Spreading my wings
While running the stereo store, I had taken accounting classes at night at Dalhousie University. So, when we sold the pieces of the business, I was an ‘inactive student’ and could get back in for full-time studies.
In my first year, I took a business law course, which was very good, but helped me realize I did not want to become a lawyer. I got my bachelor of commerce degree, graduating in spring 1989.
With my dad’s help, I secured a job selling advertising space in the Toronto edition of Where, a hospitality-industry magazine for tourists. Meanwhile, my dad bought Metro Guide Publishing (MGP), which published the Halifax edition of Where. I went back to Halifax again to work for him.
When I did, however, I realized I’d left a very independent job in Toronto for one where everyone always asked how my dad was doing. I had made a big mistake. I moved back to Toronto after just four months.
This time, I worked at Colour Technologies, a film house that handled colour separations. I got the job through a referral from Where. We had a drum scanner to turn photographic slides into magazine layouts. I guess I had a habit of working with soon-to-be-obsolete technologies! I handled sales there for a couple of years, then moved up to essentially the chief financial officer (CFO) for the company. I learned a lot about the graphics industry.
Meanwhile, Dad learned about a property management company in Halifax that needed turning around. I moved back there in 1993, we bought it and I fixed it in two years. It wasn’t a fun line of work and I ended up selling my share to one of our employees, but it was that money that allowed me to buy my FastSigns franchise.
Becoming a franchisee
After working in car rentals, retail and property management, I had finally figured out I preferred business-to-business (B2B) sales over consumer-facing companies. I was better at B2B networking and building a business.
Also, with the car-rental business, we had a very good local operation, but whenever I was at the airport, I noticed everyone would instead line up for the bigger car-rental brands, like Hertz. I realized I wanted to be part of the biggest, best franchise system.
Given my graphics experience, I visited some sign companies and looked at franchise options in that field. I saw an ad for FastSigns in a magazine and was instantly impressed.
When I spoke to contacts at the head office in Dallas, Texas, it really felt like I was being courted. When I visited them, they listed every single franchisee across North America. And then when I called the franchisees, I heard nothing but good reports about the system.
So, there was a strong initial connection. Back in 1995, however, the only Canadian FastSigns franchise was in St. John’s, N.L., and the franchisor did not yet have a strong plan for expansion in this country.
I could have opened a location in Halifax, but I loved Vancouver and decided to go there instead. My dad and sister had already moved to Victoria.
One of the biggest challenges, though, was not knowing anyone in the city. As a result, the first year of the business was much harder than I had expected. I had to create my own network. We were not cash-positive until the second or third year.
Another problem back then was the much weaker Canadian dollar, which meant we had lower profit margins than our counterparts in the U.S.