Ab Igram: Grad School Fueled Passion for Franchise Finance
Ab Igram already had a solid resume in business consulting by the time he caught the “bug” for franchise financing.
Igram currently serves as managing director of Sponsor and Specialty Finance and Head of Restaurant and Franchise at Webster Bank. But he started his career working at Andersen Consulting after earning a B.A. in Economics from Northwestern University in 1988. It was while he was a grad student at Babson’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business in the mid-1990s that a mentor helped put him on the path to franchise financing.
That mentor and friend was Stephen Spinelli Jr. who was one of the co-founders of Jiffy Lube International. Spinelli was working on his own Ph.D. at the time, and Igram landed a spot as his grad assistant. “I really got the bug for entrepreneurship, venture capital investing and franchising,” says Igram. “The problem was I didn’t have anything in my tool kit to enter the market.”
After earning an MBA in Entrepreneurship/Finance in 1996, Igram used his grad school research on the franchise focused investment model to get a foot in the door at GE Capital in the firm’s equity division where he honed his investment skills on the equity side for the next six-plus years. “I really developed a taste and a fascination and an interest for venture capital and private equity investing,” he says.
In 2003, Igram decided to dust off a business plan he had developed as a grad student and founded Onaway Partners LLC, a private equity and consulting firm focused on the franchise sector. He ended up joining one of the companies that he was consulting with to gain some hands-on operating experience. In 2010 he had an opportunity to go back to GE Capital to do franchise lending. “That really brought my passion for franchising full circle on the lending side,” says Igram.
Five years ago, he left GE Capital to launch a platform within the Sponsor and Specialty Finance group at Webster Bank to do franchise and restaurant finance. Igram and his team have continued to grow its loan portfolio there with national loans that tend to range between $10 million and $30 million.
The restaurant finance sector has seen explosive growth from the post-recession market of 2008 when there were few lenders as compared to today when there are dozens of different lending sources. Despite some of the headwinds that are emerging in the restaurant sector, there are still a lot of smart lending sources and experienced professionals who are lending capital, notes Igram.
Operators that tend to have the most success in obtaining financing are those who have a good understanding of their unit economics today and what they expect going forward given some of the different factors that are out there whether it is labor pressure or commodities,” says Igram. So, one important piece of advice for operators is to know their unit economics, be able to talk about them and to show lenders how they can perform through different economic cycles.