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How FASTSIGNS' CEO realised her dream of leading a business

Written by Emilie Sandy, Eric Johansson on Monday, 07 January 2019. Posted in Interviews

Whether she’s supporting Donald Trump, visiting UK franchisees or steering FASTSIGNS safely through financial downturns, Catherine Monson loves staying busy

How FASTSIGNS' CEO realised her dream of leading a business

It’s Tuesday morning in Essex and Catherine Monson shows zero signs of jet lag. Despite the flight from the US having only touched down two days earlier, the FASTSIGNS CEO is smiling and joking with the employees and franchisee of the network’s Chelmsford centre, asking them about their day and listening to their replies. “I like to be this busy,” she says. “I’m one of those people who thinks that the busier I am, the more exciting my life [is].” 

She’s certainly had her wish over the past 18 months. At the time of the interview she’s touring Britain to see franchisees and attend the signage company’s annual UK conference. In the lead up to it, Monson has spoken in front of the Franchise Association of New Zealand, given her support for proposed healthcare legislation in front of the US congress and met president Donald Trump, who she describes as “authentic and warm and positive and polite and knowledgeable and competent.” And that’s on top of scaling the company into its tenth market and growing the network to over 700 franchisees. 

When asked about how she remains energised, Monson simply shrugs and says that it’s what she lives for. “I love to go on a holiday and sit on a beach but after four or five days that’s about all I can take,” she explains. Ever abandoning piña coladas for a chance to make an impact, this means Monson is constantly on the move to grow FASTSIGNS and spread the gospel of franchising. “I really get a lot of joy and excitement out of making a difference,” Monson reasons. 

Since taking on the FASTSIGNS CEO role in 2009, she’s had plenty of opportunities to have a significant effect on people’s lives. Using her three decades of franchise sector experience, she’s safely steered the franchise through the recession via an appearance on the TV show Undercover Boss and has successfully introduced new structures and services to ensure the business is prepared for the challenges of the 21st century. While this has certainly kept her busy, Monson wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s [in my] DNA, it’s innate,” she argues. “I was born with it. It’s the way I’m wired. I can’t turn it off. I just think it’s the way I am and I love the way I am. It’s perfect for me. It may not be perfect for anyone else [but] I’m a big believer that we all ought to do those things that make us happy.”

Fortunately for FASTSIGNS, Monson acquired a taste for running companies early on. “I fell in love with the business of business at a very young age,” she says. This is in no small part thanks to her parents running a chain of preschools. From the age of eight, Monson helped out by mowing lawns and cleaning the buildings. She became more involved as she grew up, ending up running accounts and providing customer service in her teens. It even got to the point that when her parents both got hospitalised at the same time during her senior year in high school, Monson led the company by herself for two weeks. The experience taught her that eventually she’d like to be doing it for her own business. “I knew in high school that my goal some day was to run a company, to be a CEO,” she says. Fuelled by her ambition, Monson set out to make this dream a reality. 

Following her studies, she got her first job at Sir Speedy, the printing and document management company. “[My next step was] to excel at it, to work really, really hard – harder than everybody else,” says Monson. And it’s safe to say she did. Starting out by doing non-managerial tasks in 1980, Monson eventually found herself being in charge of opening new centres across the US. “I’ve always worked very, very hard at doing my job and asked what more I can do,” Monson explains. 

Not only did the job provide opportunities to hone her leadership skills but also her first taste of franchising, which she adored from the get-go. “What I love about franchising is that I get to help people achieve their dreams,” Monson reveals. When she eventually became Sir Speedy’s vice president of franchise development, Monson learned a key insight she’d carry throughout her career. “The most important thing is franchising unit level economics, ensuring that your model is successful [and] that franchisees can make a good profit because if they can’t [then] they’re never going to be happy,” she states. 

By 1996, Sir Speedy’s leadership launched the holding company Franchise Services to help grow the network and to incorporate other franchises under its umbrella. The franchisor then bought the printing franchises PIP and Multicopy. With the second being in Europe, Franchise Services needed someone from the US office to go to Amsterdam to oversee the growth of the franchise and ensure Multicopy aligned to the rest of the network. Monson was more than happy to volunteer. “It was a great opportunity for me,” she says.

