Startup and Emerging Franchisors

We, Megan Center and Alex Radus, recently gave a presentation at the International Franchise Expo in New York City on the “Top Ten Provisions to ‘Never’ Negotiate in a Franchise Agreement” and want to share the highlights of that presentation here.  This first of four blog posts will focus on central themes of franchise negotiation from the perspective of both the franchisor and franchisee.

With that, before we jump into the theme of negotiation, we want to briefly touch on the top ten provisions we will cover over the next few blog posts, which are as follows:

1.      “Then-current” form of Franchise Agreement

2.      Reservation of Rights

3.      Right of First Refusal

4.      Marketing Fund

5.      Renewal

6.      Changing Marks/Renovations/Upgrades

7.      Termination/Cure Period

8.      Indemnification

9.      Assignment

10.  Personal Guaranty

In each of the blog posts that follow, we will discuss the typical provision in a franchise agreement, the typical request by a franchisee, and how both a franchisee and franchisor may argue for its respective provision or revision.

By way of introduction, we want to briefly touch on why a franchisor may want to, or in certain circumstances be required to, negotiate provisions of its franchise agreement. First, economic factors may contribute to negotiation points. As the economy ebbs and flows, the sales of franchises often will follow. A franchisor may have to grant more concessions in a bad economy, or vice versa, in order to make a franchise sale.

Second, if an emerging brand, a franchisor may need to offer its original franchisees a more incentivized franchise package than an established franchisor would. Similarly, if a franchisor is trying to entice a multi-unit franchisee or a franchisee that has experience in operating other franchised businesses to join its franchise system, a franchisor may have to “sweeten the pot” and offer more concessions than it would a standard-single unit-franchisee.

Additionally, if a franchisor is expanding internationally, similarly to an emerging brand, a new franchisee will be developing the brand in an entirely different country, often with no brand recognition.  As such, it may need further incentives to take on this additional obligation.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, certain states require that a franchisor amend certain portions of its franchise agreement via a state law addendum. Generally, these changes relate to dispute resolution procedures, governing law, and termination procedures. Further, if you negotiate changes with franchisees in California, you are required to comply with the Negotiated Changes Law in California which mandates disclosure of all material revisions to the franchise documents granted to California franchisees to all California prospects for a year from the closing of the negotiated deal.

The next post in this series will focus on practice pointers if a franchisor chooses to, or is required to, negotiate a franchise agreement.

The International Franchise Expo (IFE) starts TODAY (May 31st) and runs through Saturday, June 2nd at the Javits Center in New York City.  The IFE is one the largest franchise expo in the country.  This is an opportunity for franchise systems to market their brands face to face with prospective franchisees and for prospective franchisees to research brands and investigate potential franchise opportunities.  Megan B. Center, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPHowever, the IFE is not simply an franchise sales expo.  The IFE offers many additional opportunities as well.  For example, many franchise brands attend the expo to walk the floor and obtain valuable information on potential competitors.  There are social and networking opportunities for vendors in the evening.

However, most importantly, the IFE also offers educational workshops during the day tailored to every potential attendee.  Prospective franchisees will find workshops with tips and traps on buying a franchise.  Emerging franchise systems will find workshops on improving franchise sales, best practices for multi-unit operators, and avoiding franchise disputes.  Established brands can find resources on expanding internationally and tips on tasking your system to the next level.   Megan Center and Alex Radus of our franchise practice group will be presenting a workshop at the IFE on Thursday at 12:30 pm entitled the “Top 10 Provisions to Never Negotiate in a Franchise Agreement” where they will discuss the potential long-term effects of seemingly Alexander S. Radus, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPharmless revisions to franchise agreement provisions featuring the most common arguments franchisees will make and how and why to rebut them.    For those franchise industry practitioners looking for credits towards obtaining a CFE (Certified Franchise Executive) designation from the Institute of Certified Franchise Executives, then the IFE workshops are an opportunity to do so.

The cost to attend the IFE is very affordable. If you have not registered to attend the IFE yet, then you can do so here.

