Barry Brown never intended his window coverings franchise to be a test bed for a UCCS business mentoring program. In fact, he never meant to be a franchise owner in the home design world at all. Brown, a UCCS graduate and Army veteran, ran Barry Brown Photography in Colorado Springs for a decade before moving to Portland, Oregon, for a graduate business degree, then moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to specialize in health care management.
Call it fortuitous circumstance or a random walk, but Brown has found his ideal mix of business niche and intern training, influencing the direction of corporate culture. By mentoring interns in his Gotcha Covered franchise, he aims not only to fine-tune their talents in interior design and work with potential franchisees, but to get students to think about business process development and building a healthy internal corporate culture.
UCCS has been fostering entrepreneurial incubators in technology for more than 20 years, ranging from the multi-institution Colorado Springs Technology Incubator at the turn of the century to the leaner and more tightly focused The Garage, founded in 2015. Mentorship in the college of business, however, revolves around more individualized programs that connect business executives and collegiate partners with students who want to learn behind-the-scenes business practices while gaining skills in vertical domains. Call it interns with benefits.
Gotcha Covered in its present incarnation came about when process-software company V2K acquired the small but scrappy Gotcha Covered in 2009. The combined company kept the latter name, and expanded to well over 100 franchises covering most of the U.S. and several Canadian provinces. Beyond installing blinds, shutters and curtains, the company specializes in software-based window design.
Brown first considered acquiring an existing open franchise of Denver-based Gotcha Covered in early 2020, but was hesitant to complete the acquisition as the nation went into lockdown. By mid-spring, however, it became evident that the cancellation of travel and vacations meant that people were willing to spend more money on home improvements, which made the franchise more lucrative — at least in theory. He and his wife, Lisa LaForge, are co-owners of the franchise. LaForge also runs Dine, a personal chef business.
Brown’s ties to the Springs Chamber of Commerce, as well as his serving as a Chamber of Commerce Ambassador in both Michigan and Colorado, set the table for working with the new business school team at his alma mater, UCCS. They’d launched the mentorship program several months before Brown got involved, in the 2020-21 winter semester.
How did a window-covering franchise get involved in mentoring?
During the course of my photography business here in town, I hired interns from UCCS, so I already appreciated the benefits. What was true then and now is that I might have the more established wisdom and background in business, but interns bring a fresh approach to examining business practices, and unconventional ways of solving problems. One intern I am working with today is quite bright at developing new ways of considering a design job and planning for a task’s execution.
It wasn’t a straight line between the photo studio and Gotcha Covered, though.
No, my wife got a job offer in Portland, and so I took the opportunity to get my [MBA] at Portland State University. I got the graduate degree in 2012, after getting my original degree from UCCS in 2005. While I was still in Portland, I began working for the health care industry, particularly in examining overall business practices in emerging fields like telemedicine. We moved to Grand Rapids to care for ailing family members, and I continued my work in health care. It was interesting, in all kinds of areas like electronic medical records and telemedicine, health care traditionalists seemed really unwilling to make a lot of changes to their methods a few years ago, but of course the pandemic made things like telemedicine commonplace.
I got involved with the Network for Good organization [which creates software for nonprofits] in Michigan, and through them learned about designing installations in commercial and residential sites. I met some people from Gotcha Covered in Michigan, and decided this was much more fun than the field I was in. It was a pretty big shift in careers, but from the first experiences working with installations, to learning more about Gotcha Covered, it was a field I just loved.
So you bought an existing franchise — did the pluses outweigh the minuses, buying a business in a pandemic year?
The owner of the previous franchise had moved out of state, so I acquired the rights through headquarters in Denver, and the acquisition was completed in August 2020. Overall, I think people in any line of business would prefer normality over pandemic, but sales for Gotcha Covered were significantly higher by late spring of last year. What we have to constantly remember is that the volumes we saw in 2020 are not sustainable, and that a return to normal means you don’t have to deal with shortages, back-orders, and similar challenges unique to the pandemic.
Growing a business in a pandemic was by no means easy, particularly when you consider issues of social isolation and the like, but the demand from the customer base made it worth the struggle for those first few months of owning the franchise.
Did it help in areas like marketing and supply chain management to have a corporate headquarters nearby?
I’ve owned my own business with the photography studio, and we made the decision a long time ago that I could never come back and rebuild a business like that. With a franchise, particularly one with a headquarters in close proximity, you have a nearby corporate team that can help in marketing visibility, help in IT and operating system software issues, help in supply chains. I not only have the head office in Denver, but 130 other franchisees who are more partners than they are competitors.
One thing that surprised me was the franchise’s brand equity had more power than I anticipated. The clients of the former franchise owner were contacting me for follow-on work, rather than the other way around.
What’s the most important thing to impart to those you mentor?
It’s not the specifics of the window-covering industry as much as general corporate cultures and ways of doing business. One thing I’ve learned in several decades in business is that “culture trumps strategy.” You can have an ideal structure, but a toxic work culture can be devastating. When I graduated from UCCS, plenty of business graduates were looking for a title and money. Many students today are looking for a benevolent, open and supporting culture first, because that can lead to a better corporate environment overall.
If the mentor effort is successful, could it lead to an opportunity for you to conduct workshops or seminars with UCCS?
That’s a good idea! We’re just at an early stage in the mentor process right now, but I hope to continue to participate in the effort for many years to come.