Successfully managing 12 different franchise brands at The Dwyer Group likely requires military-like precision and coordination. So it comes as no surprise that the company’s Chief Operating Officer has these skills in spades: prior to her transformation into a highly successful business executive, Mary Kennedy Thompson was a logistics officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.Thompson comes from a strong military family. Her father, a three-time Bronze Star recipient, was a colonel by the time he retired, after 30 years in the army, and Thompson herself was only 21 when she enlisted. As a military logistics officer, she was responsible for moving people and supplies around, and served on exercises in far-off locales like Korea, the Philippines, and Okinawa, Japan. She also became jump-qualified at a time when few women in the military sought this out. “My parents raised me to believe that when you set your mind to something, you do it,” she says. “So not to do it was not considered an option.”
These and other skills learned during her nine years in the Marine Corps have served Thompson well in the business world. This is especially the case in her current role at The Dwyer Group, where she oversees an extensive portfolio of franchise organizations tied to home repair, enhancement, and maintenance, including familiar names like Mr. Rooter Plumbing and The Grounds Guys.
Managing and juggling multiple brands isn’t easy, but for a former marine like Thompson, it’s all in a day’s work, and she regularly taps into the unique skill set she acquired in the military. “It teaches you discipline in a way that allows you to get things done, and that discipline has served me well throughout my entire business career,” explains Thompson, who has won numerous industry accolades over the years, including Strategize Magazine’s Executive of the Year.
The military also instilled in Thompson valuable leadership skills, and gave her the backbone to cope well with all forms of stress – including the stress that’s inherent in running a large, successful business. “I was leading a platoon of 54 marines when I was just 22 years old, and that outstanding leadership training so early in my life is something I now use every single day,” she says. “While there are days that are very stressful in business, none compare to the stressful days I had in my early 20s in the military. I can put that into perspective and be more consistent in my approach – I can respond rather than react.”
Despite her appreciation for the service, Thompson left the military to pursue what she calls a “burning desire” to succeed in business. As she handed in her resignation, her commanding officer warned her she was giving up the opportunity to one day become a general. She responded that she was giving up her chance to be the president of a company if she didn’t – prophetic words that were eventually proven right.
That said, Thompson’s first foray into the world of business started at a slightly lower rung of the corporate ladder: she initially worked as a sales rep for a supplier of scientific products. Then one day, her husband brought home a brochure for Cookies by Design, and Thompson’s move into the world of franchising was sealed. “I realized this is what I was meant to do,” she says, “I was meant to lead a team toward a common mission.”
After successfully building up, and then selling, three Cookies by Design franchise operations in Texas, where she still lives, Thompson was invited to join the company’s head office in a bespoke position she herself coined: that of shop facilitator. By the time she left the business 12 years later, she was the President of the franchisor head office.
Leaving wasn’t easy, and it came about when Thompson crossed paths with the President of Dwyer Group, Mike Bidwell, and once more found herself at a career crossroads. He asked her to join the company as President of its Mr. Rooter plumbing brand. It took a bit of convincing, but in due course, Thompson embraced the opportunity. She even took the time to earn her plumbing licence during her tenure there – an arduous four-year process that gave her “a new respect for technicians and everything our franchisees learn and know.” Given that only 1.5 per cent of all licensed plumbers in the U.S. are women, it proved another important feather in Thompson’s already crowded cap.
What ultimately attracted Thompson to The Dwyer Group, however, was its strong core values and focus on building leaders within its ranks. Its code of values – called ‘Living R.I.C.H.’ – was about respecting people, running the business with integrity, focusing on the customer, and having fun in the process. This resonated with Thompson. “We consider ourselves something of an incubator for leaders, and we’re really focused on our values,” she says. “We know we can’t do anything without good people, so we grow leaders wherever we can find them and teach them the principles of good and strong leadership.”
Thompson’s role within The Dwyer Group grew as well, and today, as its COO, she oversees its many successful franchise brands. Combined, they cover pretty much all of the major home repair and maintenance categories, including painting (Five Star Painting), window cleaning (Window Genie), and general handiwork (Mr. Handyman). To facilitate this comprehensive service offering, the company recently launched getneighbourly.ca, an online platform where customers can access all of the brands from one portal, get expert advice, and keep track of all of their service calls.
In Canada, The Dwyer Group has more than 100 franchise operations spread across all provinces except Quebec. Mr. Rooter is the largest plumbing brand in the country, says Thompson, while Window Genie will be the company’s newest introduction, and will enter the Canadian market within the next 18 months. Five Star Painting is also relatively new, and Mr. Electric, The Grounds Guys, Aire Serv, and Rainbow International (a restoration services company) are doing well. All of the Canadian franchise operations are run from the U.S. as direct franchises.The company is actively looking for new franchisees for its brands. While some attract professionals with the requisite trade skills, like licensed plumbers in the case of Mr. Rooter, most are open to a wider audience. All applicants, however, have to have what Thompson calls the number one skill in running a successful franchise: grit. “It’s not the person with the most money, it’s not the smartest one, or the one with the most experience. It’s the person with the most grit,” she says. “They can see where they want to go, and they’re willing to work through the challenges to get there.”
Thompson also warns that the franchise model isn’t for everyone. People she calls “extreme entrepreneurs” are not a good fit, i.e., those who want to develop their own business vision, and are looking to re-invent the wheel. For everyone else, however, franchising can be an amazing career option. As Thompson explains: “It’s for the person who wants to be in business for themselves but not by themselves. If you want to lead a team toward a common goal and you have the discipline and grit to do it, franchising is a very good place to be.”
By Roma Ihnatowycz