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Peeling back the paint

Behind the glossy facade of College Pro is a sore many former employees on the lowest level of management, also known as franchise managers, have left festering.

College Pro is the largest student-painting company in North America, boasting that more than 8,100 students have operated seasonal franchises.

But former employees say College Pro is not worth the time, stress or money they spent during their summers. Their experiences are the fault of loopholes in the contract- and business-administration procedures, which both caused a loss of money and time. In some cases, the problems have made them consider filing lawsuits.

For example, mention College Pro to senior Jeffery Anderson* and he cringes.

"They talk about values and honesty," he said. "But they lie to you and try and exhort money out of you. You can compare it to the communist regime; they use Stalinist tactics, they use torture and deceit -- and lies -- and they say it is for a good cause."

A similar reaction occurs when mentioning College Pro to senior Alexander Cole.*

"I can say nothing positive," he said.

Paying fees, understanding the contract

The manager signs a contract upon beginning work with College Pro that explains the expectations and fees. However, in 27 pages, there are ambiguities left open to later decisions, which are problematic for the manager.

"They force you to spend money on a lot of things that you really don't want," Cole said. "They set you up in such a way that you work ridiculously hard, just to save your ass. And if you want to break even, you have to work even harder than that."

Although the contract makes the student manager the owner of his own business, aspects of the contract differentiate the mangers from solitary business entrepreneurs.

For example, in addition to paying royalties between 15 and 20 percent of gross sales, a performance-assurance fee of 5 percent of gross sales, a payroll service charge and for liability and warranty services, the franchise operator is required to pay for administrative charges, additional training, franchise business kit, answering service, uniforms and signs.

For Cole, the extras were not necessary, and he didn't feel like a business owner; he felt knotted to College Pro.

"They claim that you are bound by a contract, and so you have no option; you have to purchase it," he said. "But if you were actually going to [start a business] yourself, you wouldn't need or want to spend money on it."

"Their way of making you pay them for the things that you didn't want or need to buy is by reducing your paychecks for your employees," said Cole.

The contract outlined these aspects of the business but didn't explain the specifics. Prices and fees were not set and were subject to change. For example, the contract says the manager might have to pay anywhere up to $700 in advertising, but the amount isn't specified when the contract is signed.

For Cole, fees were later a problem in communicating between him and his district manager, who charged him extra fees.

'No, I am not their boss'

"My manager was falling behind," said Cole, "and it was because his franchisees weren't producing enough, so he'd go into the system and produce work and charge us for it."

Communication and oral promises unmentioned in the contracts caused conflict for Cole as well as for sophomore Daniel Sullivan.*

The problem stems from the ambiguous definition and role of the district manager of College Pro. Jeremy Morgan is currently the general manger for 25 college franchisees, and was Sullivan's manager last summer. Morgan considers the manager/franchise-manager relationship to be comparable to a teacher/student relationship, not one of any power dynamic.

"They are self-employed," Morgan said. "They are independent contractors of their own franchise for a period of one year. No, I am not their boss. I am really known as their general manager, and I look at myself as a business coach, or a mentor. There are some times that the boss role tends to evolve, but really, the real focus of what I do is that these guys set their goals."

However, it is Morgan's job to evaluate the managers under his region and to coach them into success. When each manager is hired to run a own franchise, they work for College Pro and set target gross profit goals with the district manager -- in this case, Morgan.

If the franchise manager's gross profit is more than the pre-set target for sales -- say, $100,000 -- College Pro will refund the franchise manager up to 2 percent of the gross profit.

Morgan's role as a mentor is disputable, for as a district manager he pays them and determines their success.

With that in mind, if the managers do their job, i.e., make their royalty payments to College Pro on time and satisfy all the official goals set by themselves and documented with College Pro, then the district managers determine whether franchise managers will get money back at the end.

Cole had such a bad experience with this aspect of the contract vs. the operation. He said he had "considered taking them to court" because of the miscommunication.

"All my rebate was zero'd with a bad debt credit," he said. "That is unjustified. You say you will produce $80,000 worth of work. If you don't hit it, you don't get your rebate back.

"I hit it -- I went over by $8,000 -- but my rebate was zeroed out with a bad debt credit. It just showed up the day my rebate was issued. It was a bad debt credit: same day and exact same amount of money. They owe me $800," Cole said.

Morgan was not Cole's district manager; however, he did say that, generally, College Pro has a lot of contact with the franchise managers. The goal of the district managers is to help the franchisees manage. They know what the franchises are doing through weekly meetings and tri-weekly phone conversations. With that information and inter-personal communication, Morgan and the other district managers make the best decisions they can about the franchisees' business.

Cole's frustration is only the tip of an iceberg that he, Sullivan, Anderson and senior Rhett Baldwin have discovered.

'I don't have my business license'

College Pro is a company for which "everything looks real good on paper," Cole said.

The misunderstanding is that while College Pro claims the managers own their own franchises, the reality is, they work under College Pro. The contract says College Pro turns in all business- licensing information, but this, in fact, is just another contradiction.

