Great Harvest Bread Co., headquartered in Dillon, Mont., is a franchisor of retail bread bakeries (137 in all) that make soft-crust bread from Montana whole wheat that's freshly milled in each bakery. Great Harvest founders Pete and Laura Wakeman have found ways to provide every bakery owner with the means to grow and develop organically -- with the support of a collection of diverse and custom-matched mentors.

The Wakemans' idea is to let people "create their own enterprises but stand on the shoulders of 130 existing owners," as COO Tom McMakin puts it. To that end, Great Harvest both facilitates the casual swapping of ideas and maintains formal mechanisms that steer owners to the best sources of help. Herer are some ways they achieve those goals.

Top 10 list. Dillon staffers provide franchisees with a top 10 list of the best-performing bakeries in 14 statistical and financial categories -- from total sales (the biggest Great Harvest shop tops $1.3 million), net profits, and payroll, to costs for ingredients, utilities, promotions, and "continuing education." Got a problem controlling labor expenses at your store? Call up the bakery owners who've got that figured out and get their advice.

Best Measures report. The top 10 list itself is a by-product of the Dillon-compiled Best Measures report, a composite snapshot of an "average" Great Harvest income statement and statistical analysis. The report gives bakery owners a benchmark for identifying their own stores' strengths and weaknesses, as well as data from something called the Numbers Club.

The Numbers Club. To join the Numbers Club, which 85% of Great Harvest owners have done, owners agree to open their books not only to the parent company in Dillon but to the other 136 bakeries in the system. Among the things they get in return is a summary of how their fellow franchisees are doing. That update, which is ranked by the stores' total sales figures, also reveals the owners' performance in every category across the board. That means franchisees can identify the perfectly useful peer -- and call him or her up.

Travel Match. With the help of Travel Match, bakery owners can just go to see the stores they think they can learn from. Designed to encourage just such on-site, in-person mentoring, the Travel Match program pays half the expense incurred by any Great Harvest employee -- whether owner or cashier -- to go anywhere as long as half a day is spent in a Great Harvest bakery.

The Breadboard. That's what Great Harvest calls its internal Web site, which is accessible only to the company's employees.The Breadboard site contains announcements ("Slicer for sale," "New baby in Dallas!"), discussion threads for ongoing electronic chats among owners on a wide variety of subjects (new recipes, notes on maintaining particular ovens, tips for promotions), articles (external press coverage, stories written by staffers, research reports), and archives that enable owners to pull up ideas, advice, and information on any specific concern they're dealing with.

Case Studies. Bakery owners or employees study a successful practice or a problem and then write up their findings using anecdotes and analyses, which are published in the Breadboard.

-- As reported by Michael S. Hopkins, Inc. magazine.