Women in Business: Q&A with Catherine Monson, CEO of FASTSIGNS International

Catherine Monson is the CEO of FASTSIGNS International, the worldwide franchisor for more than 540 FASTSIGNS sign, graphic and visual communications centers that provide comprehensive solutions to help customers of all sizes meet their business objectives and increase their business visibility through the use of signs, visual graphics, printing, promotional products and related marketing services.

How has your previous employment experience aided FASTSIGNS?

I had 28 years of experience in business-to-business (B2B) franchising at Franchise Services, Inc. (FSI) working with both print industry and non-print brands. Sheet fed printing has many similarities to the signage and visual graphics industry, including similar B2B customers and business processes. Therefore, I already understood much of the technology used at FASTSIGNS, knew how to run a B2B company and had in-depth knowledge of the challenges facing small-business owners and those in the print-for-pay industry. At FSI, I held positions in just about every discipline necessary to run a successful franchise company: franchise sales, development, marketing, training and general management.

I have also been active in the International Franchise Association (IFA) and the franchising industry for many years. All of these factors have helped prepare me to be successful in my role as CEO of FASTSIGNS International.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

From a young age, I knew that I wanted to lead an organization, possibly because I spent my childhood working with my father in his business. As the oldest of four siblings, I spent considerable time with my father at his business--rather than focused on what, at the time, was considered traditional female interests; including cooking and sewing. I had no interest in earning money via babysitting or child care; I would rather talk business with my father.

I do believe, to some extent, that most successful leaders possess a similar behavioral or personality profile. Therefore, to some degree, I would say that I was born with leadership characteristics or that it developed during my childhood. My behavioral profile is more dominant than accepting, more independent than compliant, more driving than relaxed, and more analytical than sociable.

As I progressed in my career, I studied successful leaders and looked for mentors. I worked to understand what made those people successful and focused on implementing those characteristics and learning those necessary business and leadership skills. Pushing myself to develop the qualities of successful leaders has helped me achieve the position I am in today.

My early management style was more autocratic than what truly works. In a previous role, I spent two years running European operations and learned how to gain consensus from both internal and external groups while improving my collaborative skills. Learning to lead by building consensus has helped me to become a better leader.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I don't. No one would consider me an example of work/life balance, nor do I hold myself out to be. I think the important thing is to assess how you feel at the end of each day. I usually feel excited, motivated, fulfilled and gratified...and for me, that works. Other people get those feelings of fulfillment in other ways. It's different for everyone. I love my work and what I do, but I also enjoy hosting dinner parties with friends, riding horses, and international travel. To alleviate stress, I go on a run; running is a great release for me.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as CEO of FASTSIGNS?

One of the greatest challenges was replacing the company's beloved founder and former CEO. To come in as the new CEO, selected by the private equity company that owns FASTSIGNS, to replace the founder would be a challenge for anyone. On top of that, it was in January 2009, during the midst of the "Great Recession," not an easy time for anyone taking over the helm. I was an unknown to our franchisees, who were going through the hardest economic time in our company's history, experiencing significant same center sales declines. I needed to gain their respect and trust quickly and focus the team on providing the support needed to get them through those tough times. My team and I focused on specific tactical methods to help our franchisees gain new customers, sell more to existing customers, reduce their expenses and improve cash flow. We created a year-long incentive, with the opportunity to win an all expense paid cruise for two, to motivate our franchisees to dig deep during that difficult time. More than 10 percent of our franchise partners qualified for the cruise.

After the recession, our focus switched to how to differentiate FASTSIGNS in the marketplace. Our existing brand positioning had been copied by competitors. We knew we needed to differentiate the brand. In 2010, we began to educate our franchise partners on becoming marketing services providers and offering expanded products and services. We formally launched our new tagline "More than fast. More than signs.®" in 2012 to clearly reflect our more comprehensive and consultative approach. Seeing these programs succeed with outstanding results has been rewarding. System-wide sales have continued to increase each year.

My biggest leadership challenge is learning to focus on the most important three or four drivers of the business and saying "no" or "not right now" to many other good ideas or initiatives and keeping my team focused on implementing or effecting those same three or four key drivers. Concentrating resources, essentially our people's time and the company's money, on the few most significant drivers of the business is important to maximize the success of the company. While, at the same time, remaining open to new opportunities.

In short, there are always a thousand competing ideas, but if you spread yourself too thin, you're not going to achieve as much as you would if you remain focused on the important few key drivers of the business.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to become a franchisee?

I am a passionate believer in franchising. Owning your own business is a dream for many Americans, and when you choose a franchise you're in business for yourself, but not by yourself. Franchisees receive the benefits of a large brand while they own a small business. Plus, they have a higher chance of long-term success over their independent business owner counterparts.

Individuals interested in owning a franchise should find a business that interests them and fits their lifestyle choice. Some individuals want to own a business that is open Monday through Friday with typical business hours. Some businesses, including restaurants, retail and most business-to-consumer (B2C) services, are open seven days a week. There are many significant differences between B2B and B2C businesses. The first step is to determine the type of business that will interest you.

Potential franchisees should do their due diligence, read the Franchise Disclosure Document (FDD) cover-to-cover and talk with many existing franchisees to verify they are happy, profitable and have a strong relationship with the franchisor.

Once a franchise has been selected, my advice is to follow the system. With an established, successful franchise--such as FASTSIGNS--all aspects of the business model have been proven, so implementing it with excellence will allow franchisees to optimize financial benefits.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

There are definitely many challenges that women still face in the workplace every day, but I always go back to what my dad used to say, "Life isn't fair, so get over it and do the best you can." I focus on doing the best that I can with the cards I was dealt. I think people are happier and more successful when they take that approach.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have been blessed with many great mentors and have worked to implement their advice throughout my career. They have helped me to become a better leader and inspired me to continually improve my skills in sales, marketing, and leadership. In my role, I also have the opportunity to mentor many people and always learn from those experiences, as well. Those insights allow me to grow both personally and professionally.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire leadership regardless of gender. I admire Jack Welch, who was CEO of General Electric for 20 years, and Rudy Giuliani. Specifically with women, I admire Meg Whitman because she's had a diverse career and excels in every area of business. I admire Anne Mulcahy, who had to make tough decisions to save Xerox Corporation from bankruptcy. Julia Stewart of DineEquity is another female leader I admire due to her focus and drive. Julia taught me the concept of the "leadership shadow," which means to lead in such a way that your people understand what you are doing and why, and will follow your lead even when you're not there, following in your leadership shadow.

What are your hopes for the future of FASTSIGNS?

We are already the leading brand in our space with 540 locations in eight countries and $325 million in revenue. My goal is to expand FASTSIGNS to 1,000 locations across 20 countries and to increase our revenue to $900 million. FASTSIGNS is an exciting growth company and I'm looking forward to many years leading this great brand.