Where next for the Franchise Council of Australia? New chairman Bruce Billson shares his views

What can Bruce Billson do to shape franchising and the industry’s peak body, the Franchise Council of Australia?

The former Minister of Small Business Bruce Billson has been appointed as executive chairman of the FCA; he is a keen advocate for addressing the challenges and opportunities facing the franchise sector now.

He is meeting and asking non-members why they are not involved with the association and weaving their responses into ideas that will help shape the strategy.

“I’m asking people who are not members who I think have much to offer, why they are not involved and they are sharing their insights.”

Engaging with mainstream media to reach beyond the franchising community to spread the message about the sector’s growth is vital, he says.

“Franchise systems are researching, developing and deploying new business strategies and insights.”

It helps that Billson has experience in the ways of politics – he understands how politics works, how opinion leaders form their insights, how laws get passed – because he identifies his role as one of spreading the message not just to the public but to government, about the powerhouse that is franchising.

“We’ve been working collaboratively with the Australian Retailers Association for instance in dealing with their submissions to the Fair Work penalty rates case. We’ve doing some good work around commercial leasing, we’ve been building relationships with the Fair Work Ombudsman, discussions about South Australia wanting to have its own regulatory system.

“We are a catalyst for people engaging with other people adding value to their business, we can be a concierge that can steer people towards those who can help with specific issues.”

Billson admits he has clashed with the FCA in the past in his role as Small Business Minister, mostly for the association’s tendency to favour the franchisor viewpoint over that of franchisees.

“I haven’t been without my arm wrestles with the Franchise Council over the last 20 years and that’s often because the franchisee experience wasn’t in the forefront of the organisation’s thinking. Now I’m making sure that it is. Successful franchisees are the best advertisements and the best pre-condition for investment into the franchise sector.”

7-Eleven and the franchising model

So what of the 7-Eleven wages situation?

“It’s reminded the franchise community that signing a franchise agreement isn’t the end of the relationship, it’s just the beginning. And the support that good franchise systems provide is to ensure the independent business owners that are the franchisees are kept informed  of, aware of, and able to fulfil their responsibilities as a separate business, because at the end of the day they are separate businesses.

“The Franchise Council has got member standard expectations that it holds and looks for all of our members to uphold. We’ve given 7-Eleven the opportunity to outline what they’re doing about  the serious problems they are facing that need to be resolved.

“We’ve been very consistent in saying no-one in the FCA wants to see employees underpaid, the 7-Eleven circumstance is quite complicated, there are a number of moving parts and plenty of blame to go around but the best thing to do is to make sure that those people who have missed out  on their lawful entitlements get those entitlements and where systems have failed to detect non-compliance or worker exploitation that we encourage 7-Eleven to remedy those system deficiencies and that’s what they’ve assured us they are doing.”

What’s important is finding ways to prevent similar situations, he says.

“We’ve got a workplace relations framework that enables franchise systems to show the steps they’ve taken to make sure they are not found to be wanting, as 7-Eleven has been found to be wanting.

“We’re also talking about our workshops and the functions that the state chapters put on, bringing learnings from the 7-Eleven experience, and I’m also having to deal with a number of FCA members saying the best thing we can do is cut 7-Eleven loose.

“We’re not sure that’s a necessarily effective problem-solving strategy but I understand that sentiment. Right now we’re trying to fix the problems and give encouragement to 7-Eleven to get on to do that as quickly as possible but then making sure other franchise systems participants know that this has implications for everybody in franchising.”

The division of employee/employer responsibilities is not just a topic for Australia, he points out.

“There is a global push, particularly in North America, for joint liability for employees to be shared between franchisor and franchisee. This is a fundamental redefining of the business relationship and we need to ensure that employee entitlements are properly met and delivered but so we don’t transform all franchisee businesses into subsidiaries of the franchisor.

“That’s a disincentive to investment. We need to make sure the individual businesses are properly fulfilling their responsibilities.

A national presence

“There are better ways to tackle the concerns that give rise to this idea. The FCA is at the vanguard of discussions with law makers so bad outcomes aren’t conceived by policy makers.”

A reaction to media coverage isn’t always the best response, he says.

“The profile that some of the more topical issues generate can lead policy makers and governments to react to the public discussion not always well informed about the sector, or well informed about what sensible, right-sized public policy engagement looks like.

“Government and policy makers want to come to a credible, well informed, research-rich, evidence-rich organisation to draw those insights. Only the Franchise Council of Australia provides that.

“We will continue to present ourselves, as serious players in the national policy agenda of our country. There’s never been a better or more important time to be part of the FCA.”

The FCA of the future will be forward looking and strategic, Billson suggests. 

An organisation that aims to be resourceful, that is making good use of resources and relationships, and FCA that doesn’t seek to replicate the work of others but to synthesise and amplify work that’s relevant to us that we can support  while we focus on things that are very specific for franchising, and an FCA that is viewed  as the best ally and asset for all stakeholders in the franchise sector.”