 

Last year at the ABA Forum on Franchising Annual Meeting, the programming included a seminar entitled “Between You and Me: A Toolkit to Counsel in and to Smaller Systems.” The purpose of the session was to provide new in-house lawyers an overview of some of the day-to-day legal conundrums that growing brands face and instructions on how to face such issues.

70454390 – high angle view of magnifying glass over background check form

One of the most interesting and important issues addressed during the panel discussion was the franchise application process. Growing brands are often eager to welcome any prospect willing to pay the initial franchise fee. However, all franchise systems have a reason to be selective in the application process. Once a brand meets that critical mass of 50-100 units, it can often afford to be more discerning. Below are some tips to ensuring that a franchise system only accepts the best:

  1. Confirm supporting documents for financing. A financing arrangement may be straightforward if the franchisee is obtaining traditional financing from an institutional lender. However, if a franchisee is expecting a capital investment from friends and family, then you should still require documentation. You do not want a situation where a franchisee is a few months into development and the investing sibling or uncle backs out of the deal.
  2. Do not just run a background check and throw it in a file. Make sure you thoroughly review the results. The panelist described some war stories about clients ordering a background check on owners but failing to analyze it. The background check revealed some serious red flags about the prospect. The franchisor then faced issues with the franchisee down the line that could have been avoided had the franchisor just reviewed the results in the first place.
  3. Always conduct a search of the lists maintained US. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC). OFAC maintains a list of all people and entities whose assets are blocked by the US government as a result of sanctions. You can conduct your own search at no cost online and it takes under a minute.
  4. Request supporting documentation such as tax returns and account statements to verify assets. Dig deeper when evaluating a prospective franchisee’s financial wherewithal.
  5. Don’t forget to determine the applicant’s citizen or immigration status.

While there is no surefire way to avoid all problem or underperforming franchisees, developing a comprehensive screening process is one method in decreasing the number.

International franchisors inbound into the U.S. face a complex set of business decisions and legal regulations.  Even seemingly simple tasks–like properly executing a franchise registration application–can become a time-consuming and expensive endeavor (especially where the franchisor does not have an authorized signatory in the U.S.).  Knowing how and when to request waivers can save time and money.

Notary public working on a document with stamp and padsFranchise registration applications must be signed by the franchisor’s authorized representative. In addition, some of the signatures must be notarized.  Generally speaking, satisfying this requirement requires having the signature notarized at a U.S. embassy or obtaining an apostille. U.S. embassies will have policies regarding scheduling appointments, what documents to bring, and how to prepare documents to be notarized. In addition, notarial services can be significantly more expensive at the embassy than stateside. Finally, embassy representatives are not used to seeing standard franchise applications and disclosure documents, which can cause confusion and delays.

Alternatively, the franchisor can obtain an apostille, a specialized certificate that verifies that a document is legitimate and authentic. Apostilles are only effective between countries that are parties to the Hague Apostille Convention (which is many). First, the franchisor must translate the documents into the local language so they can be notarized under local law. Then the franchisor must obtain an apostille, which ensures the documents and signature are accepted by the U.S. examiner.

Unfortunately, both options can be costly and time-consuming. Therefore, inbound international franchisors and their counsel should inquire whether the U.S. examiner will grant a waiver if obtaining an apostille or notarization will create a financial hardship and undue delay. Examiners understand there are specific difficulties to international franchising and may waive the notary requirement or permit the signatory to obtain notarization when he or she is next in the U.S.  Franchisors or counsel should contact examiners to determine how to properly make the request.  Some examiners will accept requests made in a cover letter to the application or in a preliminary email exchange.

International franchising inbound to the U.S. can be very complex. Obtaining a waiver of the notarization requirement is one less headache, which allows franchisors and their counsel to focus on the substantive issues.

Fox Rothschild LLP has deployed a new mobile app to assist companies, including franchisors, as they rush to comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – a complex set of new data privacy rules with major implications for businesses.  The app – GDPR Check – helps businesses catalog their data management practices and policies to determine necessary steps to comply with GDPR when it takes effect in May.

