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Family Loss Fueled My Small Business Leadership Success

Dan Tarantin, CEO of Harris Research, Inc.

Grief is a powerful beast. While it may have the power to consume you, it also has the rare ability to chew you up and spit you back out as a stronger, more resilient person who is less fearful of the world and emboldened with a new sense of strength.

When I was 13 years old on my first day of high school, my father passed away. This was a tough age to lose a parent – I was still a kid, trying to emotionally manage the loss of my father while needing to take on a larger role within the household. To lessen the burden on my mother, who was going through her own grieving process, I began working outside of the small propane business my father started and where my brothers worked. I found a job in a sub shop, learning the ins and outs of running a small business before even finishing my freshman year of high school.

The early exposure to employee management, daily shop upkeep, and handling money sparked a fire inside of me. Learning to lead a team through a busy rush hour was not only a helpful distraction from my loss, but laid the foundation for my passion for business. I worked hard until I was ready to manage the shop on my own at 16, and then began forming my identity as a leader rather than an employee. I learned how to build teams of all ages that worked most effectively together, how to mentor and manage employees, and how to run a successful small business.

That experience led me to attend college and graduate with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. While ultimately not staying in that field more than one year after graduating, I learned and internalized the essential importance of true customer service that I have carried with me and held as a core principle for the rest of my life and career.

Finding the world of franchising

Fast-forward eight years, and I found myself the CEO of Jackson Hewitt Tax Services in my early 30's. Building upon the lessons learned early from my father and my job in that sub shop during my teenage years, I jumped into the world of franchising with an eagerness to pull together and strengthen teams that were built for success. With a focus on growing strong, healthy systems, franchising was the perfect way to hone that skill on a larger scale. In my four years with the company, we doubled in size to 3,600 locations, grew same store sales by an average of 16 percent per year and grew EBIDTA more than tenfold. Needless to say, my first stint in franchising was a successful one – I had found my calling.

In 2011, I became president and CEO of Harris Research, Inc. (HRI), franchisor of Chem-Dry Carpet and Upholstery Cleaning and N-Hance Wood Refinishing. As a driving force behind the continued growth and success of each of our brands, it was the consequences of my family tragedy that started and fueled my small business passion and success. Below were some of the key ingredients I learned and have used to become a strong and effective leader:

1. Take advantage of resources available to you. Your entire team is a resource. Your customers as well as vendors are key resources. Accept that you do not know everything and may not be the best at it. Surround yourself with people who are far stronger than you in their respective areas of responsibility.  Be sure to utilize the tools available to you, ask questions, internalize advice and most importantly, respect the guidance from your peers, colleagues and other stakeholders who have been in the business longer.

2. Be an active listener. Be mindful and empathetic, and engage yourself in conversations by asking questions to deepen your understanding of the problem or issues at hand. Seek out and listen carefully to the thoughts and suggestions of your employees and your customers and find a balance of the feedback you receive when creating your business vision. Both perspectives are valuable and vital to your and the company's success.

3. Implement a flexible growth strategy. Recognize that the economy should not change your business' development plans, only the approach of how you reach those goals. Businesses need to be able to adapt to various highs and lows that they will experience.

4. Hire smart. Create a diverse team with people who will challenge each other and instigate conversations that will open doors to different opinions and ideas. Passion is a must for a committed, hyper-productive, reliable team. Create opportunities for the team to have fun together because a team that enjoys and likes each other is also more productive.

5. Give back to things you're passionate about. This is important on a personal level, but it's also important professionally in creating the kind of company culture and value system that helps companies to be successful and desirable places to work. I am deeply involved in and on the board of Comfort Zone Camp, a bereavement camp with programs across the country. Comfort Zone helps grieving children who have lost a parent or sibling discover their capacity to heal, grow and lead more fulfilling lives. We have also found ways within the companies I've led to give back to the communities we serve, supporting and raising money for causes like breast cancer awareness/research and shelter pet adoption.

Taking all of the above into account, I still find myself most appreciative of my days in the sub shop, taking the helm of a small business like the one my father built. Whether managing a team of five during busy lunch hours or leading an international franchise system, it all comes down to people – be good to and serve your team, and they'll be good to you.

About the author: Dan Tarantin is the president and CEO of Harris Research, Inc. (HRI), franchisor of international home services brands Chem-Dry Carpet and Upholstery Cleaning and N-Hance Wood Refinishing.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Nicole Fallon.

Image Credit: Harris Research, Inc.