Q&A with David Harshfield, who owns two Batteries Plus Bulbs stores in California. He’s excelling and has advice to share.

Before joining Batteries Plus Bulbs as a franchisee, David Harshfield was a salesman for technology, internet and telecommunications companies. If life had played out differently, he might have retired from the corporate world. Instead, a series of mergers and acquisitions left him periodically scrambling for work. He started his first Batteries Plus Bulbs store in May 2015, and opened a second location about a year ago. “I control my own destiny,” he says. He’s also enjoying strong results, he says, thanks to the managerial skills he developed in the corporate world and strong support from Batteries Plus Bulbs and fellow franchisees. He recently shared what he’s learned about the company, and offered some advice to franchise candidates about the best way to set themselves up to win.

Why did you decide to leave the corporate world?

It was always a shuffle of finding a new job that would last 2-3 years before the next acquisition, and when you have less hair and it’s more gray, it gets harder to even get job interviews.

It took me six months to find my last job, and I was making 20% less, traveling more, and I just got tired of the constant revolving door and the way the corporate world works. I had no control, and I felt like some of these senior managers would make decisions that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with.

Too many people can relate to that experience. How did you decide that owning a franchise was your best path forward?

First of all, it’s not that I’m not a smart guy, but I didn’t want to have to reinvent the wheel on a lot of things. My corporate knowledge gave me enough understanding of how to run things, but I wanted to have a strong business model already in place.

How did you choose Batteries Plus Bulbs?

I looked at several businesses, especially hair cutting places and automotive franchises, before settling on batteries as a strong opportunity. I visited a Batteries Plus Bulbs store in Sacramento, where I lived at the time, and I was just kind of blown away. I couldn’t believe how cool the products were. The place was busy and there was a lot going on. It was very clean and everybody was very friendly. I liked the way they were treating the customers. I just thought, “Wow, this is pretty cool. I really like this. I could see myself doing this.”

I discovered a whole new world out there with the batteries. There are a lot of batteries used in industry opens in new window and in the corporate world — everything from batteries that go into uninterrupted power supplies that I’d never seen before to the battery pack for a cordless drill, which we can rebuild when they wear out.

As you were really starting to study the opportunity, what did you learn about Batteries Plus Bulbs that made you think, “This isn’t just interesting. This is a solid business opportunity.”

Well, like I said, I looked at hair cutting franchises first. I have a very good friend who started a barbershop business and was franchising. He’s done pretty well with it and I was tempted to invest in it, but I just felt like, “Boy, if an employee didn’t show up, how would I cut the hair?” And, back when I had hair, I never knew if my experience was going to be great, good or very poor. I just couldn’t get my arms around it. As I looked for other business models with really steady demand, I discovered batteries.

When I discovered Batteries Plus Bulbs, there was a lot of critical mass. At the time there were about 600 stores. When I dug in to start understanding the company culture, their Midwestern roots were very important to me for a lot of reasons. One, the people who were on the corporate team had been there for a long time. They weren’t just hopping around. You weren’t talking to a room full of newly minted MBAs that thought they knew everything. These were people that had been there for 20 years and knew how things worked. They were also modest. The facilities were more modest, and to me, that translated into spending less money. When they visited me, they would drive a modest car and stay at a regular hotel. They weren’t trying to blow their budget on all these crazy expensive ideas and things. Instead, they had a vision of, “Let’s get this done. Let’s have long-term viability,” and that’s really what I wanted, something to take me through my retirement.

So, it sounds like your major goals were, “Let me build something that’s going to be financially stable, that gets me off this corporate merry-go-round, and that also allows me to build a retirement asset.” Would that be a fair characterization?

Oh, yeah, without a doubt, and if it works right, and it seems to be right now, it could be a legacy for someone to inherit down the road — a nephew or an employee. I’m in my mid-50s now, and I know I’ll have to work another 10-15 years, and this is the kind of business that I know will be here for a while, and that’s kind of exciting.

Are you hitting your goals so far?

Yeah, I mean, I’m three-and-a-half years into it with one store in Temecula, CA, the other store in Palm Desert, CA, is just about a year old, and I’m real happy. The one store’s doing exceptionally well. It’s always done really, really high performance in its age group. If it’s not number one or two, it’s always in the top 10%.

That’s great. What do you think makes it a Top 10% store?

