Macon man helps other entrepreneurs become business owners
Some entrepreneurs may take what they learned in college and during the early years of their careers to create and grow a successful business.
Macon native Stewart Vernon did that. But he took it to another level.
Vernon is using the knowledge and business model that helped him launch a successful career to help other entrepreneurs create their own businesses in their own hometowns across the country.
Vernon, 35, is the founder and CEO of Macon-based ASP Franchising Inc., which operates America’s Swimming Pool Co. The franchises provide pool cleaning, maintenance, supplies and equipment.
In 2010, five years after forming the franchising business, ASP Franchising was listed at No. 468 on Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 500 Franchise List. It was most recently ranked at No. 188 nationally.
“Solving a need has got to be the root of any entrepreneur’s spirit,” Vernon said. “You have got to identify a need that exists and then solve that need — and solve it better than the next guy. Solve it faster than the next guy. And that’s what we do today.”
Vernon became an entrepreneur when he was 15 years old. While attending Stratford Academy, he started a car detailing business. He enjoyed being self-employed because he realized it gave him the freedom to control his income.
While at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, he drove a rickshaw and at one point ran the business for the owner. But he turned back to the auto detailing business during the last two years of college.
“A lot of what I learned and a lot of what I still rely on are some of the lessons that were taught to me in an entrepreneur class,” Vernon said. He is now invited back to teach that class to other students.
By the time he graduated in 2002, Vernon discovered that the owner of a small pool maintenance and repair business in Macon was looking to retire. After working in the business a few months, Vernon bought it and changed the name to ASP Pool and Spa Co. He opened his business checking account with $500 he got for being named Entrepreneur of the Year from the College of Charleston.
He began offering to service pools and later opened a retail store.
Vernon’s first employee at that store, Matt Dayton, not only became a minority business partner after a couple of years but also later bought the Macon ASP franchise and continues to operate that business today.
In 2005, Vernon convinced his brother-in-law to open ASP of Clemson in South Carolina.
It was the first time he realized he could take the business model he had developed and teach it to other people in other locations.
With the help of a Boston consulting firm, Vernon set up the franchising business, and ASP Franchising Inc. was founded in 2005.
FRANCHISE BUSINESS TAKES OFF
By mid-2007, ASP Franchising had 12 franchise locations. Vernon was operating out of a rented 1,500-square-foot building on Lake Street in Macon.
Since then he’s bought that small building and six acres around it, expanded and built other structures to create a campus with about 9,000 square feet of office space, 13 miniature training pools and 16 offices. The campus is landscaped with trees, flowers and winding walkways.
Today, the company has 70 franchise owners operating 180 franchises in 20 states.
“So our franchise owners now come here for two weeks for pool school,” Vernon said. “The first half of the day is the how-to of pools, and the second half is the how-to of business. And we do that all here at this campus.”
ASP Franchising doesn’t seek out owners — they find ASP.
Potential franchise owners are actively looking to start their own business. They are usually looking for some home-sector, service-based business, Vernon said.
“A lot of our marketing effort is geared to be relevant to those searches,” he said. “When an owner is out there doing market research on starting a new business, we come up in a lot of our markets.”
And ASP franchise owners don’t need to know anything about swimming pools, he said. The company looks for business-minded people who want a service-based business, and men and women have become owners. ASP teaches what the owners need to operate the business, including how to service pool equipment.
“We are doing a lot of the things that they can’t do or don’t want to do, from marketing to websites to print material to data compilation,” Vernon said. “We look at all our franchise owners as a partner, a long-term partner.”
A franchise owner with a truck can be trained and “out the door with advertising for about $75,000,” he said. “That’s all the startup expenses.”
ASP has had only three franchise owners leave the system.
“We have over a 90 percent franchise retention rate,” he said.
By 2009, Vernon had a big decision to make.
He was running the franchise company, and it was growing. He knew he needed someone to help him run the business.
As it turns out, his business attorney, Tom Swift, was looking to get out of the legal field.
Swift “knew what I was looking for, and I knew what he was looking for, and our paths pretty much mutually aligned at that point,” Vernon said. “So I sold him an ownership stake in the franchise company in 2009. He came on board as president and chief operating officer at that time.”
It was the second “pivotal moment” of his career, Vernon said. The first was selling ASP of Macon, so he could make the leap to franchising. The second big decision was selling a piece of the franchising business to Swift.
“Tom played and continues to play a pivotal role in the success of the business,” Vernon said.
Swift met Vernon about 12 years ago and helped him with employment contracts, collections, business planning and to set up the franchising business. But he gave up his legal career to not only join ASP as an officer of the company but also an investor.
“It was a big leap of faith,” Swift said, adding that his father thought he was crazy at first. But Swift trusted Vernon.
“He’s been successful at everything he’s done,” he said. “I believed in him, and I believed in the business.”
Swift had worked with wealthy clients and realized they all had one thing in common — they all owned their own business.
“I aspired to own my own business myself,” Swift said. “I had to take a chance (and join ASP). I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. … It’s been the best decision I’ve made.”
He admires Vernon for several reasons.
“I think he has an unmatched passion for the business and drive for success,” Swift said. “He doesn’t settle for average. … He constantly works on the business to make it better. He just has this drive that’s something you are born with and that the best entrepreneurs have. Stewart has it.”
Vernon also likes to inspire new entrepreneurs in Macon. He founded 478BibbFund Inc., which provides micro grants to startups.
He recently made another big decision to move the franchise company to another level.
At the beginning of this year, ASP sold another minority piece to Virginia-based Envest Private Equity.
“It will allow us to have greater national exposure,” Vernon said. “They have experience working with mid-level franchisors of our size with the goal of taking the company to another, larger level on a larger scale.”
It wasn’t an easy decision.
“But if you make the right decision and you align yourself with the right people and surround yourself with the right people, you end up coming out better than if by yourself, and that’s the goal,” he said. “It’s when you look back that you know whether you made the right decision or not. I can safely look back and say I always made the right decision and the right partnership.”