Throughout the history of franchising, there have been some amazing rags-to-riches stories, many of which have entered the realm of modern business lore. When the Franchise Help staff and Matt Wilson decided to assemble a list of the 10 most famous franchise founders of all time, it quickly became clear that achieving any kind of consensus about this ranking would be nearly impossible given all the great candidates from which to choose.
Fearing the debate would never end (and with our coffee running out), the staff finally settled on the following (admittedly unscientific) criteria: size and longevity of operation, visibility of brand, and — quite honestly — how compelling we found the founder’s success story. If our internal discussion about this list serves as any indication, many readers will feel we snubbed their favourite franchise founder (and someone on our staff will probably agree). So, if you think we missed someone, leave a comment below, and let the debate begin!
Buying his first hotel in Cisco, Texas in 1919, Conrad Hilton didn't always want to be in the lodging industry. His original plan was to become an oil baron, but his first deal of investing in a bank in an oil town fell through. After this plan fell apart, Hilton went on to focus on real estate and ended up buying hotels all across Texas. He lost several of his hotels during the depression and almost had to file for bankruptcy.
After the economy turned, the hotelier's business took off. He soon owned iconic hotels like the Waldorf Astoria and the Plaza Hotel and went on to receive honorary degrees from six different universities. His autobiography Be My Guest appeared next to the bible in every single room of the Hilton Hotel chain. Conrad's great granddaughter Paris Hilton continues to keep the family name famous worldwide, although our analysis wasn't able to determine why.
In yet another story of entrepreneurial resilience, Sanders dropped out of school in seventh grade and ran away from home to escape his abusive stepfather. At 16, Sanders falsified his birthdate and joined the United States Army. At age 40, the Colonel owned a service station where he cooked chicken for the locals in Corbin, Kentucky, and his popularity grew as his secret recipe developed. The Colonel's store eventually failed when Interstate 75 was built and people began bypassing his location. Facing yet another setback but determined to make his business work, Sanders took $105 from his Social Security check and traveled the country to convince restaurant owners to franchise as Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments.
The Colonel had some pretty talented help: an early KFC franchise employee, Dave Thomas (who would go on to found Wendy's Old Fashioned Burgers) advised Sanders on the development, marketing, and expansion of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise (this cameo, by the way, was how we resolved excluding Thomas from this overall list). 10 years later, the Colonel had over 600 stores.
The Colonel wore his trademark mustache and jacket in public every day for the last 20 years of his life, and he became iconic worldwide through his stores and television commercials. According to KFC, by the mid-1970s Colonel Sanders was the world's second-most recognisable celebrity, behind only the great heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (himself a Kentucky native as well). Although Kentucky Fried Chicken wasn't named after the Colonel, the franchise's advertising, slogans and packaging use his likeness to this day.
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