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Marcia Mickle’s decision to open an Athlete’s Foot retail store with her husband, Fred, had nothing to do with athletic footwear. It was the business aspect. “For me it was really about what’s the return on our investment,” explains Mickle, 38, who also felt the franchise opportunity was something her community would benefit from. “At the time, we didn’t have any shoe stores where you could get real technical shoes or fashion gym shoes in our local area. So it was something that our community needed,” says Mickle. “It was something that the market could support and, frankly, it was something we had the money to get into.”

Even though the Mickles qualified for a Small Business Administration loan in December 2003, they had to use $300,000 of their personal savings to pay for The Athlete’s Foot fee, buy inventory, and pay bills. Mickle says she is thankful they had the money to fund the initial startup phase. The SBA, which is primarily a guarantor of loans made by banks and other private institutions, didn’t issue the check until September 2004, when the store opened in the newest shopping center in Elk Grove, California. “The store was open before we got our money from the SBA because they required us to have a certificate of occupancy,” says Mickle, who was frustrated by the SBA loan application process. “Well, you can’t have a certificate of occupancy unless the store is open. We are much better armed for the next loan that we go to get from them.”

The Athlete’s Foot is the largest franchisor of athletic footwear in the U.S. with 248 domestic units, 56 of them black-owned. Mickle says business is better than they could ever have imagined, and her location generated $95,000 in the first two and a half months it was open last year. “I have an operations manager from The Athlete’s Foot, sort of a mentor that is assigned to us. He is really big on what we call ‘Open to Buy,’ which is a spreadsheet that will help you predict how much money you actually have to spend in each category based on sales and projections.” Mickle projects that sales will reach $600,000 in 2005.

Mickle was well-suited to handle the operations and management responsibilities of the business, including hiring and firing staff workers. Those were skills she learned in her former position as a Procter & Gamble manufacturing plant manager. Before making the final purchase decision, the couple researched a number of franchise opportunities that appealed to them. Fred, 43, a Western region director at ACT (American College Testing), was the one who actually settled on The Athlete’s Foot. After launching the store, they faced their first major challenge. Fred, a major in the Marine Corps, was recalled to Iraq with a group of field grade officers at the end of last year. Despite the challenge of being separated by an 11-hour time difference, Mickle still relies on her husband’s marketing and advertising skills. “We were doing