The retired veterans found the youth sports franchise when their son signed up to play. When they saw what i9 Sports was really doing, they knew they wanted more.
Walter and Sandra Reaves may be new franchisees this year in Savannah, Georgia, but they’ve got more than a little experience when it comes to working with kids: They have six of their own, ranging in age from 9 to 32. When the retired Marine and Army veterans were looking for their next big adventure, it was their 9-year-old son, the only one left in the house, who led them toward their new entrepreneurial journey. They loved the i9 Sports philosophy of “every kid plays” and the focus on convenience, value and fundamentals. When they were considering what to do after their military careers, they knew they wanted to be a part of it. They tell their story in this i9 Sports franchise review.
When did the two of you become franchisees?
WALTER REAVES: I started at i9 Sports with my son in 2016. I was an active duty Marine and my wife was on active duty in the Army. She just retired in May of 2019. We were looking for something for my son to do. I happened to see a road sign from Jay Mechtly. He runs the i9 Sports in Jacksonville, North Carolina, where we lived before we both retired from the military.
We started there. My son started playing. We all enjoyed it because it gave him something to do and it fit into our schedule. After several seasons of him playing, my wife decided, “Hey, you should coach.” So I started coaching, and I coached his team for probably four or five seasons, and then Jay approached me about becoming a staff member. So then I became a staff member, and that’s all she wrote from there.
When did you open your franchise?
We went to the first Discovery Day in October of 2019 and then we got our money together and we opened our franchise in December. Our first season was scheduled for April, but due to the pandemic it got pushed back until August.
What are some of the most valuable ways corporate has supported you as a new franchisee?
WALTER: We do have our phone call with Kelvyn Hemphill, our business coach, every week. He keeps us on the right track and encourages us — not that we need encouraging, but it’s always good to hear from corporate and when they’re telling you, “Hey, you’re doing something right.” That has been very helpful to us.
In addition, the Phase 1 training broke everything down. We knew the system — I reffed, I coached, I’m a staff member, my wife’s a site manager. But we didn’t know all the ins and outs. So Phase 1 helped us out a lot, too.
Did you ever look at other brands to compare the investment or was it just a matter of right opportunity, right time?
WALTER: Actually, I was first looking at a Chick-fil-A franchise. I made it to the fifth interview, and it’s really a long process. I wanted something now, and I enjoyed what I was doing with Jay. It was also about spending time with my son and watching him develop and helping other kids develop as well.
We have so many parents in the system who just had kids in the program and loved it so much they became franchisees. What is your own personal background in sports? Did you and your wife play sports as a kid?
WALTER: Yes, we both played sports.
SANDRA REAVES: My very first sport was T-ball, and I played softball, volleyball, basketball and, being a little tomboy, I also played football with my brother, and soccer as well.
WALTER: I played football and some basketball.
So you’ve probably always been passionate about the importance of sports in a child’s life.
WALTER: Yes. Always, and one of the things that I love about i9 Sports is that all the kids get to play. It’s funny to me when you see a kid try out for a regular team and doesn’t make the team — then how does he get better? Do you just sit them on the bench? What is it that develops this kid to make him better? You might have a little LeBron James somewhere and he just never gets to play. That’s one of the things I really love about i9 Sports.
You and your wife both have this military background. I would love to hear how that skillset has served you as franchise owners.
WALTER: Leadership is leadership, I always say. If you’re able to lead Marines into combat, it’s a little less difficult to lead kids in sports and lead your franchise. We’re naturals at this.
SANDRA: Being in the military, you have to face whatever person you’re working with — I mean we’re all different. Different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and how they grew up and the way they feel about how things should go. Everybody has to work together, no matter where you come from. We all work together as one team, and you’ve got to work with everybody. You’ve got to provide some type of motivation to work together to basically accomplish one mission.
Have you talked to other veterans who have called about investing in an i9 Sports?
WALTER: I talk with people almost every day. I’ve been spreading the word about the brand and there’s a lot of people interested. Probably we’ll have a lot of new military members doing it. The one good thing I know that Jay Mechtly does here is try to give back to the community. So Jay has a certificate that he hands out to people in the military to let them know that they’re appreciated and that we appreciate what they’re doing for the community.
What do you want your franchise to look like in five years? Do you want to get more territories?
WALTER: Well, we’re brand new so we’re still in the infancy stages. Right now I want to have at least full coverage of Savannah. I’m thinking maybe five sites. In the future, there’s another town that’s right outside of our territory and we want to expand out there. There are actually three towns that I’m looking at that I’d like to envelop as well.
As you’ve been going through the process, is there anything that has surprised you? WALTER: Nothing’s really surprised us yet. Like I said, we’ve been involved in i9 Sports for quite some time. We’re pretty flexible people.
SANDRA: We’ve seen different countries, we are very flexible and we’re able to adapt and overcome and do anything.
WALTER: Every time Kelvyn calls, we’re like, “Yeah, we’re still excited.” It’s still like a new toy to us.
How have the two of you decided to divvy up the responsibilities? Who’s doing what?
WALTER: I’m the CEO. My wife is the financial officer.
SANDRA: On Discovery Day they gave us a book to read, which helped us out a lot because it talked about how small businesses should be able to divvy up the responsibility, even though they’ve got partners and shareholders at the same time.
My husband and I read the book and we decided to divide up the operations. I handle the financial portion but he oversees everything.
Is there anything else about this experience of ramping up your business that you think would be important to tell a prospective buyer?
SANDRA: Yes, I love how the corporate office is there for you. They give you the training and they’re always available no matter what questions or concerns you have. They address them and they’re awesome. I was amazed at how welcomed I felt into the i9 Sports family. It made me feel good.
If there is a prospect I am talking to I would tell them they will not let you fail. They will set you up for success.
WALTER: And I would add to that just follow the steps. Don’t worry. Just follow the plan. That’s us in the military — we have plans, this is what we’re going to do. Just follow the plan.
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