How four female business leaders built success through franchising
by Kym Wolfe
Less than 20 per cent of small businesses in Canada are owned by women, but that number is slowly but steadily growing each year. Franchise Canada interviewed four successful female entrepreneurs about their experiences owning and operating franchises in different sectors and across different cities in Canada. While their journeys have been different, all agree that the corporate tools and resources, established systems, brand recognition, and ongoing support that come with franchise ownership have been invaluable. They get to run their own show, knowing someone always has their back.
Sarah Douglas, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada
Sarah Douglas entered the McDonald’s Canada franchise system in 2009, when her youngest daughter was still an infant. Since then, she’s nurtured her family and her business in tandem. Juggling those competing responsibilities has been the most challenging part of being a mother and a business owner, she says. “I’m still working in the restaurants every day, but once I had my team in place, it allowed me the flexibility to work my schedule around my family. Truly a gift!”
Previously the human resources director for an armoured car company, Douglas had also owned and operated two different small businesses. “I thought about starting another business, but I knew how hard and time consuming it is to start from scratch. The concept of becoming a franchisee appealed to me as I could buy an existing business and utilize my business and entrepreneurial skills to make it my own,” she explains. “I love that I have this big company backing me, helping me, that wants to ensure my success.”
In her first year, Douglas immersed herself in the McDonald’s training program full time. “The training is a long process, but it’s outstanding,” she says. “You are taught everything you will need to know to ensure you are set up for success from day one.”
Douglas has four McDonald’s franchises, all in the Greater Toronto Area. Given the opportunity, she plans to purchase additional locations. Most opportunities arise from retirements, but there are also new locations available every year. “McDonald’s is very careful about where they open,” she says. “They are very conscientious about not impacting existing franchise locations.”
Douglas loves the McDonald’s culture, which focuses on people, a positive work environment, and giving back to the community, particularly through Ronald McDonald House Charities. “In my restaurants, staff retention isn’t a main issue: we like to have fun, and we show our workers that we appreciate them for what they do every day,” says Douglas.
As for being a female franchise owner? “When I first started, there were only a handful of female franchisees. Our numbers have grown, and I’m thrilled that the current president & CEO of McDonald’s Canada is a woman.”
Debbie Reed, Driverseat
Debbie Reed has a background in transportation, starting as an AZ truck driver, then working in logistics for a trucking company, and later in HR recruiting for the trucking industry. It’s not surprising that when she reached retirement, she opted to purchase a Driverseat franchise, which offers passenger transportation services like charters and tours, wedding shuttles, private airport charters, and Care+ for the vulnerable sector.
“My partner and I were not ready to fully retire, but we didn’t want to build another business on our own. We looked at franchise systems where we would have the support and tools needed to begin and run a successful business, and we wanted to stay in transportation and logistics,” Reed explains. “We have many years of experience in building customer relationships, and we’re good at that, but we also wanted a business that offered good work-life balance, that we could run from home, and could have some fun with. Driverseat has a great support system, training programs, and technology that got us off the ground quickly.”
One thing that drew Reed to Driverseat was the ability to manage her capital expenditure by growing her fleet of vehicles as demand for the service increased. Every Driverseat territory is different, and franchisees can purpose-build their fleets—from minivans to larger shuttle buses—to meet the needs they’ve identified in their own communities.
The franchise is very flexible and open to new ideas, says Reed. “When we started in 2020, we were mainly focused on the designated driver service. Because of my own personal experience with my parents, I test-piloted services for seniors. We have provided the Niagara region with a great alternative and filled a real need to help seniors and other vulnerable populations get to appointments or wherever they need to go safely and at a reasonable cost.” Now Reed is expanding her fleet to cater to clients of Niagara’s wedding and wine industries.
Being a female franchisee owner in a male-dominated sector sees her breaking ground, as well. “I believe I’m one of the first Driverseat franchises solely owned by a woman. This is way less challenging than when I got my AZ license and became a truck driver, and later moved into management. Both were very rare for a woman at that time, in a male dominated industry, and it was very difficult. But I’m a strong independent woman and I didn’t let anything stop me!”
Kenny Adewoyin, Just Like Family Home Care
Kenny Adewoyin has a varied work and educational background, including stints in journalism, public relations, marketing, supply chain management, and immigration consulting. After immigrating to Winnipeg from Nigeria, she worked as a support worker, caring for seniors and people with disabilities and mental health issues, and in international student recruitment for post-secondary schools in Manitoba.
“Work was going smoothly until COVID-19 struck,” says Adewoyin. When business came to an abrupt standstill, it was her husband who suggested she consider buying a franchise. Her experience in client services, her business and marketing skills, and her interest in working with seniors and vulnerable people led her to Just Like Family Home Care, and she purchased the Manitoba franchise in June 2020.
“Just Like Family had an established name, systems in place, and provided guidance, even attending meetings with me at nursing homes and other institutions when I was starting out,” says Adewoyin. She
This is a 24/7 business, and Adewoyin has 60 to 70 caregivers to schedule and deploy. To maintain Just Like Family’s reputation as one of Winnipeg’s top homecare companies, Adewoyin steps in to cover when there’s a last-minute need. “Hiring licensed and certified staff has been so hard,” she says.
As a franchise, Just Like Family has developed strategies and tools for recruitment, and worked with Adewoyin to advertise jobs. That’s one of the benefits of being in a franchise system, she says. “There’s a group of people there to back you up.” As for being a female franchise owner? “All of my challenges would be the same, no matter my gender or origin. Canada is a land of unlimited opportunities, and people from all diverse backgrounds who have the zeal to run a business should go for it. Your interest must be very high so that when challenges come, you will not back down.”
Catherine Zhang, Wendy’s Restaurants of Canada
Catherine Zhang didn’t really expect to one day take over her family’s Wendy’s franchise in Edmonton, Alberta, but after 20 years, she can’t envision doing anything else.
Her father, Kevin Zhang, was intrigued by the concept of franchising as a university student in China, and after moving his family to Canada in 1999, he chose to purchase a Wendy’s franchise. He was impressed by the freshness of the burgers, knowing that the beef is never frozen, and by the warm welcome he received from the franchise, despite his limited English and need for a translator.
Catherine worked part-time in the restaurant, and had plans to pursue an MBA after completing a bachelor of commerce degree. However, the family needed her to work in the business, she says, so she stayed. Now she is the franchise owner, and has two children herself. One is in high school and works part-time in the restaurant like his mom did, and her younger son likely will too, but Zhang says there’s no pressure for either to make this their life’s work.
“I’m a small business owner, and I get to enjoy the benefit of being a large, national brand,” Zhang says. “Our small family is part of the big Wendy’s family, and Wendy’s is very franchisee oriented. From development to design, from operations to training, from marketing campaigns to new product development, every aspect of the business is handled by professionals who specialize in their areas.”
Many of her managers are alumni from the university she attended, and many have been with Zhang’s team for more than a decade. “We have been able to celebrate the good moments, and maneuver through the tough times such as labour shortages, recession, and a global pandemic,” says Zhang.
Zhang finds the biggest challenge she faces as a female franchise owner is finding time to do everything, as she wears multiple hats. “Between being a mother, a daughter, and a business owner, a well-balanced life is easier said than done. I have an extremely supportive husband and a well-rounded management team. I try to carry positivity and optimism. Most important is your attitude towards life.”