Nebraska ranks in Top 10 states for franchise growth

Report: Franchising helped lead economic recovery and was a beneficiary of the “Great Resignation” movement

By: - February 22, 2022 5:00 am

Sola Salon Studios, Lincoln site (Courtesy of Sola franchisee Nicole Neesen)

OMAHA — Nicole and Brian Neesen said goodbye to their corporate and law jobs some 15 years ago and never looked back — diving instead into the world of franchising.

The Omaha couple built a profitable granite countertop business, later revamped a backyard bird seed company, and within the last year bought four Sola Salon Studios franchises in three cities, including Lincoln and Omaha.

“It’s about controlling our destiny,” said Nicole, a lawyer by training. “We knew we had skills as business people to make good decisions in real time, and with a franchise that has a proven recipe, so to speak, we could be competitive and successful.”

Brian and Nicole Neesen of Omaha, franchise owners (Courtesy of the Neesens)

The Neesens are deep into a lifestyle that, according to a new report by the International Franchise Association, suits Husker territory well. Indeed, the group’s annual Franchising Economic Outlook ranked Nebraska among the Top 10 states for franchise growth in 2022.

No. 9 among states

Boosting Nebraska, said analyst Christina Niu of FRANdata, is a trend line that shows the state’s franchise businesses weathering the pandemic and staying afloat better than most.

Compared to counterparts in other states, Niu said, Nebraska’s business climate and lower cost of living position the state to better attract new franchisees who pay to do business under a franchiser’s brand and systems.

Nebraska was ranked the 9th best state on the association’s growth list, which was topped by Texas, Florida and Arizona.

In 2021, economic output generated by Nebraska franchise operations swelled by a record 16%, as COVID-19 vaccines and government stimulus aid circulated and pent-up demand was released. The report said that, similarly to other parts of the country, local growth this year is expected to stabilize at about 5.3%.

Currently, Nebraska’s count of franchise establishments exceeds 5,700 — with a projected growth in 2022 of about 2.5%, compared to the nation’s 2.2%. 

The number of Nebraskans employed in the industry is expected to surpass 58,000 by year’s end, a 3.4% annual increase over last year, following an earlier 8.5% annual leap.

A huge percentage don’t want to go back to the old way. They want the ability to really influence their future, their income and time.

– Paul Whitaker, Franchise Ambassador and FranChoice

Courtesy of International Franchise Association

“Absolutely a record time”

Overall, the IFA reports that franchising helped lead the country’s economic recovery — and was a beneficiary of the so-called “Great Resignation” movement in which people across the country quit their jobs en masse. 

“Pandemic-induced aspirations for self-determination and financial independence raised the tide of franchise interest as the franchise business model offers workers the opportunity to control their own businesses,” authors of the report wrote.

Paul Whitaker, of Kansas City-area Franchise Ambassador and FranChoice, has consulted with Nebraska businesses and said it is “absolutely a record time” overall for people seeking more control of their lives through a franchise. 

People tasted different work styles during COVID shutdowns, he said. “A huge percentage don’t want to go back to the old way. They want the ability to really influence their future, their income and time.”

The Neesens felt the franchise urge long before the latest surge.

At one time, during a 14-year run building Granite Transformations in the area, their Omaha and Lincoln stores employed 23 people.

“We had pride in working in the homes of Nebraskans,” said Nicole, noting the operation transformed more than 8,000 kitchens and bathrooms. 

“Liberating” small business owners

The couple’s latest venture takes the entrepreneurial spirit to another level. The four Sola Salons properties the Neesens either built or acquired during the past year are home base for 125 small business owners. 

Tijah Tate at her Studio 12 space in Lincoln (Courtesy of Sola Salon Studios)

Nicole calls them “micro entrepreneurs.” Under the Sola model, the hair stylists, masseuses and other beauty professionals rent move-in-ready, enclosed suites. They get space, furniture, utilities, Internet and other management support from the franchisees (the Neesens), “liberating them” to do their craft.

“They’re in business for themselves but not by themselves,” said Nicole.

Nationally and abroad, Sola has grown to about 650 worksites with some 16,000 beauty professionals, which Nicole said underscores worker thirst for more independence and flexibility.

Jaz Blobaum in her Lincoln studio (Courtesy of Sola Salon Studios)

According to the IFA report, personal services that include beauty salons and fitness facilities are leading U.S. franchising expansion.

“Consumers are rethinking priorities,” the report says, “with one-third saying they are spending more on experiences than possessions compared to a year ago.” 

One need only look at the Orange Theory, HotWorx and other franchise operations popping up along trendy shopping strips, Neesen said.

Franchise HQ at home in Nebraska

Nebraska has attracted corporate headquarters of familiar national franchises such as Scooter’s Coffee, Right at Home, Home Instead, The Maids International.

Among other franchise sectors are restaurant chains, retail, hospitality and real estate networks. 

The IFA says franchises reflect about 3% of the U.S. gross domestic product and, worldwide, the association represents roughly 775,000 establishments that support 8.2 million direct jobs.

In its annual report, researched by FRANdata, IFA says to expect headwinds this year from labor shortages around the country, and in Nebraska, that present challenges to franchise owners seeking workers.

Nicole says that key to smoother sailing in her industry is to carefully vet brands and choose franchise systems that work. She said the payoff for her and Brian, formerly a marketing and sales executive with a Fortune 500 company, comes also in providing mentoring to young professionals that join their team. 

“We’re at a point in our careers where we have a lot of experience, and we like coaching, especially young professionals,” said Nicole. “Seeing others find success, that’s rewarding.”

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Cindy Gonzalez
Cindy Gonzalez

Senior Reporter Cindy Gonzalez, an Omaha native, has more than 35 years of experience, largely at the Omaha World-Herald. Her coverage areas have included business and real estate development; regional reporting; immigration, demographics and diverse communities; and City Hall and local politics. She has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) and the Associated Press. Cindy has been recognized by various nonprofits for community contributions and diversity efforts. She chairs the board that oversees the local university’s student newspaper.