Big Horizons for Mr. Miniblind : Low Overhead, a Declining Draperies Market Offers Window of Opportunity to Entrepreneurs

Times Staff Writer

Six months ago, Vince Paglia announced that he was leaving his job as national franchising coordinator for the Prudential Real Estate Affiliate program.

His secretary at Prudential, he said, shrieked, " 'You're going to leave to hang blinds?' " when he disclosed the reason for his departure.

After 13 years as a corporate franchise executive--11 years at Coldwell Banker Residential Real Estate in Newport Beach and two years with Prudential in Costa Mesa--Paglia was trading in his pinstripes and briefcase for a T-shirt and a set of tools.

Paglia became the Mr. Miniblind franchisee for Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley. And he couldn't be happier. "This is an idea that has all the elements of success," Paglia said. "Already, I'm at the point where I'm going to have to hire a part-time installer to help out. I've got too much business to handle alone."

Paglia is one of 52 U.S. franchisees recruited in only 14 can offer because of the volume discounts the company gets from its suppliers.

To get into the business, potential franchisees must buy a territory for $25,000 and buy or lease a van from the dealer of their choice. Other expenses, including office supplies, tools, insurance, the first month's advertising fee and a city business license, can run an additional $1,500 or so.

After buying a franchise, ongoing expenses include monthly royalty payments to Mr. Miniblind Inc. of 5% of gross sales, and a monthly advertising fee of another 5% of gross sales or $1,000, whichever is greater.

The advertising money is used to buy lots of advertising in local and regional newspapers, including Sunday-supplement magazines.

Mark Huckins said that his saturation techniques, and the ability to target advertising to benefit ailing franchise territories, mean that most Mr. Miniblind franchisees don't have to make cold sales calls unless they want to.

Mr. Miniblind is a business born out of necessity. It was conceived when a personal bankruptcy left the Huckinses, former owners of a window and wall decorating store in Irvine, with little but a van and an 1,100-square foot condominium in Irvine.

They started out selling mini-blinds in Irvine and Laguna Niguel, and have retained the franchises for those two territories. The idea took off, and today, the Huckinses preside over a thriving franchise empire.

Last year, Mr. Miniblind recorded slightly more than $1 million in gross sales. The Huckinses claim they realize a 25% profit from the business, which they share with three employees hired to operate the two franchises while they operate the franchising company.

It was the success of their own Mr. Miniblind franchises that enabled the Huckinses to rebound from their bankruptcy, and the bankruptcy taught them lessons that have contributed to the success of the franchising business, Christina said.

For one thing, the Huckinses designed Mr. Miniblind to be a business that doesn't require much capital to get into and that doesn't tie up large chunks of money.

For another, the Huckinses say they live off the profits from their personal franchises and have put every penny of profit from the franchising operations into the bank--giving the business a strong capital base.

Mark, 35, grew up in Downey and worked his way through high school and college installing draperies and blinds. After graduating from Loma Linda University in Riverside with a degree in business management, he opened a decorating store, Mark Huckins Interiors, in Cypress.

He met and married Christina, 36, about two years later. Shortly after the marriage, he attempted to franchise the retail decorating concept, which he had renamed "I Love Drapes."

He sold three franchises before realizing that it was not an idea whose time had come.

"We discovered that draperies actually were a shrinking part of the window treatment market," Christina said, "and we also discovered that, for that type of business to be successful as a franchise, we had to be able to sell the franchises to clones of Mark." It turned out that most people did not have his decorating experience and sense of design aesthetics.

So they moved to Irvine and set up another retail decorating business.

Christina, a native of Detroit with a business degree from Wayne State University, worked in hotel management in Hawaii after graduating from college. She then joined a real estate firm in Marina del Rey before taking a sabbatical to work as a volunteer in Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.

It was during the campaign that she met Mark at a disco in Palm Springs. He proposed during the Republican National Convention in Detroit that year.

After the campaign ended, Christina went to work as an executive headhunter for an Orange County recruiting firm, an experience, she said, that has helped her immeasurably in screening potential Mr. Miniblind franchisees.

"But finally, Mark asked me to come into his business, and that's when we decided to franchise I Love Drapes," she said.

That fiasco and the subsequent loss of their Irvine retail business behind them, the Huckins turned to an idea Mark had been nurturing for some time.

So in 1986, they began Mr. Miniblind, operating with a telephone answering machine in their condo and everything else in a white mini-van that took them to their customers' homes.

"I went to a mini-blind manufacturer's seminar that year wearing my Mr. Miniblind T-shirt," Mark said, "and everyone there was from a drapery store. Then a speaker said that drapes accounted for only 15% of the market while blinds and other alternative coverings were 85% of the market."

It was right after that seminar that Mark filed for trademark protection for the Mr. Miniblind name and Christina began formulating plans for franchising the operation.

According to the International Franchise Assn., a typical domestic franchise operation sells two franchises its first year and averages less than a dozen franchise sales a year for the next two or three years.

The Huckinses took their show on the road for the first time in April, 1988, setting up a booth at a franchise show in Anaheim.

They sold eight franchises that week.

By September, when they were approached by a business broker about selling a master franchise in Japan, they'd sold 18 territories, all in California. As of this month, they've sold 52, mostly in Southern California but with a few in the northern part of the state, two in Arizona and one in Nevada.

Last month, they signed a deal for an estimated $750,000 cash plus continuing royalties to sell master franchise rights for Mr. Miniblind Japan to a major Japanese housewares manufacturer. The contract calls for 20 franchises to be operating by the end of the first year, and the franchise holder, LEC Inc., has said it can sell 1,500 throughout the country.

Next on the agenda, said Christina, is Texas, then Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and the rest of the western states. Then the rest of the United States.

"We've had calls from people in Atlanta and Detroit who want to buy franchises already," she said. "Our strategy calls for us to move fast. We want to be national by the end of next year."

Paglia, the former Prudential franchising executive who bought the Palm Springs and Coachella Valley territory from Mr. Miniblind, is being courted by the Huckinses. They want him to become an executive again, heading up the national franchising drive.

"We're still negotiating," Paglia said.

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