Soaring to the Top
How FASTSIGNS adapted to a changing market to build a successful print shop empire
By Karen Stevens
In 1985, the world was an exciting place: personal computers were new, hair was big, and Gary Salomon came up with the concept for FASTSIGNS, a print shop chain in Austin, Texas. Since then, the award-winning franchise has grown to include more than 725 locations in 9 countries around the world and has greatly expanded its products and services.
In 2012, under CEO Catherine Monson, the company rebranded to keep pace with a changing market. “I use the tagline ‘More than fast and more than signs,’” describes Mark Jameson, executive vice president of franchise support & development. “We rebranded to separate ourselves from others in the industry that were still selling basic commodity signs and we evolved to become a solution provider.”
Traditional signage is just the tip of the iceberg for today’s FASTSIGNS: now the brand deals in what Jameson calls “visual communications,” offering everything from fleet vehicle graphics to floor decals to fine art murals, and more. “It’s really about customizing for the customer, and the role we play in being a solution,” he says.
Building on a strong brand presence
Husband-and-wife team Evan Cambray and Chris Rolls joined the FASTSIGNS team six years ago. Their location services Markham as well as Richmond Hill and the surrounding area in Ontario. Originally, Cambray got the franchise up and running and then Rolls came on board as the business grew.
The couple wanted an opportunity that would allow them to ramp up business as quickly as possible without investing years in building a market presence. Cambray says the strong brand was probably the number one reason they chose FASTSIGNS. “I was changing gears in midlife, and I knew that branding and reputation are more important than they have ever been,” he recalls.
The business is a perfect fit for the couple’s experience. Cambray had spent more than 30 years in the commercial printing sector in various sales and marketing roles. Rolls brought 15 years of human resources/office management experience in the accounting industry to the franchise, and, while she didn’t have a background in printing, she found her expertise tremendously helpful. “Every minute of my experience has been used in this business,” she says.
Before making the final decision about what franchise they wanted to go with, Cambray and Rolls did a number of things. They met FASTSIGNS franchisees, examined the business model, and assessed the support that they could expect from head office. “Everybody was really happy with the franchise and the level of support,” says Rolls. “Everybody was really incredibly nice and supportive, and it’s continued to this day.”
Fostering successful franchisees
While knowledge of the printing business is certainly an asset, “We’re not looking for great sign makers — we’re looking for people who can build a business, be engaged in the community, and hire an outside sales team,” says Jameson.
Potential franchisees don’t need design or creative experience, so to build up their knowledge, franchisees have access to technical training and resources, as well as a help desk to answer their questions. Often franchisees will have a sales background or have executive-level corporate experience. However, there’s another path to becoming a FASTSIGNS franchisee: If someone already owns an independent print shop, they can rebrand as a FASTSIGNS location. This way they get access to the brand’s advertising, web presence, and reduced costs of materials.
When a new franchisee comes on board, a number of things happen to get them on their feet. To kick off the intensive four-week initial training process, they’re assigned a mentor who is an experienced franchisee. Typically, the new franchisee would shadow that mentor at their established FASTSIGNS location and then fly to Dallas for two weeks of training at headquarters, but now due to COVID-19, more of that training is done virtually.
After that, the franchisor still provides lots of guidance. “We have a high level of support, from helping them hire and train to cash flow and budgeting to the products and technical systems,” explains Jameson.
Cambray and Rolls appreciated the support of their regional business consultant. “Thankfully, we had a business consultant assigned to our business who was involved with us on a very regular basis for the first year of operation,” says Cambray. The consultant would be available to brainstorm and answer questions on regular calls and come into the shop to provide in-person support.
According to Jameson, having a successful franchise starts even before you open your business: “Everybody should study the disclosure documents, understand the profitability of those units and how long it takes to get there.” He also advises that potential franchisees think carefully about what kind of role they want to take on.
Running a FASTSIGNS franchise is not without its challenges. “The big challenges in our business are not much different from any business, such as hiring and keeping employees engaged,” explains Jameson. To overcome this challenge, FASTSIGNS offers tools and resources such as an online university with more than 500 classes, two conferences a year that franchisees and employees can attend, and an app-based training program.
Reaping the rewards of franchising
Looking back on six years of growth, Cambray and Rolls are very happy with how things have progressed. “I don’t think that we would have followed that trajectory without having a strong brand presence from the beginning,” says Cambray.
The support they received over the years was also a big benefit for the pair, and they like that they can communicate with the system’s leaders. “The thing that’s really incredible about FASTSIGNS is that even though it’s a big franchise, it’s like a family. And that comes from the leadership,” says Rolls.
The couple also likes the B2B nature of the business. “We like meeting and helping businesspeople,” says Cambray. “Over the years, we’ve actually made friends with quite a number of customers.” Other benefits include the wide network of franchisees and the diverse products and services they offer as franchisees, which allows them to always be learning and growing.
Jameson says one of the key benefits of the franchise is that since you’re dealing with other businesses, not consumers, you mostly work Monday-Friday during business hours. He also says that the low staffing model means that it’s easy to expand once you get started. “We start with three employees and we can add more as the business grows. It’s a very scalable model.”
Rising to the challenge
Like every other business, FASTSIGNS had to deal with the uncertainty that came along with COVID-19. “The world has changed very, very fast,” says Jameson. To meet this new challenge, head office jumped into action and made sure that the lines of communication were open with franchisees. The CEO led weekly calls with the entire network, and they created a new franchisee website specifically for the COVID crisis. Franchisees have access to information on everything from lending opportunities to talking to landlords about rent relief to the introduction of new products.
Previously a large part of the brand’s businesses involved creating signage for large gatherings and sporting events. However, due to COVID-19, the brand had to pivot, and they wasted no time in changing gears. Jameson says that they quickly started producing safety and social distancing signage, as well as masks and face shields at some locations.
Luckily, most locations were able to stay open throughout the crisis because they were considered an essential service. “We had to help our franchisees pivot into new products and services, and we’ve been very, very happy with the results,” says Jameson.