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Friends and fellow entrepreneurs Marc Soudijn and Haitham Charles initially considered a World of Beer bar when they decided to buy a franchise together.

But selling suds will have to wait.

Instead, the pair, with two other partners, invested in a decidedly more unique franchise opportunity: LED lights. The lights, which stand for light-emitting diodes, use less energy and last longer than traditional lights, according to the industry.

Soudijn and Charles are now chief sales officer and chief operating officer, respectively, of an LED Source franchise operation. Their territory stretches from Tarpon Springs in Pinellas County south to Collier County.

LED Source, with a corporate headquarters in Wellington, sells high-end LED lights and lighting products to businesses. The focus is on finding entities that burn a lot of lights for long periods of the day, which could be anything from police stations to factories, and hospitals to car dealerships.

Founded by two lighting industry executives in 2005, the idea is to capitalize on the LED industry before it matures.

Still, the four businessmen behind the Tampa-based LED Source franchise realize the LED lighting industry has so far been powered more by hype than actual sales.

“It's a new technology, so it will take time for people to realize this is the way to go,” says the Britain-born Charles. “There is a certain amount of risk involved because we are getting in early.”

Adds Soudijn, a native of Holland: “I was hooked from the beginning. It's a very lucrative and up-and-coming industry.”

Tampa franchise attorney Scott Weber and Larry Golden, who runs a sales consulting firm, have joined Charles and Soudijn in LED Source. Charles' other business is a construction labor placement firm in Sarasota, while Soudijn runs a citrus distribution company.

Weber, who represented a co-founder of LED Source in legal matters, says the business is the answer to the question he hears the most: What's his favorite franchise?

“I've evaluated numerous franchise models and have worked with countless sellers of franchise systems,” says Weber, now the CEO of the Gulf Coast LED Source franchise. “This is one of the most compelling economic models I've seen in my career.”

The partners invested a combined $250,000 on the franchise, which is run out of an office near downtown Tampa. They plan to expand quickly. They hope to open a sales center in St. Petersburg by the end of 2012, and be in the Sarasota-Bradenton region sometime next year. The Fort Myers-Naples area is also on the target list.

The Tampa office opened in March. Charles projects it will surpass $3 million in sales by the end of its first fiscal year. The prospects the company will aim for, meanwhile, will be high volume. “If you can demonstrate to a multi-unit chain restaurant operation that LED lighting is the way to go,” Weber says, “you've already secured hundreds of customers in some cases.”

Nonetheless, the partners collectively realize that educating potential clients is their No. 1 hurdle. “The hardest challenge is telling someone who has been doing something for 40 years that there is a better way,” Golden says. “(But) this just really makes sense for business owners. The more hours they use lights, the more they need us.”


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