Manan Shah on Growing Up in Franchising, and Finding Success as a Franchisee

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Melissa Castoro

Franchisee Manan Shah talks about growing up in a multi-unit, multi-brand franchise family – and building on his family’s legacy.

“I basically grew up in franchising,” says Manan Shah, recalling the years he spent working alongside his brother, Neel, in their father’s franchised businesses while growing up in New Jersey.

After immigrating to the U.S. from India in 1983, Shah’s father, Vijay, worked hard to find a way to become a businessman – a goal he made into a reality after purchasing his first franchise in the late 1980s.

“He had a dream to own his own business when he first came here. In 1989, he purchased his first Dunkin’ Donuts in North Jersey. This was before I was born, so my brother and I were basically born into the whole franchising model since we were kids,” Shah says.

Since then, Shah’s father has gone on to operate 30 successful franchise units throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut for 13 brands including Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin Robbins, Jersey Mike’s, Bubbakoo’s, Hilton, Shell gas stations, and others. 

Despite that long-term success, though, getting started in franchising wasn’t without challenges early on. 

“Someone took a chance on my father. He initially had an investor. … They took a chance on him, and we had a pretty big gap in between the first and second store as he was still trying to learn the business. But as he started learning the business and became kind of a self-running machine, we saw the multiples. We saw the cash flow – and it’s a direct output of your hard work,” Shah says.

Today, as Shah and his brother-turned-managing partner continue to build their family’s legacy alongside their father through a new franchise under Lightbridge Academy, the lessons learned have perhaps never been more valuable.

Carrying the legacy forward

Despite their father’s history of success, franchising wasn’t initially part of the plan for Shah or his brother.

“When we were kids, we obviously saw our parents put all this hard work into (franchising), and we lived and breathed Dunkin’ because that was kind of our bread and butter at the time. When I went to college, I wanted to become a banker – that was my big thing – and my brother wanted to go into accounting. To be really honest with you, we didn’t see ourselves doing this,” Shah says.

The turning point for the Shah brothers, though, came after watching their father work to grow his franchising efforts during a period of deliberate business expansion.

Overworked and inspired by the prospect of working for himself, as their father had for decades, Neel Shah decided to quit the corporate consulting position he’d been working in for nearly four years.

“My dad was on an expansion phase and we really saw the hard work he was putting in. (Neel Shah) was like, ‘You know what? I think it’s time for me to leave. If I’m going to put in these hours, I’m gonna put it in for myself, put it into the family business and carry the legacy forward,” Shah recalls.

At the same time, Shah also found himself restricted by the corporate world after spending two years in asset management, working in private markets for a large firm.

“I’m a firm believer in working smart – and also working hard, but working smarter over working harder. I think I just was so constrained by the red tape that I was like, ‘You know what? We have a platform, let’s run with it,” Shah recalls.

Finding the right fit

Like any startup, finding the right industry is everything when it comes to buying a franchise. The same goes for finding the right franchisor – something Shah says he found in Lightbridge Academy, the early education and daycare system the family ultimately decided to buy into as franchisees in 2019.

As a first-time franchisee of Lightbridge Academy with a location under construction in Bayonne, New Jersey that is expected to open in mid-2022, Shah says the experience so far has been “amazing.”

In addition to being a homegrown New Jersey-based business “on the cusp of taking off,” Lightbridge Academy’s corporate team worked to foster a strong, reliable relationship with the Shahs throughout the validation process – something Shah says played a major role in their decision to buy a franchise from the company.

“They’re on that level of personal interaction, which was big for us. If I were to call up Guy (Falzarano), he’s gonna answer the phone. If I called Dave or anyone else in the family, they’re gonna pick up the phone right away. They have that personal touch which, as someone in the franchise world, that’s a big, big, big plus for us,” Shah says.

Beyond Lightbridge Academy’s focus on developing supportive relationships with its franchisees, Shah’s family history within the care industry also played a role in the decision to invest in the brand’s system. 

After watching his grandmother battle Alzheimer’s disease as a child, Shah remembers his father committing to doing more to help seniors and their families in similar positions. Shah’s family eventually opened an adult daycare center in New Jersey – something Shah immediately connected to the work Lightbridge Academy was doing for children and their families.

“We saw how that operationally worked – it was a successful business. And we decided, you know what, why don’t we cater to someone from the start all the way through to seniors?” Shah says, noting that childcare services are more needed than ever in a time when both parents are often busy developing their careers.

“In terms of specifically what Lightbridge offered that made me turn on to their concept is, for child care, specifically their curriculum. The curriculum was big for us,” Shah recalls, noting that the “whole child” model offered by Lightbridge Academy was a perfect fit for the target demographic and income area of the Bayonne area.

