Even Skip Kelley, the home remodeler whose conversion to membership in the Mr. Build franchise is chronicled beginning on page 40, was surprised that INC. would feature him on its cover. Why, he wondered, would a national magazine be interested in the accomplishments of an obscure entrepreneur who had yet to cross the $1-million threshold in sales? Unlike Donald Burr of People Express Airlines (INC., January), he is hardly the image of success in a turbulent industry. Unlike Bill Gore of W. L. Gore & Associates (INC., August 1982), he is hardly a model of an executive charting new strategies in the management of human resources. Unlike Walter Lovejoy of A-1 Tool (INC., February 1983), he is hardly an example of a national trend toward leveraged buyouts.

But, in its own way, the story of Skip Kelley is just as important as that of any of his more elevated executive counterparts. For Kelley, whether he knows it or not, is at the heart of the dramatic and continuing growth of franchising, a phenomenon the Commerce Department calls "the last and best hope for independent business in an era of growing vertical integration."

Franchised business has become so ubiquitous -- some 465,000 establishments with 5.2 million employees and $436 billion in sales -- that it is easy to overlook the impact of a single business. In 1983 alone, an estimated 17,000 new establishments were opened. And behind each one was a new entrepreneur -- a retired teacher flipping hamburgers on a McDonald's grill, a mechanic installing Midas mufflers, a real estate broker donning the golden blazer of Century 21 Real Estate. Or a Skip Kelley joining Mr. Build.

Started about two years ago by Art Bartlett, the guru who founded and built Century 21 into a franchise giant, Mr. Build represents the convergence of the two most dramatic shifts in franchising today: the movement into the service industries, and the new emphasis on conversions, convincing established small businesses to join a national marketing organization rather than starting new businesspeople from scratch. With Century 21, Bartlett forged the conversion path; with Mr. Build, he is seeking to duplicate his past success.

Art Bartlett is hardly given to philosophical musings, at least for the press. Most os the time he is too busy with the daily challenges of rolling out what he says is the fastest growing franchise in America to ponder on its larger meanings. But in conversations with Bartlett and his staff at the Santa Ana, Calif., offices of Mr. Build International, one theme was repeated over and over: A franchise system is only as successful as each individual owner. "To make a franchise work, you've got to get people to want to follow you," Bartlett insists. "Your success is in direct proportion to the people you can get involved. If they fail, you fail. So you've got to do everything possible to make them succeed."

By his own estimation, Skip Kelley, the first Mr. Build franchise owner in New England, is a success. Much of that success, of course, is due to Bartlett, to the systems and training he built into the franchise. But Bartlett, in turn, owes his success to the Skip Kelleys of the world, the men and women for whom owning a franchise represents a chance at the brass ring. Skip Kelley, franchise owner, is different from the man he was a year ago. As his business has grown, his ambitions have grown as well. Today, he thinks of himself as Art Bartlett's partner; together, he says, they can "remodel the remodeling industry."

It is that shared sense of purpose, for Skip Kelley and the thousands like him, that fuels the great American franchise dream.