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Best for Vets: Franchises 2014-15

The rankingsThe methodology

ID=78548636 One of the biggest challenges to starting your own business can be finding the cash to get it off the ground. But if you're a veteran, many franchise brands will cut your startup costs significantly.

CruiseOne, a travel-oriented franchise brand, offered such a discount to Grant Springer. The retiring Army first sergeant, who has a passion for travel, thought it would be a good opportunity and was ready to cut a check — when CruiseOne officials told him to wait.

Instead, they suggested that he try for one of five annual waivers, competitively awarded to veterans, which cover franchise startup fees, training and transportation. Springer went out for it and won.

More than just saving him money, the experience taught him about CruiseOne.

"It wasn't about the money — it was about the type of people that they're bringing in," he said.

CruiseOne topped our Best for Vets: Franchises 2014-15 rankings, with Sport Clips, Signarama, Anytime Fitness and Sparkle Wash rounding out the top five.

The rankings were developed based on companies' responses to our detailed survey of more than 100 questions, as well as on their franchise disclosure documents.

Nearly every responding company indicated that they offer some sort of discount to current or former service members or their families on the initial franchise fee required to start a business, with the average discount amounting to about 25 percent. Discounts on other startup costs, royalties and advertising fees were offered by just a few companies.

Franchise brands showed room for improvement in some areas. Four-fifths of companies said they did not offer special support for reservists called to active duty. Even fewer had special support teams for veterans or vet employee groups.

On the other hand, better than four in five franchises said they were affiliated with VetFran, an arm of the International Franchise Association dedicated to service members. About two in five facilitate mentoring or networking between their vet franchisees. And one-third said they have current or former service members or their families in senior company leadership positions.

Springer said he and his wife, who works alongside him, run their business as a 24-hour-a-day operation, taking calls from people who want to book travel whenever the phone rings. Still, the business gives them greater flexibility to take off in the middle of the day, run errands and get back to work in the evening.

"The home base allows us to be able to do that," he said.

Tim Courtney, CruiseOne's vice president of franchise development, said that can be a key draw for vets.

"That flexibility to work from home" is very important for troops returning from military service, during which they often had to "spend long periods of time away from family," Courtney said.

He added that veterans should do lots of research before settling on a franchise and choose something that fits with their interests and preferences.

"If you're not a morning person, you shouldn't be opening a coffee franchise," he said. "Take your time. You should not rush into it, nor should you be sold an opportunity."

Jeff Kibben, a former Navy lieutenant commander who now franchises with Sport Clips, similarly warned fellow vets to choose their franchise brand carefully.

"Some of those things are, you know, going to take your money, throw you out and say, 'Good luck,' " Kibben said.

At Sport Clips, Kibben said he found leadership that was helpful and accessible.

Matt Deputy, Sport Clips' veterans affairs officer, said his company has worked to create an environment that may in some ways remind vets of their time in uniform.

"It's very similar to that of the military ... a culture of helping people and doing what's right," he said.

The franchise model itself bears similarity to the military, added Deputy, who served about eight years in the Air Force and is currently a master sergeant in the reserves. The franchise brand sets the standard for how business should be done and teaches franchisees how to replicate the model.

"A franchise system kind of gives you a template on how to operate, and it's really a franchisee's responsibility to duplicate that," Deputy said.

Research by George Altman and Charlsy Panzino