Leadership ProfileMay/June 2023Previous Issues

College Pro: From Painter to Pro Franchisor

Tony Valle has grown with the College Pro brand, starting as a young franchisee and culminating in his current role as CEO

by Roma Ihnatowycz

When he was still a young boy, Tony Valle was already showing his true colours as a budding entrepreneur. At nine, he started helping his sister with her paper delivery route. Two years later, he took it over and started running it like a small business, outsourcing some of the work to schoolmates. It was his first taste of business ownership, and he was hooked.

“I figured I could do the route for a lot less work than she did,” says Valle, now the CEO of College Pro and a managing partner at Clear Summit Group, a multi-brand accelerator for franchisors. “I would persuade people to help me—either for free or I would pay them a bit, and I figured out how to get the same amount of work done in much less time!”

Not long after, as a young university student, Valle took his business aspirations even further. He signed a one-year franchise contract with College Pro, which provides painting services. It was a decision that would have a profound impact on his career, yet one that initially left his Italian immigrant parents puzzled and scratching their heads. Many Italian immigrants, after all, started their new life in Canada working in construction, with the hope that their children wouldn’t have to.

“My father said, ‘Let me get this straight. Our whole family came over and many had to do construction jobs, and we pushed you to get an education so that you can … get a construction job?’” says Valle with a laugh.

At the time, College Pro was a successful franchise brand with a unique business model that lived up to its name. University students were awarded one-year contracts, giving them an opportunity to learn skills, run a business, and earn an income while still in school. There was no start-up fee; instead, the franchisor received higher royalties. For a 19-year-old keen to be his own boss, it was an enticing proposition. Certainly, it was far better than the part-time job Valle held the previous summer, making pool parts in a factory.

“The first year was an incredible challenge and my results were below average at the time, but I learned, and the following three years were incredibly successful,” recalls Valle, who renewed his contract throughout his undergrad economics studies at Western University in London, Ontario. “So much so that I then became a general manager with the company to help other franchisees learn, grow, and profit. And that was the beginning of it.”

Strong association

The “it” Valle is referring to is a lifelong trajectory that saw him working for College Pro, or its parent company, at different points in his life, with talented peers, mentors, and coaches. “I’ve essentially grown with the company, and lived the purpose of the company, which is together, realizing potential” he says of his lengthy association with the brand.

Valle wasn’t always working for the franchise, however. After working as a College Pro general manager in his mid-20s, he went on to do an MBA at Ivey Business School and then took on a marketing job at an insurance-based investment management company. He spent just enough time with the firm to realize that he wasn’t “meant to be a marketing director for an investment management company,” he says.

Valle returned to College Pro in what he calls the “second leg of his tour of duty,” this time as its vice president for Ontario. College Pro had been purchased by FirstService in 1989, and they had created The Franchise Company (now FirstService Brands). The return provided Valle with an added opportunity: not only did he get to work with trusted partners, but he was also able to buy equity in the company. Taking on increasingly senior executive roles inside the parent company, Valle felt a calling to return to College Pro and became CEO, North America, a position he went on to hold for over a decade. Under his leadership, the brand continued the summer tradition of working with students to realize their potential through business ownership and started up more than 6,000 units across North America.

Valle eventually left the company, only to return to the brand two years later when an irresistible opportunity came up to buy College Pro’s window cleaning business. He jumped at the chance, partnering with Clear Summit Group to complete the acquisition. The young student who once owned a College Pro franchise now owned the College Pro brand.

At this stage, the brand was focusing on window cleaning rather than painting—a calculated move. Window, gutter, siding, driveway, and deck cleaning is an annual repeat business. The same can’t be said for painting.

“Window cleaning, for someone new in business, is repeat referral, and easier to learn,” says Valle. “Over four decades, I saw that window cleaning, and cleaning services, were on an uptick and painting was on a downward trend in terms of young people interested in running the business. People always need to get their windows washed.”

New direction

The purchase was completed in 2019, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold, and the initial stretch was all about “keeping the trains running,” says Valle. Soon, however, the College Pro team got to work making a monumental change to the brand’s entrenched business model. They decided to open franchising opportunities to non-students, with longer contracts and a start-up fee. This marked a huge leap from the one-year option that had been the company’s flagship offering since it first launched in the early ‘70s, and reflected a changing demographic trend they had observed over the last 20 years.

“We’ve made a number of changes to modernize the business, including digitizing the process, but a major one is that we’ve gone from offering a one-year student/youth option to offering multi-year, non-student options, as well,” comments Valle. He says the move came from a desire to stretch the investment and development further, and have a longer-term relationship with franchisees. The needs and desires of students had changed, and it was really a desire to move away from the seasonality and add more local permanence to the brand. There’s also a lot of training and recruiting involved in the turnover of one-year contracts.

Opening the franchise to a larger market demographic is also helping College Pro extend its reach across Canada, and plans are already in place to move the brand into the U.S. in 2024. The company is actively looking for franchisees with ambition, drive, desire, and a strong work ethic, who crave an unmatched culture of collaboration and success. Everything else, says Valle, College Pro can teach: “We are a learning organization and are really good at helping franchisees learn how to be professional business owners. I would venture to say, we are world-class.”

For decades, the brand has been taking young people with little to no business experience and helping them to become successful business owners, regardless of the generation—something Valle calls the company’s “secret sauce.” He points to his own example: he feels the business lessons he learned as a young College Pro franchisee, along with incredible coaching and mentorship, account for much of his own professional success over the years. And right now, he notes, early-stage franchisees and youth want that, too.

“We teach leadership systems, time management systems, and more… and if I hadn’t learned these systems when I was young, I don’t know if I could have gone on to do a lot of things I’ve done in my life,” Valle says.

The foundational College Pro approach continues to be relevant and forward-looking into 2023. It provided Valle with the tools and environment he needed as a teen to channel his energy into something constructive, adaptable, and bankable. The brand gave him—and so many others like him—the foundation upon which to build an incredibly successful career that could succeed in changing circumstances, culminating in his successful purchase of the brand with Clear Summit Group.

So while his parents may have balked at his original decision to buy a College Pro franchise, it ultimately proved the wisest move Valle could have made, and has provided a lifetime of challenge and meaning. Certainly, he’s never looked back.