Still, Shah cautions that finding the right fit in a franchise system goes beyond making sure the franchisor and industry are a good match. He advises new franchisees to look for brands in industries that match their capabilities and brands that are “picky in a good way” – that is, brands that evaluate the fit of their franchisees just as much as the franchisee evaluates the brand.

Shah also advises prospective franchisees to take their budget and financial goals into consideration before making any purchases, taking care not to overextend their budget on investing in the franchise.

“There’s a financial aspect of it – can you take on the cost of building out the physical unit? Do you have what it takes in terms of going back to hard work? Because, you know, franchises can be softer on business, but we believe in being the hands-on owner. Your success is a direct result of that. Are you going to be there every day? Are you going to make your people happy?” Shah says.

Doing due diligence

Making sure a franchisor is a good fit for your goals is also about keeping an eye out for red flags and avoiding common mistakes. An important thing for prospective franchisees to be cautious of, according to Shah, is a brand that seems to be growing too fast.

“A lot of times, you’ll find brands who look for the number of units versus the number of franchisees. And I think that’s huge. I’m a believer in less franchisees, more units. It’s easier to handle five people versus 15 and 1000 units, or five people with 1000 units …” Shah says. “If you want to push a successful product out, it’s easier to do with less people.”

Even as a seasoned industry professional, Shah says a key part of protecting yourself as a new franchisee is doing due diligence and taking time to make sure you’re franchising the right way.

“As many brands as we’re proud of, we still go through that process as if it’s our first one. It takes us about a year and a half until the (construction) shovels are going in – and that’s from signing your franchise agreement all the way until it actually opens. Before that, it’s another probably three or four months of us doing our own due diligence internally, evaluating between different brands, numbers, financials, whatever it may be,” Shah says.

Despite the Shahs’ extensive experience in the franchising world, doing that due diligence hasn’t gotten easier – and prospective franchisees need to expect to put in the hours to make sure they’re making a wise investment.

“Even with all these brands under our belt, it’s still tough. It’s still tough. Again, this goes back to (the idea of) slowing it down a little bit. (You’ll get) a lot further versus going 1,000 miles per hour,” Shah says.

Operating toward success

For the Shah brothers, who grew up with an understanding of the benefits offered by the franchising model, the decision to buy a franchise was a no-brainer when it came to pursuing business ownership.

“I’m a firm believer in, if something works, why not run with it? And I think that’s really the epitome of a franchise in general. Someone’s created this wheel for you. They’ve proven something – a concept – and they’re kind of giving it to you on a silver platter to operate,” Shah says.

From marketing and products to research and development, Shah says the key to success as a franchisee is having the ability to operate your franchise well under the terms of that proven model provided by the franchisor.

“That’s given to you as a franchise owner. As a business owner, your real job is now to take it and run with it – put it out in the market and just drive sales. It really essentially becomes operations. If you’re a good operator and you have your hand and foot in the door, and you’re there every day and you know what’s going on in your shop, your success level is going to go through the roof,” Shah says.

Beyond closely following the daily operations prescribed by your franchisor, Shah says franchising success also comes down to basic business concepts that sometimes get overlooked, like keeping your location clean and tidy, presenting yourself in a professional manner and choosing the right location for your business to operate in.

“Obviously, it goes back to the basics. Location, location, location, right? Pick the right location, and you have these basics – it’s in front of you, you’re bound for some type of success in the franchise world,” Shah says.

Planning for opportunity

As a successful multi-unit, multi-brand franchisee family, the Shahs understand the importance of planning for the future.

For their new journey with Lightbridge Academy, Shah says he’s excited about where the brand is headed. Impressed by the Lightbridge team’s ability to tap into markets in New Jersey that he hadn’t expected – including getting ahead of the curve on post-pandemic migration in the region – Shah says becoming a multi-unit franchisee is part of their five-year plan.

“I definitely see myself as a multi-unit (franchisee). I don’t like to put a specific number on it because, you know, I’ll go as far as I can as long as a brand works. So whether it be three, five, whatever it may be, we’ll keep running with it. As much as I can take on, you know – shoot for the stars, land on the moon,” Shah says.

Despite his years of experience in the industry, Shah hasn’t lost his faith in franchising – an industry he says holds a lot of potential for future franchisees.

“There’s a lot of money to be made. There’s a lot of opportunity,” Shah says. “If I had to give a little bit of advice to any new franchisee, just focus on one thing first before the next one, and I guarantee you it will start multiplying by itself. It will happen eventually as you learn the system. But definitely I think there’s a lot of opportunities to explore.”

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