Every franchise system that sells franchise opportunities in the United States is required to create and maintain an updated Franchise Disclosure Document. The Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD) is presented in a federally mandated format and is required to cover 23 key areas in easy to read and understand language. A franchisor’s FDD is typically 100’s of pages long and contains critical and detailed information about that particular franchise including fees charged, history, operations, officers, lawsuits and other legal disclosures, obligations of the franchisor and franchisee, and much more.
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There are 4 parts to a Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD):
- Cover Page
- Table of Contents
- Items 1-23
The format for each of these sections is very specific and covers the following:
The Cover Page identifies the franchise business, including the name under which the franchisee would operate and what type of business it is. It also includes the amounts of the initial franchise fee. In addition, any additional risk factors are included on the cover in all capital letters. Risk factors that may be included pertain mostly to which state is governing the franchise agreement and where any litigation is permitted to be filed and heard.
Table of Contents
The Table of Contents contains the specific 23 items listed below, as well as the exhibits, in a standard format.
Item 1: The Franchisor, Its Predecessors, and Affiliates
This section gives you a background on the Franchisor, including anyone he/she has purchased the franchise from, and any affiliates, meaning anyone else who has a controlling interest in the franchise. Do your research on these representatives, including a credit check if possible. You’re quite possibly investing your life savings with these people and knowing any other businesses in which they have been involved and how well they manage financial aspects is important.
Item 2: Business Experience
This section gives you a background on the officers and directors of the franchise for the past five years. Similar to the information you will review on the Franchisor itself, you want to carefully review the expertise these people bring to the table. These are the people you will be working with and who will contribute greatly to the success of your franchise. You should get to know them as well as you can.
Item 3: Litigation
Any history of litigation, including cases terminated by settlement, must be disclosed in this section. Any Franchisor who is under some kind of restrictive injunction is one to stay away from. Additionally, if a franchisor or any officer has a criminal history or any litigation pending that may affect his or her ability to maintain a franchise then this opportunity is not a worthwhile risk.
Item 4: Bankruptcy
The bankruptcy disclosure requires that they tell you up front about any bankruptcy in the last 10 years concerning, “the franchisor, its affiliate, its predecessor, officers, or general partner”. Entrepreneurs often have several failures before they are successful. Learning from failed business is not the experience you want to have, which is why you are considering a franchise. This doesn’t always mean that having a bankruptcy in the disclosure is a sure prediction of a bankruptcy in the future, but you want to review the circumstances of the bankruptcy carefully, including the amount of time that has lapsed since that bankruptcy. You typically don’t want to give your money to someone with a proven track record of not being able to manage it.
Item 5: Initial Franchise Fee
The initial franchise fee is the fee you pay to purchase the right to operate as a franchise. This does not include all of the other fees that may be required to get started or continue operation. The important thing to know about the initial franchise fee is exactly what you are getting for those dollars. Knowing how they came up with that number is important. A large initial franchise fee does not equate to a larger earning or a better investment. Consider this fee in addition to the Other Fees (Item 6) and Initial Investment (Item 7) before concluding what it will actually cost to open a franchise.
Item 6: Other Fees
Other fees include any other monies you will be required to pay to the franchisor, including royalties, advertising fees, service fees, training fees, or any other ongoing or one-time fees that you as a franchisee will be expected to pay directly to the franchisor.
Item 7: Initial Investment
This is the key item in terms of figuring out what is will cost you to get a franchise up and running. This section is laid out as a table, and includes the estimated costs for training, equipment, opening, inventory and other costs associated with starting your franchise. For each item in the list, you are given the amount, the method of payment, when it is due and to whom the payment is to be made. Review this information carefully. Speak with other franchisees and see if the estimated costs were realistic. Expect that you will need more for unexpected expenses. Remember that most businesses are not profitable for at least a year, so include the amount of money it would take you and your family to survive for a year without income.
