Craig Brown, managing director of Signs Express, has dedicated his life to signage. Which means there were few better placed to inject some innovation into the industry
Having worked at Signs Express since it was first founded in 1989, it’s safe to say that Craig Brown, now the franchise’s managing director, knows the industry inside out. Growing up in Costessey, a small village on the outskirts of Norwich, Brown realised at a young age that he wanted a more hands-on career. “I wouldn’t say I ever struggled at school: I felt quite comfortable,” he says. “But you know when academia is not going to be the thing to drive you through.”
Fortunately, there were plenty of options for a school-leaver at this time. “Back in the mid-1980s, the employment market was reasonably open,” says Brown. “If you wanted a job, you could get a job.” This is no overstatement. On approaching a high-street men’s outfitters with his CV, he was offered a job on the spot. Then during his first day off, he was interviewed for another job at Norfolk County Hall and, by the afternoon, had accepted a Youth Training Scheme position with local sign company Fitt Signs and Graphics. “For me, it was ideal,” he says. “I enjoyed art at school and I saw that as a way to show my artistic bent.”
There’s no doubt that this on-the-job training set Brown up for his future career. “It gave me a great grounding,” he says. After an introductory tour of the company’s various departments, Brown decided that sign writing was the best fit for him and he began to train under its existing sign-writers. Not one to rest on his laurels, he was soon trying to master any and every skill available to him. “Because I was keen to learn, every time there was a project that was slightly different or difficult, I’d get involved,” he says. “You could totally immerse yourself in the process.”
In 1989, after a brief stint working for an independent firm that did sign writing for lorry curtains, Brown came across a job advert for Signs Express. Before long, he was sitting down for an interview with David Corbett, then the company’s MD, in an empty unit in Norwich that would go on to become its pilot. “He was telling me about what they intended to achieve and how they were going to grow this business into a national franchise,” Brown says. Given the fact there was no machinery or even office furniture on the premises, it seemed hard to envision this lofty future. “There was just a table, the porcelain to be installed in the toilet and a seat,” he recalls. “So you had to use your imagination.”
Fortunately, imagination was something Corbett and his co-founder Frank Eliel had in plentiful supply – and they certainly had some big plans for transforming the signage sector. “They could see that the industry was quite old fashioned,” says Brown. “It was full of artisans, very talented people, but wasn’t particularly customer-focused.” One of the biggest pain points for many clients was the amount of time it took to turn a brief around, with many waiting several weeks just to receive a quote. Signs Express had a different approach, committing to delivering a quote within days and jobs in an average of two weeks. “Straight away, they came to the market with something different,” Brown explains.
Additionally, at a time when digital signage-making equipment was first coming to the fore, Signs Express’s willingness to embrace technology gave it a definite edge over its competitors. “It was again just looking at how the industry had changed and how we could bring technology in to enhance the process,” says Brown. Over the years, the special relationship it has nurtured with its suppliers has allowed it to road-test new equipment and trial unique solutions as they arise. “We’re not necessarily a pioneer but we do want to make sure we’re on the crest of the wave,” he says.
Placing an emphasis on its tech has evidently stood the company in good stead. After kickstarting its franchising operation with its Norwich pilot, Signs Express began its drive to secure franchisees. And it had a rather novel approach to giving them a feel for the operation. “We took the machinery that we were actually using to franchise shows,” Brown says. “We’d have jobs that we’d done previously running through the machines.” From here they would invite potential franchisees down for discovery days, at which they’d get first-hand insight into the running of each department, from design and production to marketing and procurement.
And as the franchise grew, so did Brown’s role within it, thanks in no small part to his can-do attitude. “You’ve got to put yourself forward,” he says. “Every time I was given the opportunity to actually do something in the business, I took it.” By 1992, Corbett was looking to stand down from managing the day-to-day runnings of the Norwich store to concentrate on the running of the network – in Brown’s eyes, he was the natural person to step into Corbett’s shoes. “I said ‘look, I think I’m capable of doing it: give me six months to prove myself’,” he says. “And I haven’t looked back since.”
From there, Brown continued to work his way up through the business, becoming technical support manager in 1995 and national accounts manager in 1998. This inevitably meant learning how to hire the right person to replace him. “Part of running the centre was bringing the staff up to a level to do the job that I’d been doing,” says Brown. “Each time the business has evolved, I’ve had to backfill that position to allow me to move on.” This wasn’t without its teething problems though: he quickly learnt that populating his teams with people like himself wasn’t the best way to go. “I thought if I replicated my own skills, it would be perfect’,” he says. “But it’s not: you end up with lots of yes people, which is not where you want to be.”
