A Woman on a Mission

“She’s probably the most focused person that I’ve ever met when it comes to doing very difficult things,” he said. “She’s really dedicated to helping the underdog, whether they are franchisees or women or minorities…and leveling the playing field against big companies,” he said.

Franchise Times
February 1, 2000

A Woman on a Mission
Susan Kezios fights for rights of franchisees
Kristine McKenzie


American Franchisee Association President Susan Kezios is a woman who clearly relishes her role as an advocate for franchisees and for women and minorities in the franchising business.

Kezios speaks her mind and doesn’t let anything stand in her way when fighting for what she believes in.

“I’m probably a social worker at heart,” Kezios said. “I’m an advocate and I’m definitely an activist.”

Although not everyone in the franchise world agrees with what Kezios says and does, she has no regrets.

“Unfortunately, ‘advocate,’ ‘activist’ and ‘social worker’ are considered dirty words by some people, but there’s got to be someone out there on the fringes pushing the envelope,” she said. “My goal is to right an injustice.”

Steve Coan, managing director of Paladin Group, Ltd., a strategic brand company that helps start businesses in new areas, met Kezios in the mid-80s when his company was representing Mail Boxes Etc. and the two became friends.

“She’s probably the most focused person that I’ve ever met when it comes to doing very difficult things,” he said. “She’s really dedicated to helping the underdog, whether they are franchisees or women or minorities…and leveling the playing field against big companies,” he said.

Kezios has taken a big step toward her goals recently. The Small Business Franchise Act was re-introduced in the U.S. House by Congressmen Howard Coble (R-N.C.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) at the end of the last legislative session, partly due to dedicated lobbying by Kezios.

Since Kezios is one of the most passionate people working for franchisee rights today, one might assume that she studied business in school and maybe started out as a franchisee herself, but it may be surprising to find out that is not the case.

Kezios grew up in Chicago and attended Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where she got her degree in music education. She also attended graduate school at Ken State University in Kent, Ohio.

She studied piano and Koto – a six-foot-long Japanese instrument with 13 strings that the musician must kneel next to in order to play.

After college, Kezios taught public school music in Ohio. She also held jobs as a radio announcer and television weather reporter in Ohio. In 1981, she moved back to Illinois, where she again worked as a radio announcer.

“I was bored out of my mind,” Kezios said of her radio job. “I’d had various boyfriends who had told me I’d be great in sales and I should be doing business,” she said.

Kezios entered the business and franchising world in 1982 by taking a job as a business broker in a franchised business brokerage office called VR Business Brokers in Chicago Heights, Ill., eventually purchasing it.

In 1984, she was one of 12 VR franchisees who organized a group called the VR Franchisee Association -–a group that provided management training for themselves because, at the time, the franchisor was not doing it, according to Kezios.

In 1986, she was hired as vice president of marketing for the VR franchisor. She also worked as a corporate liaison to the International Franchise Association. It was while attending IFA conventions that Kezios became aware that the industry was overwhelmingly male. She also began to hear from franchisors that some of their best operators were women, but that they had difficulties finding qualified women franchisees.

Women’s ownership in franchising was completely undocumented by the government and in 1987, Kezios published the first study identifying the number of women-owned franchises. The interest was so great that later that year, Kezios started her own business, Women in Franchising (WIF).

WIF conducted and still conducts seminars for women on how to buy franchises. Due to requests from minority women, WIF’s seminars expanded to include minorities as well.

“Women in Franchising is known for pioneering franchise enterprise for women and minorities,” Kezios said.

In 1991, Kezios was asked to provide testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Small Business on how the offer and sale of franchise affected women and minorities as purchasers. She was asked to testify a second time that year about the problems women and minorities experienced as franchisees.

“I realized that what I was telling them about women and minorities was true of everyone who is a franchisee,” Kezios said.

“I remember going into the restroom in the Capitol building and a woman running in after me saying ‘Susan, it’s not just women’ (who deal with these issues),” Kezios said.

Those realizations helped prompt Kezios to form the American Franchisee Association (AFA) in 1993. It is now the largest trade association of independent owners of franchised businesses. The AFA represents both independent association and individual member franchisees – over 16,000 individuals who own over 30,000 franchised outlets.

The organization also advocates for and provides testimony in favor of positive franchise relationship legislation on the federal, state and local levels.

While Kezios is very dedicated to and focused on her business, she does make time to pursue other interests.

Kezios has been a runner for 20 years and has trained with Bill Leach, the men’s track coach from DePaul University, for about a year and a half. Kezios has run in races and has garnered a few trophies for her efforts.

“She’s a driven, intense lady,” Leach said. “Whatever she does, she wants to do it very well.”

She also turns to her musical background when it’s time for relaxation.

“That’s always something that’s very nurturing and nourishing to me,” she said.” “Business people are very left-brained and I’m still a very right-brained person.”

Kezios also meditates twice a day – a suggestion she took from her track coach…and if she ever finds the time for a vacation, “One of my passions is Hawaii – just going there and being there,” she said.

As for the future, Kezios said her biggest goal is to pass the federal franchisee legislation.

While the bill might be one of Kezios’ biggest accomplishments, it has also been the source of great controversy.

Many people in the franchise business are divided over whether the bill will help or whether it will just mean more unwelcome government involvement in business.

Kezios said she believes the bill has a good chance of passing.

“It’s fair – there’s nothing in Coble-Conyers that says one party is going to win at the expense of another party,” she said.

Arleen Goodman, who has been a franchisee for more than 20 years with Kampgrounds of America (KOA) and was elected president of KOA’s National Owners Association, disagreed. (The KOA Owners Association was one of the founding members of AFA, and later became a founding member of the IFA Franchisee Advisory Council.)

“I disagree that the problems in franchising need government intervention,” Goodman said. “I feel there are much better ways to address contractual concerns. Legislation is expensive, time-consuming and seldom accomplishes what you want it to do.”

While Goodman doesn’t think legislation is the answer, she does say that she believes Kezios has helped move the industry closer to where it needs to be. She also described Kezios as someone with a lot of passion for her cause.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had that kind of passion grow out of personal experience – I know she (Kezios) had some bad experiences – and it has made her a good messenger for this. I give her great credit for that passion and her energy – she’s extremely focused – but possibly to the point that she fails to see the alternatives and that is when it’s maybe not so good,” Goodman said.

Carl Zwisler, a franchise attorney with Jenkens and Gilchrist, Washington, D.C., met Kezios through the IFA and has known her since the mid-80s. He also believes that legislation is not the answer for franchising.

“It’s obvious that she (Kezios) has some members who have had some bad experiences – I’m sure they really believe that something needs to be done to correct it…but I don’t agree with the tactics they’re using,” he said. “It’s so one-sided that it’s frightening to franchisors – I hope that when Congress sees what it is and what it really means, they’ll drop it like a hot potato.”

Although an opponent of Kezios’ ideas, Zwisler still gives her credit for her dedication to her work.

“I think she really believes in whatever she’s trying to do,” he said.

Kezios doesn’t let anything the opposition says get to her and she said even if the legislation doesn’t pass, it won’t be the end of the world for her because of all the progress that has been made for franchisees.

“Just the mere fact that legislation is there has prompted changes…I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished and if it all stopped tomorrow, I’d still be happy.”

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