"You don't have your business license for the first three months," said Sullivan. "Yet they still have you go out and do estimates, where you are illegally doing estimates. And if you book a house during that time and you do something wrong then, without the license, you are liable for doing an estimate without a license. It is a thousand-dollar fine."

The contract lists "contractor's licenses" under the payments the franchisee makes to College Pro. The contract listing thus gives the impression that College Pro will take care of the paperwork, as it is taking care of purchasing everything else for the franchisee, said Cole.

"As far as getting a business license and stuff like that," Morgan said, "we help them obtain that stuff by pointing them where to go and stuff like that."

However, Sullivan and Cole were told College Pro would help them.

"College Pro didn't turn in my paperwork," said Sullivan.

"I don't have a business license," chimed in Cole.

"I don't either," added Sullivan. "I never registered with the state. We could get fined like $30,000."

When Morgan was asked about the business licenses, he responded hurriedly. When asked, "Do you help them get business licenses?" he replied, "Yep," then changed the subject. He volunteered no more on the subject and didn't answer specifics about previously obtained licenses.

Who is College Pro's clientele?

Having been through the College Pro experience, Sullivan and Cole wonder why people work for the company if it has so many problems.

They guess it's that College Pro sends out the message that it is possible to make a lot of money, and none of the information about fees and the like is accessible to those going through the interview process.

They suspect College Pro capitalizes on getting college kids who will follow what is already set -- on their desire, once contracted, to do what it takes to not go bankrupt.

"They like guys that are weaker-willed guys," said Sullivan. "[Guys] that are a little insecure, but secure enough to do the job."

Conversely, Morgan described the ideal College Pro manager as aggressive.

"They have to be very competent," Morgan said. "We're looking for someone who is usually kind of aggressive, someone who can think strategically, and have to be able to handle stress -- that is a big one -- when you take on a skill as large as this, and all the different skills within running a business."

Yet Cole thought the College Pro district managers "hated" him because he was "strong-willed and not willing to conform," he said.

Morgan views the process as a way to shape individuals.

"It is designed to produce people like ... myself; people who have gone through the program as college students and who are then prepared for executive-level positions in the franchise company," Morgan said.

But the illusion of making a profit isn't possible for everyone. According to Morgan, only 8 percent of managers gross more than $100,000.

"I'd be lying if I said everyone was successful," Morgan said. "Typically, the way it works is if an average general manager will have 25 working under him, of them, two to three set the world on fire with business that have a total revenue of $100,000."

That leaves out the other 23 guys running their own businesses.

Why doesn't anyone stay in contact with Mr. Morgan?

" I don't have a problem with Mr. Morgan personally," said Baldwin. "Only in his business practices.

"He was very misleading and dishonest. In addition, he did not do his job, which is to teach his franchisees and help and guide them through their summer."

Baldwin, who was willing to use his real name, said other, "weaker" franchisees fail due to lack of support and help from the next level of management.

"Morgan's lies became a daily practice as the spring and summer went on. His manner of dealing with his franchisees was very poor, including criticism, name-calling and lots of swearing -- it was then I realized the situation was no longer one of business."

Baldwin suggested the management running College Pro is the major problem. The general or district managers, like Morgan, control the success of the managers, and the vice president who should monitor the general mangers work doesn't communicate with the franchisees.

"[The vice president] is blind in what is going on below him," said Baldwin. "He believes the problem last summer was a fault of the franchisees, even though it seemed to include every franchisee under Jeremy Morgan."

Dustin Peterson agreed that his general manager, Morgan, acted in a way which harmed his success as the owner of a franchise.

Morgan would call and tell houses that Peterson would put second coats of paint on for free, before asking Peterson.

"He said we'd put a second coat on for free. Jeremy was looking to see that he got his paycheck," said Peterson. "All managers got a signing bonus of BMWs when they meet their goals. In order to meet their goals, they take it out at the expense of their franchisees. They make promises for us, and we have to pay."

That Peterson expresses concern for Morgan doing things for his own profit contradicts a statement Morgan made about profit and the company.

"We're not a profit-earner for the corporation," he said. "That is the way we justify our existence, by developing people and getting people prepared for executive positions after they get out of school. We've been doing that successfully for the last few years."

These contract discrepancies, money problems, and miscommunication and management difficulties have made, in Sullivan's and Cole's eyes, for unhappy, nonexistent summers.

"If you want to make any money at all (working for College Pro), you won't have a summer," said Sullivan. "Your summer is College Pro, and you don't do anything else. Some guys said 'fuck this,' and didn't work, and they didn't make any money. And they have a partial summer and they didn't make any money, and they still had to work and be really stressed out and have a little fun every now and then ... I was working at least 70 hours a week."

Still, the two disgruntled former managers and Morgan agree the summer did provide real life lessons.

"Business schools teach you a lot of theory," Morgan said. "But there is a big difference between getting up there and actually doing it, and learning about it. So, we're looking for those people who want to get out there and get your feet wet. They want to jump into it."

Sullivan jumped in and swam; later, considering his experience and the problems he faced, he concluded he did learn much.

"But this is kind of a sore subject for all of us. You waste a summer of your life; it is a learning experience, but you teach yourself," Sullivan said.

*Names have been changed.

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