How FASTSIGNS’ CEO realised her dream of leading a business

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.”

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.”

Eric Johansson
Eric Johansson