The new role saw the aspiring head honcho grow as a leader and to challenge her own opinions about what makes a great worker. “This is going to sound very harsh and very black and white but, in the United States, if an employee isn’t doing their job and you coach them and council them and teach them how to do their job better and they don’t [improve, then] you can let them go,” she says. Having always worked extremely hard to get where she was at in her career, Monson was shocked to find that her previous approach wouldn’t work in the Netherlands. Employment legislations across the pond meant her inclinations to simply sack underachievers was unfeasible. She also had to consider things like people going on stress leave and different approaches to holidays. “I needed to understand I couldn’t make everybody be like myself,” Monson says. “I needed to have more empathy and find a way to motivate them to do the best they [could].”

By 1999, the lessons she’d learned overseas would come in handy when the old president of PIP decided to step down, providing the opportunity for Monson to pick up the mantle at the 500 locations-strong company. “That was exciting,” she says. 

However, this meant she had to tackle the old leadership’s legacy. With PIP essentially having been acquired by its biggest competitor, the network was hesitant to welcome a Franchise Service-appointed president with open arms. “There was distrust and fear that we’d bought them to put them out of business,” she says. To counter concerns like these, Monson toured the entire network to talk with franchisees and listen to their concerns. During these conversations, she not only explained that no one would spend millions of dollars buying a company to close it down but also that PIP would flourish under her leadership. She explains: “What I said was, ‘Give me six months. Let me show you what we are going to do. Let me prove to you that we are going to bring value.’”

Still, words can only get you so far – she also had to deliver. Fortunately, Sir Speedy’s contracts with vendors and suppliers meant PIP franchisees quickly noticed some benefits from teaming up with the old competitor. “So immediately they saw savings in their expenses,” she says. Moreover, Monson also “killed” old marketing campaigns when she “felt it was completely off target” and helped restructure the franchise model. For example, many franchisees had previously owned multiple locations. Under Monson’s leadership, the franchisees increased the number of outside salespeople and reduced the number of outlets, slashing overheads and making it more profitable to own a franchise. “And when you have early successes like that in your first six or nine months then you have the ability to really have people embrace you,” Monson explains. On the back of these wins, the franchise renewal rate jumped from 15% to 85% in the first three years of her leadership.

And by 2008 it became clear people paid attention to her achievements when the founder and managing partner of Roark Capital Group, the then-owner of FASTSIGNS, Neal Aronson called her up. “He introduced himself and said ‘We think that you would be the perfect CEO for one of our portfolio companies,’” Monson remembers. At the time she was living in California and rather than asking what brand he was talking about she wondered where the business’s headquarters was. “He said ‘Dallas, Texas’ and I laughed out loud and said ‘There’s not a chance in heaven that I would ever leave Southern California for Dallas,’” she recalls. “Although, I didn’t use the word heaven.”

But after Monson’s slightly anti-climactic initial response, she recognised this was the opportunity she’d been waiting for ever since she trimmed the grass outside her parents’ preschools – to become the CEO of an international business. So, in January 2009, despite her original hesitation, she found herself moving to Dallas to lead FASTSIGNS. “It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made,” Monson reveals. 

Still, the role came complete with loads of different challenges. “I took over as CEO of FASTSIGNS in 2009, [which was] kind of at the beginning of the financial crisis,” Monson reveals. And as if the the economic downturn wasn’t a huge enough obstacle to overcome, the new head honcho also had to tackle hurdles like earning the trust of her franchisees and meeting the demands of the ever-evolving markets. 

Back in 1985 Gary Salomon and Bob Schanbaum had launched the original FASTSIGNS concept on the back of technological innovations like the Apple IIc computer. This had enabled them to achieve huge success making signs. “[But] that was over 30 years ago,” Monson explains. “Today, to be successful we have to sell more sophisticated products and services, right up to digital signs.” Recognising the company would be out of business if it failed to evolve with the times, the new CEO introduced more outside sales professionals and also endeavoured to expand the company’s offerings to include services like digital signage as well as virtual and augmented reality solutions. Not stopping there, Monson also reveals that the company is currently experimenting with holograms. “There are lots of interesting things that we're looking at,” she says.

