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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 13, 2019 9 months ago

Former district manager brings leadership lessons to franchises

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Rich Epps owns seven Batteries Plus Bulbs stores in Sarasota, Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Largo and Tampa.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Before becoming a franchisee, Rich Epps worked at Lowe’s for 25 years.

He worked his way up at the home improvement retailer, serving as district manager in two different districts. Most recently, Epps led a district that encompassed 14 stores from Bradenton to Naples for over 10 years. The district had $750 million in annual sales, with most stores coming in at about $60 million. “We had sales and profit budgets, and my job was to help the stores meet and exceed those budgets,” Epps says.

Now he’s shifting gears, becoming a Batteries Plus Bulbs franchise owner. He plans to charge up the seven stores he owns in Sarasota, Bradenton, Lakewood Ranch, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Largo and Tampa. He’s also looking for an eighth location somewhere between Parrish and Sun City Center. To bring more success to the stores, he’s harnessing his Lowe’s experience, executing a thoughtful transition plan and putting an emphasis on helping his employees thrive.

“I did all of the things my employees did because I felt like I needed to do them first. I couldn’t be effective helping them if I didn’t know what they did on a day-to-day basis.” — Rich Epps, franchisee, Batteries Plus Bulbs

When he was at Lowe’s, Epps traveled to the stores in his district with his district team. He remains a hands-on owner with Batteries Plus Bulbs. He wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m., heading to the gym and arriving at one of his stores by 7 a.m. “Many times it seems like franchise owners are more separated from the business and let other people run it,” he says. “I wasn’t going to hire anyone to do it when I can do it myself.”

Epps purchased the first two stores from the previous owner, Steve Cooper, in April 2018 and five more stores in June. (Epps declines to disclose the purchase prices.) For the next year, Cooper will work for Epps as a consultant. That will help Epps transition into the role of owner and retain Cooper’s experience, Epps says.

Early on, Cooper introduced Epps to the team at each store, a key step in the transition. “We announced it to everybody, drove to each store together and met the teams face to face,” Epps says.

Another key part of the transition was making a personal connection. Epps gave a typed-up letter about his career, values and family to each associate. In some cases, his wife came and met the teams with him. “We personally handed that to each associate, shook their hand and welcomed them into our family,” Epps says.

He then started learning the operations of the business, from receiving products to bookkeeping. He also worked the floor of his stores, helping customers. “I did all of the things my employees did because I felt like I needed to do them first,” he says. “I couldn’t be effective helping them if I didn’t know what they did on a day-to-day basis.”

Working alongside employees was another key. “It allowed me to discover some barriers to their success that we were able to identify early on and try to tear down those barriers.” The goal? Help his employees work smarter, not harder. “I know happy employees equal happy customers.”

Behind Epps’ philosophy is the No. 1 lesson he learned at Lowe’s: it’s all about employees — getting the right people in each position, supporting them and helping them succeed. “They’re the ones who make sales happen,” Epps says. “At the end of the day, I’m not putting any money in the registers, it’s all them. Leaders should understand you work for the people. They don’t work for you.”

The biggest challenge Epps expects to face is related — hiring. He uses online job boards and encourages employees to refer friends and family. “You get some of your best employees from your current employees,” he says. “I think that does more for us than anything in Indeed or Monster.”

Epps also recruits on his own. He thinks the best employees usually already have jobs — and employers who don’t want to let them go. When he visits competitors, he keeps an eye out for who is providing good customer service.

Good service is crucial for Epps’ Batteries Plus Bulbs stores. One of the chain’s differentiators is employees will install products bought at the store, from car batteries to wiper blades. The personal assistance helps the brand compete with Amazon and other online retailers. “We’re able to give that one-on-one service when a customer comes in our store,” Epps says. “It’s very different than what you would get in a big-box store. That’s what separates us.”

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