CEO pulls off turnaround at struggling FastSigns

NEW YORK (AP) — FastSigns and its franchisees were stagnating and didn't know how to cope with a recession. Revenue at stores open at least a year fell 16 percent in 2009. The company, which sells signs, banners and placards, wasn't aggressive enough in helping its franchisees thrive.

Enter Catherine Monson, who became the Carrollton, Texas-based company's CEO in 2009. Besides slumping sales, she found a company that was focused too narrowly on selling signs and employees who weren't thinking up innovative ways to make money. That was a dangerous combination in an economic downturn, when buying new signs were a low priority for struggling businesses.

Monson let staffers know they had to change, and fast. Her assertive stance didn't go over well with many people. After she arrived, five of six senior managers and half the 112 other headquarters staffers left. But she's unapologetic.

"I drive people crazy with my sense of urgency, but I get a lot done," she says.

Employees' mission became helping small business owners who run the franchises think like entrepreneurs. Instead of filling a customer's order and moving on to the next one, franchisees were encouraged to be business consultants.

"They need to get involved with the customer much earlier, and say, 'let's talk about all the things we can do to help you grow your sales,'" Monson says.

She insisted on regular communication between headquarters and franchisees. Conference calls are held regularly to keep franchisees up to date on new products and marketing.

Now, when a customer orders a banner, FastSigns employees will check to see if a permit is needed before it can be hung. They no longer tell customers to go somewhere else to get letterhead and flyers printed.

The changes have turned the company around. Sales in established stores have gained more than 9 percent overall since the start of 2012. In October, they rose 11 percent.

"If we enter another recession in the future, our franchisees and we will be better positioned to make important decisions quickly," Monson says.

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