By Peter Saunders
Catherine Monson had a wealth of experience in both franchising and printing when she became president and CEO of FastSigns International in January 2009, but she faced a major challenge in shifting the system’s approach from a ‘reactive’ order-taking model to one of proactive business development. Today, she describes the steps she took to ensure a future of continued growth for the franchise brand around the world.
On her start in the business
My first job, at the age of 15, was as a hostess and waitress at a Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana, Calif. I also worked with my father at his insurance agency and later at private schools my parents owned.
My history in franchising began in 1980 with Sir Speedy, a print-and-copy chain that grew from 200 to 850 locations under my tenure. I started there as a franchise sales co-ordinator. Within 16 months, I was promoted to western region franchise development manager, then to assistant vice-president (AVP) of franchise development and later to vice-president (VP) of franchise development. In 1991, I was promoted again to group VP of marketing and communications, which proved an integral role in helping Sir Speedy become the first printing franchise to launch a website.
My next position was with Sir Speedy’s parent company, Franchise Services, as VP of business development. From 1997 to 1999, I led MultiCopy Europe, another of their subsidiaries, to implement the same best practices in franchising that Sir Speedy had consistently followed. After that project, I was appointed president of PIP Printing & Document Services, which Franchise Services had acquired in 1996. I successfully reorganized PIP and changed the direction of its company culture, marketing and franchisee support and service. Both franchisee satisfaction and franchisor-level profits increased dramatically after six years of decline.
On assuming her current role
When I arrived at FastSigns in 2009, it had grown into the leading franchisor in the signage market, but the company had become complacent. The founder was still leading the company and had lost some of his passion for the business. There was no cohesive, multi-departmental plan or focus.
I saw a major opportunity to implement what I had learned earlier in my career, building upon my understanding of the small to midsize business-to-business (B2B) marketplace. It was certainly an exciting and challenging time to begin my tenure with FastSigns, taking on a leadership role right in the midst of the Great Recession.
When the company was founded in 1985, it was a walk-in retail business model. In 2009, it was clear that model would no longer lead to long-term success. Within my first six months at the helm, I embarked upon a nine-week, 28-city ‘town hall’ tour to speak with our franchisees, which taught me a lot about what we were doing well to support them, what we could do better and how we could help them build sales volumes and reduce expenses. The tour included stops in Vancouver and Toronto, where I got to meet nearly all of our Canadian franchisees, who drove or flew in for the event.
Coming out of that tour, I created four key strategic objectives for our corporate team to work toward: improving franchisees’ profitability; increasing their average annual sales volume; boosting the value of our brand through marketing programs and by opening more locations; and increasing franchisee satisfaction.
With these objectives, we became very focused. We updated our business model by teaching our franchisees about selling higher-value items, then created new marketing materials to support this initiative. Instead of banners, corrugated plastic signs and other temporary graphics, more of our centres began offering décor, digital signage, dimensional signs, exhibits and architectural signs. And we became more consultative by trying to identify the communications challenges our customers were trying to solve.