Well, I drive hard. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why. It’s not just because I picked a good location. The first thing I did before I even made my decision to become a franchisee was talk to a lot of owners. I had gotten laid off and I told my wife, “This is it. I’m done. I’m doing this business. I don’t know which one yet, but I think I know,” and I talked to 10 owners on the phone for a long time – maybe an hour or more each – and then visited a couple of stores, and visited corporate. Then it was wheels on the ground, going as fast as I could. I had a good idea of the differences between the most successful versus the less successful franchisees, the ones I wanted to emulate, and it then it was a matter of being patient to pick a good location.

You also don’t take second best with employees. You run the store, and you train them to run it right. After I signed my franchise agreement, when the training came, I paid attention. I asked questions. I did every test. I made sure that I got good grades, all that kind of stuff. In the beginning, I just did what they told me to do, but at the end of the day, you control your destiny. They’re going to help you, but use your own common sense.

The other thing that has helped me is hanging out with top performers. You learn what their magic formulas are, what their success factors area and see how they look at challenges. They give valuable feedback: “Oh, that’s no big deal, just keep going,” or, “Oh my God, this is terrible.” Then, you know when to panic or not. It makes a huge difference because now I have a lot of confidence in how I’m doing things, adding certain products, or trying something a little different because these mentors help.

What do you think makes Batteries Plus Bulbs stand out?

Well, on a very simplistic level, a lot of the things we sell are too heavy to ship or too awkward, which makes it hard for online retailers to compete. So that’s one advantage, but the differentiator for us is the service we provide. It’s how you greet the customer and how you talk to them. You want to educate them and find out what their pain points are and what they need and ask them more questions.

It’s not just, “Okay, I sold you this pack of AA batteries.” Instead, you ask, “What do those go into, by the way?” “Oh, a flashlight.” “What are you using it for? Oh my gosh, well, have you thought about this and that?”

Technology is central to people’s lives and there’s often some part of it that frustrates them. They can’t figure out how a phone works, or their outside lighting isn’t adequate, or they can’t find a replacement battery, or their radio isn’t working right. They know to come here because we’ll fix it for them. We’ll figure it out, and they’re really grateful. I hear people all the time say, “This is my favorite store.” And that is really gratifying to hear.

What do you like about owning the business?

Well, I like that it’s mine, and what I really like about it now, especially after a couple years under my belt, is that for the most part it runs pretty well if I am away for a while. We went on a big 10-day vacation to Italy, and they only had to call me once for a minor issue.

And the income is good. And it’s interesting work. I just can’t imagine running a place where you make sandwiches all day. How horrible would that be? “What do you do?” “Oh, we just put mayonnaise on bread and some meat and there you go.” This is an adventure every day. It’s a lot of fun.

The money aspect is obviously important. One reasonable question new business owners always ask is “how long will it take me to break even?” Can you share your experience?

When I opened my first store, we were cash-flow positive very quickly. My second store was cash-flow positive even faster, but then slowed down through the summer. It’s a much more seasonal location for retail.

I think smart people, before they get in, try and evaluate those numbers as best they can by talking to existing franchisees. Getting cash-flow positive does require patience, but it’s the kind of business that has a lot of staying power, and once you reach that certain dollar point, you’re going to stay there. You’re going to grow as the name gets out there and you do more commercial business.

What does the corporate team do to help you succeed?

When I was looking at the business, a good friend of mine, a finance guy, said, “Why are you going to do that? Just go call a couple battery companies and set up an account and start selling batteries,” and that’s really funny — and he was serious — but when you’re in this business and you see the complexity of the relationships, the supply chain and the whole distribution channel … I’m telling you, nobody has a distribution channel or the support like we have. You couldn’t do it on your own. This evolved over 20-some years into what it is, and every year, it just gets stronger and better.

There are some hiccups in it, but you couldn’t walk in and do this tomorrow. Even Amazon would take a lot of effort to try and replicate what we do. They couldn’t. They would be way behind.

Do you have any parting advice for franchise candidates?

Ask lots of questions. You’re going to be so much happier when you’ve answered your questions upfront and you’re not surprised. People are open, so it’ll be a really good experience. If you’re in California, come visit me, spend a half a day or a full day if you want. I don’t have a problem with it. I’m eager to have more great people who are as passionate and excited as I am, because it means we’re all going to be better and stronger.

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