But to get to that point she had to earn the network’s support. “One of my first priorities was to get to know the franchisees,” Monson recalls. “So in those first six months I visited [them] and held town hall meetings.” Indeed, she visited franchisees all over the US, the UK, Canada and even Australia. And just like when she met up with the PIP franchisees, Monson made sure to listen to the people in the network to hear how the franchise could improve, “asking ‘what do we do well, what can we do better, what are we not doing that we should be doing to help you be more successful.’”

As part of this push to learn about the woes of the people at the coalface and to boost FASTSIGNS’ brand visibility, Monson appeared on the television show Undercover Boss. The programme sees corporate chieftains pretend to be regular employees and hear first hand what other staff members think. And Monson isn’t afraid of admitting she was slightly nervous before the tape started rolling. “Everything that they get on film, they can use,” she explains. Her trepidations were even more understandable given she had no idea where she would be placed. Luckily, she could soon breathe easy. “I was just blessed that we had five fantastic employees that care about customers, who care about doing a good job and there was nothing embarrassing,” she remembers. Still, these employees did highlight they’d like to know more about outdoor signage, prompting Monson to introduce a dedicated expert who created a bespoke curriculum and who taught the network everything about the subject. 

Having raised awareness about the brand through initiatives like Undercover Boss and raised the profitability of owning a FASTSIGNS franchise, Monson could also focus on growing the network, aiming to reach 2,500 franchisees in 25 countries. The franchisor already has roughly 700 franchisees in ten countries and has signed up master franchisees in places like Spain, Greece, Italy, the US Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic. Moreover, FASTSIGNS is also in talks with potential partners in Germany and France. So while Monson is unclear of when the franchisor will reach its goal, she’s optimistic about the ability to do so. “I think it’s important to have big and bold goals and to do something every day towards achieving them,” she says. 

Key to doing so is to find the right candidates to join the network. “We’re looking for someone who’s had some business management experience,” she says. Often this means that the ideal aspiring franchisee has both management and sales chops, can motivate a team and posseses great people skills. “From there we’re going to teach them everything they need to know about the sign business, about the FASTSIGNS processes and business models and business systems and we’ll be with them every step of the way to help them grow their businesses,” she says. 

As the company grows, so will her opportunities to weigh in on matters that affect the entire franchise sector. For instance, Monson is a recurring commentator on Fox News and has long been a member of the International Franchise Association (IFA), an organisation she’s poised to chair in 2020. She is also a vocal advocate for president’s Trump’s proposed healthcare legislation, which was why she testified in front of the US congress in early 2018. Monson claims the new regulations will make it easier for SMEs and franchises to provide affordable health insurance coverage to their employees. 

In her role as a board member of the IFA, Monson was present when Trump signed his executive order on the matter. “I was really honoured to meet president Trump,” she says. Moreover, Monson is impressed by how the president has lowered taxes and that the US GDP has grown during his tenure in the White House. “He’s done a lot of things that he’s said he was going to do,” she argues. “Now, do I sometimes wish he would say things in a more diplomatic manner? Of course I do. But if you look at his actual results he’s doing a good job.”

More than 30 years have gone by since she stepped into the world of franchising. Today, Monson is a clear authority in the sector, having picked up numerous awards along the way. But her widespread acclaim is just pushing her to do even better. “What the awards mean to me is that we are doing it right but it doesn’t mean for a moment that we can become complacent and stop working hard,” she says. “We need to keep working hard.” For the moment Monson is focusing on growing FASTSIGNS but she is also looking forward to leading the IFA and to take on even more public speaking. And no matter what’s on the agenda, you can bet it will be packed with activities. “I just love having a full and exciting life and part of how I do that is to say yes to every opportunity,” Monson concludes. 

About the Author

Emilie Sandy

Emilie Sandy

Aside from dashing between the Cotswolds and London to shoot business types for magazines such as EF and TV stars for the Beeb, Sandy is also a visiting lecturer at a college in Stroud – not to mention a proud mother to son Freddie and daughter Fjola. She has photographed our cover stars since our very first edition. You know what they say – if it ain’t broke...

 

 

Eric Johansson

As acting web editor and resident Viking, Johansson ensures Elite Franchise is filled with engaging and eclectic entrepreneurial stories. While one of our most prolific franchise writers, he has sharpened his editorial teeth by writing about entertainment and fitness. Follow him on Twitter at @EricJohanssonLJ to catch up with his stream of consciousness.

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