Item 8: Restrictions on Sources of Products and Services
If the franchisor requires you to purchase or lease from designated sources, investigate further. Sometimes the purchase restrictions are because the franchise has negotiated a lower price for certain goods in return for guaranteed orders. However, sometimes the cost of the supplies is not competitive and the franchisor makes a bit of money from the procurement of supplies. This makes the franchise more expensive to run, even if the startup costs look attractive. If the costs are reasonable, the restrictions are not a big issue. Again, talk to existing franchisees to see if they feel these restrictions are reasonable and whether or not they are satisfied they are receiving their money’s worth.
Item 9: Franchisee’s Obligations
Your obligations as a franchisee can be laid out in various agreements, including but not limited to the franchise agreement. This section explains what your obligations are and exactly where in the legal documentation you can find the information governing your obligations. This is an important section for you to review carefully, as they define your contractual obligations and if you breech these obligations your franchise can be terminated. Talk to current franchisees and see whether meeting these obligations has presented any difficulty. If the obligations seem unreasonable, move on.
Item 10: Financing
Sometimes the financing required to start-up a franchise comes from the franchisor him/herself. As with any financial contract, review the conditions and be sure that they are competitive and make sense. Have an accountant or banking representative review the terms and give an opinion. Having a credit check would, again, be handy here.
Item 11: Franchisor’s Obligations
Just as the FDD lays out your obligations as a franchisee, the obligations of the franchisor must be clearly disclosed in this section. You are putting your financial future into the hands of the franchise that you purchase, at least in part. Be sure you understand exactly what you are getting for what you are paying. You may want to approach this section in a different manner than the others…perhaps backward. Rather than reading what they will provide, begin by making a list of what you think you will need to be successful. Determine what kind of training you will need and see whether they provide it, when it will be offered, what kind of training it is, and whether or not it meets your needs. What kind of ongoing support or documentation do they include? Also determine what you would need after you have opened the franchise and see whether those items are included in their list of obligations. If they are missing things that you think you will need to be successful, ask to have those things added to the franchise agreement. Verbal promises from salespeople are not sufficient – promised items should be added to this section.
Item 12: Territory
Opening a franchise just to see another franchise open up a half mile down the road would be enough to make anyone crazy. The territory section of the FDD is designed to lay out exactly what rights you have to any territory. Having the right to an “exclusive area” cuts down on the competition, at least from within your own franchise. Unfortunately, not all franchisees are alike. Some will take full advantage of their area and develop the market to its fullest. Others will assume that the lack of competition in their immediate area means they have a right to the business and therefore don’t work quite as hard to develop that area. There are many other situations in which an exclusive area causes issues for a franchisor, and most will not grant them. Some will grant an exclusive area only for a specified amount of time or only as long as a certain level of achievement is reached by the franchisee. Understanding what options the franchise offers is very important.
Item 13: Trademarks
This section discloses any trademarks, service mark, service name or logotype used in the franchise business and whether or not that trademark or service mark are registered with the US Patent Office. Using a trademark symbol (™) is not the same thing as having a registered trademark. The registered trademark (®) means a certificate of registration has been granted to the franchisor. A trademark registered in the Supplemental Register does not have the same legal rights and there should be a statement in the Trademarks section disclosing this information.
Item 14: Patents, Copyrights, and Proprietary Information
This section is important to you only if patents are important to the franchise. If so, get a copy of the patent from the U.S. Patent Office and review the status of the patent. Be familiar with any copyrighted or proprietary information outlined in the FDD, as the franchisor has a right to modify or prohibit use of anything patented, copyrighted, or proprietary information disclosed in the FDD.
Item 15: Obligation to Participate in and the Actual Operation of the Franchise Business
This section outlines any requirements for the franchisee to personally be involved in the operation of the franchise. If the franchise does not require the franchisee to run the business him or herself, then there must be a statement outlining whether or not a manager running the day-to-day operations of the franchise in place of the owner must complete the franchisor’s training program and/or own an equity share of the business, and any limitations placed on the manager (such as being approved by the franchise).
