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Franchisee on the fast track to success with FastSigns

fast5_LRBy Paul LeBlanc
Following in the footsteps of my entrepreneurial father—and often working with or for him—I used to jump from one business to the next, which often meant moving from one city to another. When I bought a FastSigns franchise in Vancouver, however, I quickly realized I had found the perfect opportunity to settle into for the rest of my career.

Moving for work
I was born in Bridgewater, N.S., in 1962. I am the oldest of four children. My sister is three-and-a-half years younger than me and my two brothers are two and nine years younger than me.

When I was two years old, my family moved to Moncton, N.B. My dad, Bob, was a finance executive at the time, so we moved as he was promoted up the line.

Two years later, we moved to Truro, N.S., where my dad opened a candy store. It got boring for him quickly, though, as he soon realized running a candy store means standing behind a cash register all day. He sold it after just one year.

Next, we moved to Montreal, where he got back into finance. I was six years old at the time. I took French immersion and then enrolled in a fully French school. I learned the language fluently within a year or two, but it was challenging for a while.

Back then, I was a big fan of Star Trek reruns and wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. My favourite subjects were math, sciences and English.

We were all pretty happy in Montreal, but then my dad’s job changed again and we moved to Quebec City. He could speak French, but my mom couldn’t, so this period was very hard on her, as there was no English-speaking enclave like there was in Montreal.

In 1972, my dad became a franchisee for Holiday Rent A Car (which would later be bought by Thrifty Car Rental) in Dartmouth, N.S., so we moved back to the east coast. He and his business partner, an old colleague from the finance sector, ran two locations, including one in downtown Halifax. They were quite successful and took an offer two years later from a buyer.

After my dad sold the Halifax and Dartmouth franchises, we moved back to Montreal, where he helped start another Rent A Car location. Opening a business in the province of Quebec, however, was a more frustrating process of bureaucracy. And when I was in Grade 7, we moved to Halifax again and my dad worked with the new owners of his former franchises.

fast3_LREarly career influences
When I was 13 or 14, I got more realistic about my career ambitions. Rather than become an astronaut, I wanted to run my own business, especially since it would mean not having a boss. I liked to think my younger siblings counted on me as a sort of leader, so I had come to enjoy leadership roles.

In Halifax, I took a class in high school where we had two teachers and published the school’s newspaper. One teacher focused on journalism and the other on printing. We learned about all the steps of production, including laying out pages on an art board. I really enjoyed it and this began my interest in graphics, which would remain a theme throughout my career.

I also participated in the Junior Achievement non-profit youth organization in Halifax and continued when we moved to London, Ont., after my dad was appointed vice-president (VP) of the car rental chain. In Junior Achievement, students start and run their own business. They sell shares, they choose, build and sell a product and they either make or lose money, as in any real business. It was a great experience.

While we were living in London, my mother, Margie MacDonald, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She would live with the disease for 10 years. Also, my parents had separated by then, so my siblings and I managed her care, which ultimately required a team of nurses 24 hours a day. After my mom passed away, it was a long time before I wanted to have anything to do with ALS, but today, I’m proud to be a board member with the ALS Society of British Columbia.

After three years of high school in London, I enrolled in the University of Western Ontario, but I didn’t feel quite ready. So, instead, I moved back to Halifax and took a job with my dad’s company. I ran the Dartmouth franchise for three years as manager. It was my first real job.

We did okay and I grew the business, but after a few years, being the clerk for a car rental business gets a little tedious. When my dad exited the company, I decided to follow him.

Our next venture was a stereo store in a Halifax shopping mall. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough financing to run it properly. And our specialty was Betamax VCRs and tapes. Two months after we opened, everyone was settling on the VHS format instead. It was a nine-month effort before we put the store into receivership. That was my first experience seeing a business fail.

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