take to even consider this as an option in life. You have to start now, or better yet you have to start yesterday on looking at your financials and ensuring that you're in the right place. You can want all day to go after a business opportunity, but if your financials are not guiding you in that [direction], your emotions will take you down a road that you're not prepared to go.
So your financial piece has to be solid, and you need to be in a place where it makes financial sense. The dream of owning a business is very emotional because you want it so bad, but that can't be what guides your decisions. It has to come down in the end to your numbers. Start looking at the financials, and start determining what you must do to get that piece right.
On the other side of it, I say don't let that be a thing that deters you. If the road ahead looks very long, you can still do it. It may sound like a corny piece of advice, but truthfully: never give up, be ready to accept no and move on, and keep fighting for it. That fight that's instilled in you in the military to go after something and never quit, that warrior ethos, has to carry you through. That mental toughness component has to be in this because there will be a lot of doors closed in your face and there will be a lot of opportunities that will slip past you. But if you keep fighting, you will get there. If you don't have that fighter spirit in the beginning, you won't get there.
Do you have any general transition advice for those leaving the service?
I've seen a lot of Soldiers go through the transition, and that's a situation where they're in a transitional phase in life. They're either going to transition back into the force or into the civilian world. You can't start the planning process for transition too early. You have to have plan A, plan B, and plan C. If you have an ultimate goal, you hold on to that, but you may not be able to get there in the exact way that you thought you could. Adaptability, the willingness to start planning early, it's all really critical for transition. Otherwise, you will be that soldier who gets their walking papers and it's time to leave Fort Hood and you'll think "Okay, I didn't think this would come as fast as it did. Now what do I do?" You can never begin too early. It's amazing how fast that transition comes up. You have to be prepared, you can't just rely on one outcome -- otherwise you might be disappointed.