Sandra McCraren will be the first to admit that when she started her career in restaurant financing nearly 30 years ago, she definitely had luck on her side. She went to work for a bank that was in the very early stages of helping form what is now the national lending program for McDonald’s franchisees.
"Quite frankly, I didn’t even know that type of franchise financing existed in banking, and I fell in love with it," says McCraren.
McCraren spent the next 15 years working in franchise finance. In 2003, she accepted an offer to join Rosemont, Ill.-based Wintrust Financial Corp. to grow one of the bank’s de novo branches, and she shifted her focus from franchise financing to retail banking. But it wasn’t long before some of her former clients started calling, and she started booking franchise loans – especially with McDonald’s franchisees.
She soon found that she was not only running the bank branch, but she also had developed a new niche lending unit for the bank. McCraren now serves as senior managing director at Wintrust Franchise Finance, which has grown to a team of 15 people who are actively lending nationwide. The main focus for the group is servicing QSR and fast-casual restaurant clients. And yes, she still works with McDonald’s franchisees, including some of her original clients where she is now providing financing for the third generation.
"Franchise lending is one of those niches, that in my opinion, requires a finance partner who understands the unique needs, the unique timing and the ebbs and flows in the franchise space," says McCraren. The good news for franchisees is that there is a lot of liquidity in the market and a lot talented finance people who can help them access capital. "So, it’s a good time to go out and explore opportunities with their finance partners," she says.
Borrowers can find some very aggressive deals in today’s market. However, McCraren cautions franchisees to take a step back and look at their needs for the future and plan their business strategy along with the help of their financial advisor. "One of the things that we try to do very thoughtfully is plan for tomorrow, plan for next year and plan for the next couple of years," she says. "Together we can create a road map so there are no surprises and there is more support to get the franchisee to their target," she says.