“The pending implementation of GDPR will impact all companies that process or control the personal data of any EU citizen,” said Mark G. McCreary, chief privacy officer at Fox Rothschild and co-creator of GDPR Check.  “Every business, regardless of where it is headquartered, will be responsible for complying with these sweeping new data privacy rules when collecting or processing Personal Data,” said Daniel L. Farris, co-chair of the Fox’s Technology Group and co-creator of GDPR Check.

Even if a business does not collect personal data from EU citizens, the GDPR requirements apply to that business if it provides services to another business that must comply with GDPR.  Failure to comply with the regulations can result in fines of up to €20 million (approx. US$24.7 million) or 4 percent of global annual revenue in the prior year.

GDPR Check maps an organization’s data management practices in 17 areas that are key to determining compliance, including:

  • Types of data collected
  • Privacy policies (external and internal)
  • Consent
  • Data retention
  • Breach readiness

The app produces a report for each key area that a company can share with its attorneys and compliance team.

GDPR is intended to protect the rights of EU citizens to control the use of their personal data, including customer data such as birthdates, mailing addresses, IP addresses, product purchases and payment information, as well as supplier data, employee data and “sensitive data” such as health information, race, and sexual orientation.

This is the second app Fox Rothschild has launched in the data privacy space. The firm also maintains Data Breach 411, which provides easy access to applicable state statutes and breach notification rules to enable in-house counsel and compliance professionals, in the midst of a data breach crisis, to quickly identify controlling law and relevant guidance.

GDPR Check is available for free download in the Apple App Store and Google Play stores.

 

Menu and chef
Copyright: yarruta / 123RF Stock Photo

The Trump administration is moving forward with an Obama-era initiative requiring certain food establishments to list calorie information on menus and menu boards, including food on display and self-service food. The FDA recently released new draft recommendations to help affected businesses comply with the menu labeling rule.

The rule implements the nutrition labeling provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which are intended to give consumers direct, point-of-purchase access to nutritional information, including the calorie content of foods. When the rule was originally published, we blogged about its impact on restaurants and followed up with a report on the Small Entity Compliance Guide, which explains the rule’s requirements in a question/answer format.

The rule has met stiff opposition and enforcement has been delayed multiple times. Most recently, just four days shy of implementation, the deadline for compliance was extended to May 7, 2018. The extension was intended to give the FDA time to consider how to reduce the rule’s regulatory burden and increase flexibility, while providing consumers with nutritional information.

The FDA’s recent guidance is non-binding and addresses stakeholder concerns regarding implementation of the rule, including:

  • Clarifying calorie disclosure requirements for self-service food, including buffets and grab-and-go food;
  • Addressing the need for flexible methods to provide calorie disclosure information;
  • Explaining the criteria for distinguishing between menus and marketing materials;
  • Addressing how the FDA will assist covered establishments to comply with the rule, and how it will enforce compliance;
  • Expanding upon the “reasonable basis” standard that covered establishments must meet when disclosing nutritional information; and
  • Explaining the criteria for determining whether establishments (including franchises) and menu items are subject to the rule.

The FDA invites public comment on the draft guidelines through January 8, 2018.  We will continue to monitor developments and the rule’s effect on franchise systems.

The U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce recently approved the “Save Local Business Act” (HR 3441 – Byrne).  If enacted, the Act would limit joint employer liability by reversing the rule announced by the NLRB in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186.  The Browning-Ferris decision departed from 30 years of precedent by issuing a new joint employer test with significant ramifications for the franchise model.  Under Browning-Ferris, a company (e.g., a franchisor) that has “indirect” or “potential” control over the employees of another company (e.g., a franchisee) may be considered a joint employer of those employees. The decision significantly expanded franchisors’ potential liability for matters related to their franchisees’ employees (including collective bargaining and employment torts).  Browning-Ferris is currently on appeal before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Save Local Business Act would amend the National Labor Relations Act and Fair Labor Standards Act to clarify that a person or company is a joint employer only if it “directly, actually, and immediately, and not in a limited and routine manner, exercises significant control over the essential terms and conditions of employment.” Essential terms and conditions include hiring employees, discharging employees, determining individual employee rates of pay and benefits, day-to-day supervision of employees, assigning individual work schedules, positions, and tasks, and administering employee discipline.

