Jim Abrams doesn’t just start businesses, he creates national brands. The mind behind such home service franchises as Ben Franklin Plumbing and the vision behind Fyzical Therapy and Balance Centers, he’s spent decades successfully building familiarity and trust with companies. It’s a little surprising, then, that the Sarasota businessman has never jumped into the world of chain restaurants, an industry closely associated with the franchising model. That’s why people paid serious attention late last year when he announced the opening of two new restaurants downtown: PBnT and Element. 

The move comes, incidentally, as Abrams plans his third “retirement.” He’ll retire as CEO of Fyzical sometime in 2018, though he will remain the leader of BizZoom portfolio of companies, and relax into the world of food services, which any chef will tell you isn’t that relaxing a field at all. You can’t blame investors for thinking this most recent move marks the start of something big rather than signaling the winding down of the Abrams empire. After the announcement of the PBnT concept—the restaurant will focus on a simple menu of pizza, burgers and tacos—Abrams started getting calls immediately about franchise opportunities. “Probably 100 have expressed interest,” he says.

Abrams’ background includes plenty of examples of success, starting with home air conditioning services and, included along the way, the sale of a company for $183 million. And he proudly notes that his business practices not only made him a millionaire but helped some of the most successful contractors around the country become industry leaders.


Startup Success

Before Abrams ran a home services empire from Sarasota, he sold air conditioning units in St. Louis. After going to college to study accounting, in the 1970s Abrams sought out an industry with growth potential and decided central air would chill homes of the future. He got a corporate job at Trane and climbed the ranks from sales to executive.

In 1981, Abrams went solo, founding Home Energy Services, an HVAC service based in St. Louis. He grew the locale from a shop in a bad part of town to a company earning $12 million a year by 1988. He rebranded the business first to Air Experts, and later to Service Experts. The company by 1996 grew so much he took it public on NASDAQ, and a year later got the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The business boasted a $220 million valuation when Abrams in 1999 retired, ready to leave the rat race and find a nice place in Florida to relish life.

“When I grew up in Detroit, my father told me if you can get wealthy as a relatively young man, get out,” Abrams recalls. So he did, and found paradise on Sarasota’s shores. Call it Retirement No. 1.

But the life of middle-aged retirement proved dauntingly boring to a 50-year-old Abrams and he started a new project. This time, he wouldn’t just make a great air conditioning service, but a franchising empire for a variety of home services. Thus Clockwork Home Services was born in 1999. He started out establishing affinity grounds like Airtime 500 and Plumbers Success International, but the Clockwork portfolio would launch its own brands as well. Those included One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating, born in 2003 as the first HVAC company that offered a speedy service guarantee. But it also included Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, launched in 2002 and today the third biggest plumbing franchise in the nation behind Roto Rooter and Mr. Rooter. And it included electrician service Mister Sparky and the contractor network BuyMax Alliance. Abrams’ company took over the 9th floor of Plaza at Fire Points and the penthouse office suite, where Abrams grew the company during boom periods and lean times. Come 2010, its three lead home service brands boasted over $1 billion in sales, and Clockwork had over $3 billion in sales once business done by affinity groups figures in. At the same time, he grew the separate Mutual Fund Store, which had $140 million in funds when he invested in it in 2001 and has since grown to more than $10 billion under his management.

While Clockwork proved a huge success story in itself, he still wonders if he could have done more. “It has been my desire to build the largest brands and make them household names,” Abrams says. “I didn’t get that part done.” Instead, at the peak of the recession, Abrams took a call from Direct Energy, which was looking to make a major business acquisition in North America. Concerned about the impact of the housing bust on the portfolio of brands, Abrams decided in 2011 to sell for $183 million. If he’d known the economic recovery would come almost immediately after the sale, he would have held out a little longer, but he doesn’t look back and hardly can categorize that type of payday as a mistake. As Retirement No. 2, the sale set up Abrams and his family for a comfortable life. But he still had more business passions to pursue. With Clockwork off his plate, he quickly launched BizZoom in 2012. The company promises help for startups by offering deep industry expertise and local market experience, the type that made Clockwork more than a portfolio of brands and helped turn franchise owners into millionaires. 

He quickly invested in health and fitness with the Fyzical brand to great success. Fyzical is a franchised physical therapy clinic that looks like a personalized gym but gets powered up with medical expertise. Personal wellness plans help those receiving therapy to not only fix an ailment but restore and improve a healthy lifestyle. Balance testing puts an emphasis on the epidemic of falling injuries, which have grown worse as the nation’s population gradually aged. Abrams’ company remains the majority owner, even after the company has grown to 258 physical therapy center locations and another 32 under development. The company is the fastest growing health franchise in the nation and the 156th fastest growing company period, Abrams boasts.

That includes direct appliance dealer Pricefixer and related company Praxis S-10, a sort of college for contractors endorsed by Hiller sold as a sort of Uber for air conditioning service and officially became the fastest growing franchise in history after setting up 110 locations in the first three months after its 2016 launch.

