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.