Item 16: Restrictions on What the Franchisee May Sell
Restrictions on what you may sell will affect those franchisees who want to operate an expandable business while they own the franchise. This section is also important if you are limited to selling goods or services that won’t make you enough return.
Item 17: Renewal, Termination, Transfer, and Dispute Resolution
This section is one of the most important in the entire document, and is presented in a table format for easy browsing. The best contract is one stating that as long as you do not breech your contract you can renew your franchise agreement, forever. Contracts that place a limit on your possibility to renew solely at the discretion of the franchisor are bad. Also pay close attention to extensive repairs or decoration that will required as a condition of renewal. The amount of money expected to be spent should be reasonable and there should be some kind of formula so that costs are not incurred all in the same year. Additionally, the refurbishment should keep you industry competitive.
There are many types of transfers. Transferring among business entities, such as from a sole proprietorship into a corporation, should definitely be allowed. A good agreement will also allow your franchise to be transferred to your heirs. If this is not allowed and you’re still interested in purchasing the franchise, try to make some provision for the repurchase of your franchise by the franchisor.
This section also outlines the causes for termination of the franchise agreement, states whether the franchise can be sold and who has the right of first refusal (your own blood relatives should not, ideally, come after the franchisor on first rights), and delineates your right to arbitration. Essentially, the more rights you have to control the renewal and transfer of your franchise, the more rights you have for the continuation of your business and the better the agreement. Make sure your franchise attorney reviews these rights as well as your rights to litigation (or requirement to use arbitration). Any additional risks for litigation will also be on the cover page, remember.
Item 18: Public Figures
This section requires the disclosure of any public figures the franchise uses as a spokesperson, how much they were paid, and how much control they have in the business (if any). Find out how this arrangement relates to you, whether you can use that figure in personal appearances or advertising, how much it would cost and how frequently you would be allowed to do so.
Item 19: Earnings Claims
It is very tricky for a franchisor to project, estimate, or in any way forecast financial sales. There are so many variables in play for an individual franchise that it would be mostly guesswork and optimism to project for a prospective franchisee how much money they will make with their business. Any claims made by the franchisor to this effect must be substantiated, so rarely will you see any earning claims included in an FDD. The best way to get an idea of what to expect for earnings is to talk to existing franchisees. Find out how long they’ve been in business, when the business turned profitable, and what their average profits have been. Remember that each business is unique and that each franchisee does not run a business equally well. Speak to several franchisees to get a clearer picture of a range that you might be able to expect.
Item 20: List of Outlets
All of the existing franchise locations, along with the franchisee’s contact information, is listed in this section. This is the pot of gold, right here. Contacting franchisees with questions about their relationship to the franchisor, their ability to meet their contractual obligations, their general earnings, and how realistic the start-up projections are is the best bit of research and review you can possibly do before purchasing your franchise. Prepare your questions and schedule time with franchisees in advance; this one is important.
Item 21: Financial Statements
This section points you to the exhibits containing the audited financial statements of the franchisor for the last three years. Take these statements to a qualified accountant for review. The financial status of the franchisor is a track record, showing you not only the ability of the franchisor to run the business, but also the likelihood of success or failure.
Item 22: Contracts
All contracts or agreements a franchisee will need to sign must be attached to the FDD. This includes the Franchise Agreement, purchase agreements, lease agreements, and others.
Item 23: Receipt
This document is a receipt of acknowledgment of the FDD. This has to be provided as the last page of the document for the franchisee to acknowledge that they have received it. This is only important because no monies can legally be exchanged until 10 days after the receipt of the FDD (the “cooling off” period provided for by law).
Any documents that have been identified in the FDD for the franchise to review or sign must be included as an Exhibit. The exhibits will include copies of such things as the financial statements, franchise agreement, leases, or loan agreements.