TAMPA — Shirin Kanji's family business history was in hotels.
But in 2008, amid a lag in hotel stays because of the recession, Kanji decided his family's portfolio at Impact Properties needed to diversify beyond hospitality.
He landed on retail — but not in the traditional sense.
He wanted to be a franchise owner of Rent-A-Center. But for decades, the rent-to-own furniture, appliance and electronic stores had only been corporately held. That's changing now.
A new division of Impact, Impact RTO Holdings, has amassed the single-largest chunk of franchised Rent-A-Centers: 76 stores. Kanji is its president.
"At first, I entertained a lot of different opportunities," Kanji, 38, said in an interview Thursday. "Early 2015, as discussions got underway with Rent-A-Center, they were just starting the idea of refranchising. … What they were looking to do was pretty sustainable in terms of scope and scale."
Texas-based Rent-A-Center is still just tiptoeing into franchising.
Out of 2,400 Rent-A-Center stores nationwide, only 180 are under franchisee ownership. That number is expected to grow — though to how many is unclear.
"There's not a set amount," said Rent-A-Center's executive vice president of franchises, Cathy Skula. "It's pretty much with what you see with franchises at large. It evolves to the balance that makes sense."
Kanji owns stores in eight states. He recently acquired 31 of them after the success of his first 45. The bulk are in Florida, 26, and Georgia, 18.
Customers at Rent-A-Center are able to make monthly payments on the items and return them or pay them off and keep them. Its core customers are typically working with tight budgets — a different customer than the hotel reach Kanji's family already had.
Kanji's Rent-A-Center locations had all been company owned until he bought them outright starting in 2015. Skula said franchisers also have opportunities to open their own stores, not just take over existing ones.
Skula said the company found that for certain markets, individual owners have been able to better cater merchandise to their clientele rather than rely on the standard corporate catalogue.
"We operate in cities, suburbs, rural areas and small and big towns," Kanji said. "If there's a prominent school or business and there's that local pride, we might tie into that."
So, for his Gainesville-area stores that could mean orange-and-blue options for Gators fans.
Kanji aims to control 100 stores within a few years.
"It's a big undertaking but for us, it's been more than worthwhile," he said. "It's not all doom and gloom in retail. There are segments that are performing really well. It's not just Amazon."
So far, Kanji said, he hasn't acquired any stores in Tampa Bay, where Rent-A-Center has a strong corporate presence. He'd love to someday — but he said there is still more refranchising to go.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.