Blenz CEO George Moen on the secret to franchising success – and working for the company’s co-founder, his wife.
To say that George Moen lives and breathes franchising wouldn’t be an overstatement. The president of Blenz the Canadian Coffee Co. Ltd. met his wife, Sarah, back in the 1970s, when both were on the board of the B.C. chapter of the Canadian Franchise Association. While he was launching a fast-food sandwich franchise, Moen introduced Sarah to the man who would be one of her partners in founding Blenz, the Vancouver-based coffee franchisor that now counts 57 stores across Canada and another couple of dozen overseas, primarily in Japan and the Philippines. Today George and Sarah Moen are both intimately involved in the company: as an active member of the Blenz board, she is effectively his boss.
The moment I meet George Moen at the Blenz head office in downtown Vancouver, it’s obvious that people skills are a big part of what he brings to the company. Dressed casually in jeans and a loose-fitting shirt, he extends a welcoming hand and immediately turns the interview on its head, peppering me with questions about how long I’ve been writing and my previous work history as he leads me down a hallway to a casual meeting space: a cluster of low-slung fabric chairs set around – of course – a coffee table.
Having filled him in on my particulars, we finally get down to the topic at hand. Describing himself as a serial entrepreneur, Moen explains that he started his first company, Sandwich Tree, in 1978, when he was still a student in finance and marketing at UBC. He left UBC a few courses short of a degree for a wild ride in a real-life business: he and his partners would take Sandwich Tree from a single Vancouver sandwich shop to 100 franchises across Canada before it all came crashing down in the recession of the early ’80s. “That was my first big lesson,” he recalls. “We had over-extended ourselves – a bunch of young guys running the business.” (Moen would return to UBC to complete his degree 10 years later.)
It was at around the time he was launching Sandwich Tree that Moen introduced his wife to Geoff Hair, the former secretary treasurer of the Second Cup chain of coffee shops. Those two would bring in a third partner, Brian Noble, to found Blenz in 1992. At the time, George Moen had no idea that Blenz would figure in his own future.
While his wife pursued her career with Blenz, Moen would be involved in dozens of ventures in the following decades, with the dot-com boom and bust proving particularly exciting. He founded a couple of startups around the turn of the century, one of which he and his partners took public. “It was a complete failure,” he says with a laugh. “It was interesting to watch the dynamics from the inside of one of those things, where everybody lost their minds.”
One of those ventures, however, would ride out the crash. With former Vancouver Canucks player and coach Ryan Walter, Moen backed the development of a software program, called Coaches Planner, aimed at assisting hockey coaching. Moen cut his ties to that company in 2003, but he believes the program is still in use today.
When he was invited by the board to take the helm at Blenz in 2007, Moen was spending most of his time developing High Output Business Networking, a venture that combines old-fashioned meet-and-greet events with an online social-media platform. He maintains an active role in that venture today. (A devotee of social media, Moen claims 21,000 Twitter followers, and he is often invited to speak on combining marketing with social media.)
Moen’s mandate on taking the Blenz presidency was to oversee the company’s next stage of growth. While the company has a successful franchisee-recruiting program and is constantly scouting new locations, Moen is looking beyond growing one store at a time and sees a role as consolidator in Blenz’s future. “In every regional area, there’s a Starbucks and a Blenz equivalent,” he says, adding that there’s little room for all those smaller regional players to grow. “So eventually somebody will consolidate this industry, and we want to be one of those consolidators.”
While Moen enjoys a good cup of coffee as much as the next guy, it wasn’t a taste for premium java that drew him to Blenz; rather, it was his lifelong fascination with franchising. “Yes, we’re in the beverage retail business,” he says, “but really what we are is a franchise development company that just so happens to use coffee as a vehicle.”
While Moen believes he has the answers for building a franchise empire, closer to home, separating life and work has proven a slightly more perplexing challenge. “We try to keep the business to business hours, and when we leave for home the co-founder and the president park their titles and we’re just Sarah and George,” Moen says, though he admits it doesn’t always work out that way. “I know some couples don’t work together well, but so far so good. I’ll let you know.”