During its hearings, the Committee heard from franchise owners who described the impact of the Browning-Ferris rule on their business operations. Many legislators have specifically cited the franchise industry in announcing their support for the Act.  The Act’s passage would be a major win for the franchise model, which has been plagued with uncertainty over joint employer liability since the Browning-Ferris decision.

If a franchisor waives the non-compete provision in its current franchise agreement, can it enforce a non-compete when the franchise agreement is renewed? According to a recent decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is yes, and franchisors should consider a few key lessons from the decision. Robinson, DVM v. Charter Practices International, LLC, No. 15-35356 (June 21, 2017).

In Robinson, a franchisee sued its franchisor for breach of contract and other claims when the franchisor refused to renew their franchise agreement for a veterinary hospital franchise. During the term of the original franchise agreement, the franchisee owned and operated independent veterinary clinics that competed with the franchise. The franchisor did not enforce the non-competition provision in the original franchise agreement. However, when it came time for renewal, the franchisor notified the franchisee that it would enforce the non-compete under the renewal agreement and gave the franchisee an opportunity to disinvest from his independent clinics. The franchisee refused, and the parties did not renew the franchise agreement. The franchisee sued the franchisor alleging improper refusal to renew under Oregon law.

The district court dismissed the franchisee’s claims and the 9th Circuit affirmed. The court’s decision holds three important lessons:

  1. The renewal provision specifically allowed the franchisor not to renew the original franchise agreement unless the franchisee complied with the non-competition provision in the renewal agreement. Renewal provisions typically (and should) include general language requiring the franchisee to acknowledge it will be bound by the new franchise agreement. However, it is often wise to specifically reference sensitive provisions, including non-competes and other restrictive covenants and confidentiality provisions.
  2. The renewal provision in the original franchise agreement stated that the renewal agreement would be substantially similar to the franchisor’s then-current form of franchise agreement. It made clear that the terms could differ from the original franchise agreement. This language highlighted that the original agreement and renewal agreement were different contracts. The court used concluded that the waiver of the non-compete under the original franchise agreement did not carry over into the renewal agreement.
  3. The franchisor provided notice to the franchisee that it intended to enforce the non-competition provision, and it gave the franchisee an opportunity to disinvest. The franchisee argued that he and the franchisor had a “course of conduct” that permitted him to compete. According to the court, the franchisor’s notice disrupted this course of conduct, and therefore the waiver under the original franchise agreement did not apply to the new agreement.

Franchisors (especially emerging franchisors) may find it necessary to waive provisions in their form of franchise agreement to close the deal with a prospect. While this may make sound business sense at one point in time, it can chafe down the road. As Robinson shows, a carefully drafted renewal provision and notice may provide an escape hatch in certain situations.

Copyright: mikkolem / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: mikkolem / 123RF Stock Photo

This past Friday, May 12th, ransomware known as WannaCry (also known as WannaCrypt or WCry) spread throughout the world, affecting more than 100,000 systems in 150 countries. Victims of the massive cyberattack included the NHS in the UK, cellular networks in Spain, universities in China and many other large organizations worldwide. For both franchisors and franchisees who are dependent on Windows systems, the attack highlights the significant risks and high costs associated with keeping cybersecurity on the back burner.

Fox partner Mark McCreary provided an update on the attack today on the firm’s Privacy Compliance and Data Security blog, and reflected on its impact after addressing client concerns on Friday and over the weekend.

 

 

Franchisors offering and selling franchises in Rhode Island should take note of recent amendments to Rhode Island’s Franchise Investment Act:

Disclosure Requirements

Franchisors must now provide prospects with an FDD at least 14 calendar days before the execution of an agreement or the payment of any consideration related to the franchise.  “Calendar days” include all days of the week, including weekends. The amendments delete Rhode Island’s prior requirement that franchisors provide an FDD in advance of the first meeting to discuss a franchise sale.

Advertising Requirements

Franchisors must now retain any advertising that offers to sell a franchise for 5 years (if the franchise is required to register under Rhode Island law).  The amendments delete Rhode Island’s prior requirement to file advertising with the state at least 5 days prior to its first publication.