Allegra Marketing Print Mail franchisee finds new rewards in the print industry through franchising
By Suzanne Bowness
Nicky Gillam was looking for a career change, so she asked a business broker to find her some
appropriate options. She shared the skills she picked up as an experienced corporate manager involved in the technology and manufacturing sectors, and her interest in a business that was small but established, and customer facing. But when he came up with a franchised print shop, her first reaction was “oh God, no.” Fortunately, he convinced her to take a closer look, giving this story a happy ending from the start: in September 2019, Gillam took over ownership of an Allegra Marketing Print Mail location, a full-service marketing and print communications shop in Oakville, Ontario.
Reflecting on what finally convinced her to take on the business and this new industry, Gillam said she saw that the 30-year-old print shop was a good operation, and still viable despite being in a changing industry. “It provides huge value to other businesses. I really liked that,” she says.
She had some hesitations about franchising, as well, but those were quashed when she learned about the franchise’s support process. “From day one, I was super impressed with the team. Everybody was really professional. When you were talking about business planning, they have people that understood financials and understood how to create business plans. When you were in the sales or the marketing meeting, they were marketing and sales professionals. So, I really thought that Alliance Franchise Brands had a really great story, [and] some really good brands,” says Gillam about Allegra, which is under the brand umbrella of Alliance (with some print shops, including hers, recently rebranded from past name KKP).
Gillam was particularly impressed with the franchise’s Right Start program, which guides new owners through their first three years of business. Connected with a performance group and a handful of fellow franchisees across Canada, she enjoys the community of other owners. “We meet regularly, share our financial information, support each other, and we hold each other accountable. I’ve had a very positive experience with them overall,” says Gillam.
While Gillam says the printing business is a busy industry, with surprising complexity, the initial training (that starts with a week at head office in Michigan) and the support of her performance group, make it learnable, especially with a background in operations. “Understanding flow of work from the customer request to getting it out the door, how to set those steps up properly and who’s involved in the process, that’s very helpful. But as long as you’ve got a good head on your shoulders and a solid background in anything business-related, it’s an industry that a lot of people could be successful in,” she says.
In taking over an existing business, Gillam figured she would be making some changes. She didn’t count on a global pandemic shutting them down. “The pandemic put a spanner in the works because I was forced to lay everybody off. The business fell off a cliff. But I was forced to learn the business, which was really important. And even though I try to work on building the business, if somebody is out for the day, now I can jump in, which is really valuable,” says Gillam. Besides getting to know the business from the ground up, Gillam also absorbed two smaller franchise operations from the same area, which expanded her original Oakville territory to nearby Burlington, Stoney Creek, and Mississauga.
Building the dream team
Gillam says staffing was the main challenge to start with, and she had to make some tough decisions to let some
people go and switch others around. “Having the right people is critical; it’s a cliché, but the team are everything,” she says. “Getting the right people in the right seats was really a key factor. It improved everything in terms of team attitude, productivity, willingness to learn and take new things on.”
Inspired by her own experience learning all aspects of the business, she also invested in a lot of cross-training
so adjacent staff could cover each other’s roles in busy periods and for vacations. Furthermore, Gillam invested in new technology and equipment to automate some repetitive elements that overburdened staff. Today, the team includes sales and customer service roles, in addition to graphics and production staff.
Gillam also sharpened the shop’s focus on business and commercial accounts, and expanded their offering to their current customer base so they become a one-stop shop for existing clients, which include organizations from private schools to dentists, non-profits, and manufacturers. “It’s great because now we can say to our customers, we’ve got all of this skill in-house for your signage, for your uniforms, for your mailings. They know they can rely on us, and we know their colours and their branding, so they don’t have to repeat themselves. We understand what they’re looking for and we try to encourage our customers to talk to us,” says Gillam, noting that the strategy is all in aid of becoming more of a consultative partner to clients rather than just taking orders. The franchise has a full in-house graphic design studio, so it handles orders from request to installation, plus a lot of commercial printing of booklets and brochures.
Just as she strives to have her clients see her as a partner, Gillam also appreciates that sense of partnership with other franchisees. “There’s a very successful Allegra out in Pickering, and I found the owner of that operation, and he came down and offered to be my business mentor. He has toured our plant and made suggestions about operational changes,” says Gillam. “I think the fellowship and the support is great, the fact that I can pick up the phone if my printer is down and I’ve got a job that I need to get out, I can go down the road and one of the other Allegras will help me.”
All that support has helped Gillam to grow quickly and confidently, something that she plans to continue in the near term as she works on developing her team and getting closer to her customer base. By 2024, she may look to expand again, but for now she’s content in a phase of solidifying her business, one that she says has been a really good fit.
“The franchise is exceptional. I can’t think of one reason I wouldn’t be a part of this franchise. They’re just a really good group of professionals. At any point you reach out and you’ve got somebody there who is willing to dive in on any topic. I would say to anyone that’s going to enter into the world of print or signage, who doesn’t have experience and is not taking over a well-established business, these are the people you should be talking to.”