Kathryn Rookes – Atticus Franchise Group
Efficiency’s at a premium when one person comprises the legal department of a company that owns or operates three very different types of franchises.
Case in point: The Atlanta-based Atticus Franchise Group that at last count had interests in 121 locations of Massage Envy, Maaco and Wingstop franchises. It’s anticipating the addition of around 80 more such stores by year’s end, and that’s a lot of details for General Counsel Kathryn Rookes to pore over.
With her legal skills and industry experience augmented by technological savvy, she’s more than keeping pace with the expansion, thanks to a database Rookes developed that tracks many key performance indicators of the three franchise brands under the Atticus umbrella.
“Just a simple Access® database I created in my spare time,” she tells Vanguard in February. “I’m always trying to come up with a better mousetrap.”
This one captures all data about every location, square feet of leased space, the franchise agreement, the entity that holds it, the lease expiration dates, and the average, minimum and maximum rent for every brand.
“Because of the organizational work I’ve done with all this documentation, I can do so much more in one day,” she explains while taking a breather from examining a couple complex financial transactions that include compiling data and documents from over 100 locations nationwide, which took less than one day. “Though I may jokingly tell my boss I’ve slaved over a hot stove for the past week.”
At any given time, there’s some store being acquired and another divested, and each brand having its own stringent standards for Atticus to maintain. Much of the time Atticus becomes the franchisee of choice with its franchisors, the firm having demonstrated the ability to right a distressed shop.
“One of the things I’m enjoying most about this role is it allowing me to be more of a decision-maker than in my previous positions,” Rookes goes on to say. “Previously I would identify risks and make a recommendation, but here I’m able to weigh in on what we should do and how to go about it.”
By her own estimation, she’s also one of the few franchise industry lawyers who can claim the trifecta of regulatory experience, private practice and extensive in-house experience.
As far as that first matter is concerned, it may have been a lucky break that when Rookes graduated the University of Baltimore School of Law in 1990, an economic downturn lessened the demand for young lawyers.
Having studied accounting and economics as a Towson University undergrad and earned a CPA designation, Rookes would bide her time doing forensic accounting for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, serving on the enforcement side of the Securities Division. The role not being challenging enough, she looked around the building and saw that the department charged with franchise regulation needed some help reviewing filings.
Turned out that Maryland was among almost half the states that mandate some kind of registration from franchisors as well as disclosures about the company, its executives, bankruptcy history if any, and fee arrangements necessary to seal a deal.
By the time Rookes left the AG’s Office in 1993, she’d be well prepared to take those skills in-house, but first there would be four years practicing franchise law with two franchise boutique firms. Come 1997 she’d commence with what’s been a career serving the franchise industry either in-house or in private practice.
Her choice in-house
As senior attorney at Choice Hotels International from 1997 to 2002, Rookes would manage domestic licensing for eight hotel brands, including disclosure and negotiation of franchise licenses, ongoing compliance and termination of franchise agreements.
She’d spend the next six years as vice president and senior vice president of FOCUS Brands Inc., an affiliate of Roark Capital Group, in whose brands Atticus invests. That would prep her well for Atticus, but first Rookes would serve franchising via a return to private practice with a virtual law firm from 2008 to 2012, and then as the general counsel with the Alpharetta, Georgia-based international franchise company Lynx Franchising, owner of the Jan-Pro and Intelligent Office brands.
That kind of a resume in the very specialized industry of franchising had Atticus inquiring about whether Rookes might want to change teams. The firm’s patience finally paid off last September after a year of intense recruiting.
“They sought me out but it took a long time to convince me because I was very happy at Lynx,” Rookes says. “But I decided to join the team because it represented a new challenge. Now I’m with a franchisee instead of a franchisor.”
She also lauds a favorable office culture that allows Rookes to work twice a week at her farmhouse on 11 acres in suburban Conyers and the rest of the time in a collaborative headquarters where colleagues work next to each other in an open environment and everyone’s encouraged to sound off ideas.
And there are fewer distractions at the office, she says, as down on the farm Rookes keeps 11 horses—including six of her own, two of them rescued from a kill-pen—as well as dogs, cats, a goat and guinea pigs. An obvious animal lover and comfortable behind the wheel of a pickup truck on Georgia’s famous red clay, she’s also the mother of an adult and teen daughter.
“I always knew I wanted to work in business,” Rookes says. “Litigation isn’t for me. I enjoy helping people and I’m in a position where I can help people get into business for themselves. At Atticus we get to be in business for ourselves, but not by ourselves, as we also have the franchisors’ support.”
Given Atticus’ ambitious expansion agenda, that should be a lot more locations she’ll be acquiring by the end of 2020.
“It’s a busy, fast-paced environment for my legal department, which consists of me, myself and I,” she says with a laugh.
But three-decades in the franchise industry, coupled with the database she’s assembled, should enable Rookes to stay ahead of the game.
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