Joe Ferguson driving Cousins Subs brand growth throughout the fast-casual sandwich industry
Joe Ferguson bleeds red and white. Following his undergraduate days at the University of Wisconsin, Ferguson stayed true to his Wisconsin roots and joined Wisconsin-based Cousins Subs. In Ferguson’s 10 plus years with the brand, he has demonstrated what it takes be a leader in the franchise industry. As the vice president of Development for Cousins Subs, Ferguson leads the franchise and corporate growth initiatives in order for Cousins Subs to create the best sandwich franchise in the country. Ferguson oversees more than 100 Cousins Subs locations throughout Wisconsin and Arizona along with a recent agreement to bring 40 units to the Chicagoland area.
How did you first get involved with the franchising industry?
After graduating with a degree in Finance and Real Estate from the University of Wisconsin (Go Badgers!), I started working for Cousins Subs as a real estate manager. Part of my responsibilities included working with franchisees on finding and securing potential restaurant locations. After approximately five years working in franchising, I pursued a career in real estate with a Fortune 100 company where I focused on building offices and securing the real estate. Ten years ago, I realized that working for a family-run business was a better fit, and I returned to Cousins Subs as director of real estate. Shortly thereafter, I was promoted to my current role as vice president of development in which I manage franchise sales, real estate and construction processes. Working with franchisees for almost 15 years has provided a lot of insight into the franchisor/franchisee relationship and I enjoy working with new entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses.
What do you love about the industry?
I really love the entrepreneurial spirit that franchising creates. Some new and many existing business owners are looking for their next venture and our team helps them build it. We find that when working with new franchise candidates, they are seeking franchises with proven systems that they relate to or have a passion for, and we help guide them and expand within our system. At the end of the day, when a franchisee opens their second, third, or fourth location, I feel a sense of pride and excitement seeing first-hand how that franchisee has grown their business and become a success in the community where they operate.
What do you wish you could change in franchising?
Just like any other business, and not just in franchising, I wish I could guarantee a 100 percent rate of success for anyone that wants to buy a new business. While I believe that the franchising process reduces the amount of risk for a new business owner, it still comes down to each owner’s ability to run a successful business. We have created a very stringent approval process here at Cousins and we even send our franchisees through a two-week in-store training program before they sign an agreement to ensure a complete understanding of what it takes to run a restaurant. Essentially, we want to be sure that it is the right fit for both the franchisee and franchisor so we take our time to ensure that everyone is comfortable moving forward.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since you started out in franchise development?
The biggest change I’ve witnessed is the number of competitors entering the restaurant segment, and more specifically the sandwich category. In 2001 when I first started in this industry, we would find ourselves competing with one or two other sandwich brands for space within a certain development. Now, we find ourselves not only competing against five or six other sandwich shops, but we also have to compete for real estate against many other fast-casual restaurants wanting to open in the same markets and buildings that we are targeting.
What makes a great franchisee?
At Cousins, great franchisees have a passion for serving others, enjoy giving back to the community, and embrace a family-like atmosphere. We believe in better through the continual improvement in everything we do, and that means we must find franchisees that truly take pride in serving quality food with guest-focused service. First and foremost, running a restaurant takes a lot of work and each franchisee has to love doing it. We also look for franchisees that embrace a family-like culture because Cousins is a family-owned and operated business. And, they must be willing to learn and grow with the brand. Many of our existing franchisees enjoy spending time with each other and learning from one another.
What’s the number one thing that sells franchises?
Word of mouth, referrals, and fans of the brand have always been the best sales tools for us at Cousins Subs. We talk with a lot of people that have moved to other states, and often they grew up eating our subs in Wisconsin or have a family member that owns a franchise. With more than 45 years in business, we have a lot of followers that grew up eating our subs and we look for those people in new markets.