By 2002, Brown’s stratospheric career progression had hit something of a ceiling. “I’d recently gotten married, the first child had come along, finances were reasonably tight,” Brown says. “But I couldn’t see any way past David and Frank: they’d shown no signs of wanting to retire.” One option that occurred to him was to buy into the franchise network but a spanner was thrown into the works when the opportunity he’d identified was snapped up at the last minute. “Someone came along at the 11th hour with the full asking price, which left me a little bit in limbo,” he says. “That’s when the guys said ‘rather than lose you, let’s tie you in as a non-exec director’.”
And that wasn’t the only revelation to come out of their discussions. “They also shared some of their thoughts on what their exit strategy might be,” Brown says. The founders revealed that they were actually looking to sell the business and, whilst the valuation they’d put on the business meant Brown couldn’t buy it outright, a more creative solution presented itself. Signs Express was sold to a holding company part-owned by Peter Sales, Tony Marsh and Brown himself, allowing them to stage a partial management buyout (MBO) on the proviso that they bought the remaining 49.9% of the business within a set time frame. “Then we walked straight into the back of a recession,” he laughs.
Fortunately, this didn’t severely derail the deal and, in 2013, the MBO was completed, albeit two years behind schedule. “Because we already had the vehicle to make it happen, it was just about replicating that,” Brown explains. Obviously, with both Corbett and Eliel exiting the business, this left the company lacking both a managing and a financial director. Brown seemed like the natural choice to take the top spot. “I made the assumption that I was going to be the MD and my two fellow directors never challenged that,” he says. “From the role I’d been fulfilling it didn’t seem like a quantum leap: it seemed a natural succession.”
But it wasn’t all that easy to make a break with the past. “Our board meetings were very retrospective,” Brown says. “They were reviewing things that have already happened, rather than necessarily looking where the business was going.” For this reason, they decided to bring in Carl Fisher as non-exec chairman. Having someone that wasn’t pre-occupied with the day-to-day management of franchisees or suppliers enabled Signs Express to continue looking to the future, rather than solely dealing with the past and present. “It was about having a high-level focus on the direction the business was heading in,” he says. “We actually needed to be challenging some of the things that were already in place.”
Keeping an eye on the long-term strategic goals of the business has also required Signs Express to form close ties with others working in the sector. “I want to know what’s happening,” says Brown. “I want to know what might potentially impact on my business and on my franchisees’ businesses.” For this reason, not only has Brown held the presidency of the British Signs and Graphics Association on multiple occasions but he was recently elected to the board of the bfa, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Corbett and former sales director Marsh. “This is the industry that we’re in,” he says. “If we want to actually make sure it’s healthy and moving forward, we’ve got to contribute.”
It’s safe to say that this is indicative of Brown’s approach to business more broadly; wherever possible he attempts to adopt a more consultative approach with Signs Express’s franchisees. “I sometimes refer to my role as a glorified agony aunt,” he says. “It’s very lonely: these guys are running a business and there are things they can’t discuss with their staff.” All too often those working in the franchise industry view the relationship between franchisor and franchisee as a vertical rather than a horizontal one. But Brown would prefer to work together with franchisees as colleagues, not subordinates. “I’d much rather talk with someone and bring them along with the thought process than chucking a franchise agreement on the table,” he says.
And it seems like this attitude is contagious. As well as netting no end of prizes from within the signage industry, Signs Express recently won big at the bfa HSBC Franchisee of the Year awards, with Lee Eaton, owner of Signs Express in Manchester, netting the top gong. “Lee stood up in front of the judges and you could see he just had that passion,” Brown says. Whilst his work with Team Sky and Great British Cycling undoubtedly caught the judges’ attention, it was the degree to which Eaton involved every member of his staff in the process that sealed the deal. “He even did little cutouts of them and stood them in front of him,” says Brown. “He said: ‘I wanted my team to be here’.”
Outside of his work at Signs Express, Brown has also attracted his fair share of plaudits, having won a handful of medals for duathlons and cycling events. But perhaps his most commendable achievement is his involvement last year in a 400-mile charity bike ride around East Anglia, in which he helped to raise £14,000 for the East Anglian Air Ambulance. Signs Express is now signed on as a sponsor for future events, as well as having a regular commitment to raise money for local charity Nelson’s Journey. “Charity is really personal,” says Brown. “I’m not going to force anybody but we’ve found it’s something that our teams want to get involved with as well.”
So what’s next for Signs Express? The company is currently sitting at 62 franchises and Brown is keen to grow the network to an even hundred in the next five years. Beyond this, his main focus is making sure that Signs Express’s current franchisees are supported in their journey as much as possible and that the company he has inherited performs as well over the next 25 years as it did over the last. “I’m the custodian of the brand,” says Brown. “I didn’t create Signs Express: I saw an opportunity and took it on. So I want to leave it in a better position than I found it in.”