Business is booming for sign products and services franchises
By Kym Wolfe
Franchise systems that offer sign products and services have certainly been busy over the past two years. As an essential service, these companies produced much of the ever-present signage during the pandemic that reminded us to keep our distance and wear a mask, directed us in curb-side pickup, or asked COVID-19 screening questions.
When many businesses were struggling with supply chain challenges, franchise systems could rely on their vendor/supplier relationships and purchasing clout to keep the raw materials flowing to their shops, sometimes sourcing substitute products to ensure they could keep up with the demand. That reality has led to many independent sign companies to convert their business into a franchise, as a way of tapping into the business advisory support, bulk purchasing power, and brand awareness that the franchise business model can offer.
Franchise Canada spoke with three different B2B (business to business) sign franchises about their experiences delivering services consistently even in unprecedented times. As B2B shops, all three operate daytime hours Monday to Friday, offering franchise owners excellent work/life balance and quality of life.
FASTSIGNS International, Inc.
FASTSIGNS has locations across Canada and offers a scalable business model, enabling franchisees to add staff and equipment as their sales grow, says Mark Jameson, chief support and development officer. “You start with 1,300 to 1,500 square feet and two employees, plus the owner, and a robust equipment package that will allow 75 to 80 per cent of business to be done in-house,” he explains. The company has strong relationships with vendors, enabling franchisees to sub-contract the other 20 to 25 per cent until they reach a point where demand justifies adding equipment and staff. “That keeps our franchisees lean and profitable.”
While the vast majority of FASTSIGNS stores were kept busy during the pandemic, some franchisees who focused mainly on large events and mass gatherings like conventions, trade shows, or sporting events were negatively impacted by COVID restrictions. “We printed and sold not only directional signage, but safety shields, masks, and other items related to the pandemic, and moved quickly to sell online,” says Jameson. “This year we have had double digit year-over-year sales—we feel much of it is pent up demand after more than two years of being restricted.”
Many new FASTSIGNS franchises are independent sign companies that convert their business, or related businesses like printing shops that co-locate a FASTSIGNS at their existing premises. There are also opportunities for new builds across Canada, mainly outside of the Greater Toronto Area and British Columbia.
Ideal franchisees often have a sales background, says Jameson. “Sales is the driver of our business.” He advises people exploring franchise ownership to research their options, compare facts, and talk to existing franchisees. “Ask, what is the ratio of centres closed versus opened? What support [does the franchisor] provide?”
New FASTSIGNS franchisees receive four weeks of training—one week at the mentor location closest to where the franchisee lives, two at Dallas headquarters, where they learn the foundations of all parts of the business, and one week with the support team on-site at the franchisee’s store. There’s online training and ongoing support from FASTSIGNS too, as every location has an assigned Business Consultant and Marketing Services Manager.
Chances for success are high, says Jameson, if new franchise owners “use the support, follow the FASTSIGNS system, and engage your community and team.”
Signage is one of a broad range of visual communications products and services that Image360 offers to the business community. The brand is one of five franchise concepts operating in Canada by Alliance Franchise Brands LLC, a company that focuses on marketing, print, signs, and graphics communications services.
The first Canadian Image360 opened in Windsor, Ontario five years ago, and there are now four independently-owned and -operated locations in Ontario and Alberta. The brand is looking to expand across Canada through new “greenfield” start-ups, the brand conversion of existing independent signage or printing companies, and co-branding with existing businesses that offer complementary products and services.
When COVID restrictions were introduced, the franchise quickly developed vertical marketing packages for 20 different industries to support its Image360 locations and the businesses they serve. Many of these packages included acrylic barriers with custom graphics. “We became an even more integral part of the community, helping businesses be COVID-compliant, helping them deliver a message to their clients about safety protocols or changes in operations, and ensuring their customers would be safe,” says Mike Cline, chief development officer.
The company put a “COVID” section on its website, and when their clients clicked through, they could find the contents of each package of COVID-related resources listed by industry. Thanks to the franchise’s relationship with suppliers, Cline adds, “franchisees were able to offer PPE sourcing to help their clients acquire masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, and other items.”
Despite the obstacles to opening a new business during the pandemic, the company launched two Canadian franchise locations.
Cline says the most successful Image360 franchise owners would be relationship-oriented, enjoy networking, and focused on growing their business and their community. Initial training for new franchise owners takes place at Alliance Franchise Brands’ home office in Maryland for up to three weeks. This is followed by 15 days onsite at the new franchisee’s centre through the opening weeks, which includes operational training and a heavy emphasis on sales and business development. Ongoing live and virtual training is also available throughout the year. “To support our franchisees, we have more than 100 headquarters employees who are subject matter experts in different areas, from operations, R&D, and accounting to sales and marketing,” says Cline.
“Starting any new business requires time and effort, but as things ramp up and operational flow steadies, the work/quality of life balance is a great reward,” he says.
SpeedPro is a Canadian-owned company with locations from coast to coast that offer clients custom-made solutions to their signage needs. “Relationships are the foundation of our business,” says Stuart Burns, SpeedPro’s president. “We are specialists with a laser focus—we do signage, and we provide value through problem solving: complete solutions, on time and on budget.”
During the pandemic the company produced social distancing markers and other COVID signage and gave them to regular clients. “These were commodities, and we provided them to help businesses in our communities re-open safely,” says Burns.
For many customers, the pandemic was an opportunity to rebrand and refresh custom-made signage. Idle trucks got fresh vehicle wraps; storefronts got facelifts. SpeedPro’s website became its showroom, and online visitors increased exponentially. “We gained market share in many communities and had four record months in the last half of 2020 and three record months in 2021,” says Burns.
Within the network of SpeedPro locations across Canada, “the perspective is that we are all partners,” he says. When one SpeedPro store is dealing with a corporate client that places orders for all its business locations across Canada, that owner will contract the closest SpeedPro in each city to install the signage.
Some new SpeedPro franchisees are new to the signage sector, and others are conversions by independent sign shop owners. SpeedPro looks for franchise partners who have experience and skills in business development in a B2B environment, and who embody SpeedPro’s values: enthusiasm, persistence, reliability, and integrity.
SpeedPro has a unique three-week training model for new franchisees. The company closed its training school in 2006, deciding it was more effective for trainers to travel to the new franchisee to support their learning and the launch of their SpeedPro business. Three corporate trainers, each with a different area of expertise, each spend one week at the franchise location, covering different specific aspects of operating a SpeedPro location. Each trainer provides individual coaching afterwards for as long as is needed.
“The journey from opening day to profitability can be challenging,” says Burns. For new franchise owners who share SpeedPro’s values, “I am confident we can work with you to shorten the journey to success.”