 

Branding Boosts

Abrams today remains especially proud that he’s not only made a fortune to support his family but that he’s helped other entrepreneurs to do the same. For decades now, Abrams has enjoyed a reputation for unlocking the secret to success. Abrams rattles off a list of mentees who he helped through the years, like Scott Vigue, who turned a One Hour Air Conditioning franchise from a small business doing $300,000 in sales a year into a small empire producing $30 million in annual revenue, or Jimmy Hiller, a Nashville plumber who attended business classes led by Abrams and employed those lessons to grow a small shop to the point where it just passed $100 million in sales. 

He even earned a small cache of mainstream fame along the way. In 2010, he appeared on The Apprentice, convening briefly with then television host Donald Trump years before the developer entered the world of presidential politics. “I did meet him, and also Donald Jr. and Ivanka,” Abrams says. “There was no discussion of politics—let’s just say my political views are a different spectrum than Donald Trump’s.” Though he still remembers the impressive family bond between the president and his children.

And at age 70, he’s sharing his knowledge with the world with the release of a book on how to succeed owning a service business, tentatively titled The Baby is on the Island. He’s already published abother book as well, A Contractor’s Guide to Greatness.

His knowledge includes solid branding practices. He briefly explains the power of certain letters of the alphabet that. He knows the strength of the letter ‘Z,’ demonstrated in BizZoom or Fyzical. And he utilized that clucking ‘K’ sound, as in Clockwork, to make a name click in someone’s head, the same way a stand-up comedian relies on certain sounds to drive home a punch line.

Abrams feels confident his business and management practices remain spongable enough to work within any industry. One of his principles posits that a combination of knowledge, planning and management (or K+P+M) will equal success. Abrams' previous good fortune means he has enough capital to support these businesses, so the future looks bright. It also means he can do things without putting in 80-hour weeks in the startup phase. That’s something else he tells entrepreneurs. Capital can carry you through a lot of problems, but if you don’t have it, sweat equity makes up the difference. That helped him in the days he launched a company in St. Louis, and now he can be his own eternal angel investor.

 

Rich Food

Abrams technically made his first foray into the restaurant industry in 2011, not long after selling Clockwork. He’d discovered a delicious shrimp po’boy at a New Orleans restaurant, and decided to use his new wealth to bring the dish to his adopted hometown of Sarasota, and he opened Duval’s New World Café. At a time when businesses routinely got swallowed by economic downturn, Abrams took the opportunity to buy the entire building that houses Duval’s. Pretty soon, he was applying his branding expertise and business acumen to the company. He bought out his original partner and started raising the profile of the establishment. And he’s since updated the branding of the seafood place, which now goes by Duval’s Fresh. Local. Seafood., with punctuation that drives copy editors nuts but pounds in to consumer’s brains the selling points of sustainable, locally sourced ingredients.

As Abrams looks at Retirement No. 3 at Fyzical, the one thing he still can’t master is taking it easy. His portfolio of restaurants expanded significantly in 2017. Working in the same Five Points Plaza building that once houses Clockwork’s corporate headquarters, he opened PBnT: Pizza Burgers Tacos and Element: Modern Mediterranean Grill in November. Element draws in guests with a lux environment, gorgeous dishes and dazzling digital lighting and animation. PBnT, in contrast, banks on simple charm. Here, you can still find Abrams love of branding; in this case he mind fakes consumers who may first read a common acronym for a peanut butter and jelly, and then at that last letter experience a switch and have their interest piqued in the menu items.

It’s PBnT that already has investors hungering for franchise opportunities. But Abrams doesn’t want to rush things. “I haven’t proven the concept,” he says. “I hate the idea of someone buying into it thinking I have the magical touch.” Almost certainly, there will tweaks in offerings and processes. And Abrams doesn’t know for certain what those will be, having spent a career fine-tuning ways to sell piping and ventilation system repairs, not pepperoni and commercial kitchen efficiencies.

And of course, Abrams also enjoys a successful family life. He has three children from an earlier marriage, including sons James, a successful screenwriter in Los Angeles, Sean, who works at BizZoom, and Jonathan, a successful real estate agentHe also has two stepchildren with wife Kathleen, including Shannon, a senior executive at Apple, and Colleen, a teacher taking time off with a new infantAll of Abrams' four grandchildren live in Sarasota. 

And Abrams has the Sarasota community, which provided a great place to raise a family and a solid place from which to do business for decades. And beyond profit and personal enrichment, he’s proud to have played such a role in job creation for the area. “With Fyzical, we have already created 20 new jobs in Sarasota,” he says. “People are moving here from elsewhere in the US, as they did for Clockwork. I’m very proud of that.” He donates to charities in the region, often anonymously, but it’s the business footprint here he sees as a community legacy. “Much of what I do,” he says, “is a gift to Sarasota.”

And at age 70 he still believes he has more to give.