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Sign Franchises

With more firms opting into franchises, Rob Fletcher takes a closer look at this area of the sign industry and examines the benefits on offer to those that decide to marry into one of its three big families

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Roselyn Itopa (third from right), managing director of the Fastsigns Chelmsford franchise, has paid tribute to the support she has received from parent company Fastsigns since taking over the site

It’s a family affair

With so much positive news around in the sign industry, it is interesting to see the many ways that businesses have been able to become so successful. While some go down the route of investing in new kit to expand their service offering, others opt to bring in new staff or relocate to a larger premises to strengthen their fire power.

Another method that has proved popular in recent years is to take on a franchise, with the sign market featuring three main options in particular—Signs Express, Fastsigns, and Signarama. All three franchise chains have a far-reaching network of locations around the UK, offering a comprehensive range of signage products and services to customers nationwide.

But what is it about franchises that make them such an attractive option in the sign market? What can franchises offer that other types of businesses cannot, and what sort of benefits can those who move into this market expect?

Turning around a business

Signs Express has a network of more than 70 production centres across the UK, with sites as far north as Scotland, as well as established centres in Southampton and Portsmouth. The latter of these facilities was taken over by Jane Wiles and Ray Allenby in January of this year, with the pair experiencing plenty of success during their first year in charge.

“When we took over the branch in January, it was an underperforming centre, but we saw the potential and have now turned the business around, doubling turnover in six months,” Wiles explains, adding: “We have invested in new kit and staff members and are looking forward to 2016.

Jane Wiles and Ray Allenby took over the Signs Express Portsmouth centre in January of this year, doubling turnover in just six months

“As experienced sign-makers, we offer a one-stop-shop service for businesses in Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Indeed, we work with all types of businesses, organisations and local authorities in the area and as part of a larger franchised group we have the ability to organise and complete projects on a national scale.”

Speaking about the reasons behind the move into franchising, Wiles ex-plains that both herself and Allenby have a wealth experience in the sign-making sector, and have been hoping to run a business together for some time.

“I worked for Signs Express Hull for many years as an admin assistant,” Wiles says, adding: “It was there that I really grew to appreciate the company as a whole and to understand how dynamic and supportive working as a franchisee can be. So, when Ray and I were looking to start out on our own, my thoughts immediately went to franchising and where better to direct our expertise but into the industry we both know and love?

“One of the major bonuses of becoming part of a national brand that has over 25 years’ experience and an excellent reputation in the industry is that many people already know who we are and as we bought a resale the centre was known in the area already. As a result, we had some firm foundations in the region to leverage from and we have striven to strengthen our relationship with these existing clients as well as making new relationships.”

Wiles continues, making another very salient point: “Indeed, by setting ourselves up as the trusted providers of signage to some of the largest businesses in and around Portsmouth we receive consistent volumes of work every month and execute some prestigious projects that really pay off.
“The signage industry is one that never goes out of fashion, the technology and techniques evolve over time to keep us on our toes, but our type of work is always wanted. Every business needs one type of sign or another, which means that our client list is varied and interesting.”

In terms of whether others should follow suit by moving into this sector, Wiles has nothing but positive things to say about becoming a franchise owner.

“We have only been running this business for a short period of time, but the rewards we have already received have been beyond our expectations,” she explains, adding: “We really enjoy working in this industry and the variety of clients that we are building strong relationships with are great to work with.

“Also, being part of a franchise has made the whole transition as painless as possible and we always feel safe in the knowledge that we have a team at HQ backing us up. By choosing a franchise opportunity you are also provided with a proven business model that has demonstrated its financial performance—a huge bonus when you are investing your life savings in a business.”

Early success

Elsewhere, Fastsigns has more than 590 sites in various regions worldwide, with 19 of these based in locations around the UK. One such franchise is Fastsigns Chelmsford, a branch that has been open for more than 20 years and was this summer taken over by Roselyn Itopa and her husband.

Speaking about the decision to take up the franchise, managing director Roselyn says that both herself and her husband have a lot of experience in the corporate multi-nationals sector, and were keen to use this to run their own business.

Itopa explains: “We decided to own our own business, with the view to creating some financial independence by utilising our knowledge, skill sets and experience to build a profitable business and contribute to the economy through employment of labour and giving back to the local community.

“We took time to look at various SMEs across various industries and decided on a franchise that has the right type of structure, support, processes, training and resources to enable us grow sustainably. Fastsigns, being a proven global leader in signs, has this support structure and more.”

O Factoid: Fastsigns has a huge franchise network that stretches around the world. The company has a total of 590 sites in various countries, including 19 locations in the UK. O

The couple took over the business in August, with both saying that it has been a fantastic experience working with their team of very experienced designs and branding experts.

Itopa continues: “I am positive that we would be able to grow the business sustainably and we are on target to achieve at least a 10 percent increase in business this year.

I am positive that we would be able to grow the business sustainably and we are on target to achieve at least a 10 percent increase in business this year

“We are blessed with a reliable, experienced and dedicated workforce with a can do attitude in addition to the superb support from the corporate Fastsigns team at the head office in Dallas.”

Itopa goes on to explain that having hailed from a different industry outside of the sign market, she did not realise the amount of work available in the sector. However, since taking control of Fastsigns Chelmsford in the summer, she has been able to make a fast transition to the industry.

She explains: “Although I have a supply chain background, I never used to see the huge opportunities for signs until we took over the signage business and it suddenly became clear that signs are everywhere and in everything. Signs are a part of our everyday lives and the opportunities it presents are enormous.

“Since I began to manage FSC from August, no two days have been the same—each day comes with its own challenges and dynamics. The need for signage keeps evolving ranging from rebranding projects to changes in regulations and advent of new technology.

“A franchise such as Fastsigns gives businesses the assurance of profess-ionalism and confidence they are in safe hands, and can place small and larger projects orders with us. Fastsigns offers unlimited technical support, shares best practice and offer extensive training, and this takes all the hard work out and encourages new franchisee like us and makes every-thing seem easy.”

Itopa adds she would have no hesitation in recommending the franchise route to others considering moving into this sector: “I would definitely recommend franchising to anyone who is looking for opportunity to run his or her own business and want to start reaping the benefits within a short period of time.

“The key thing is to do a rigorous due diligence, in finding the right franchise with good support structure in place. It’s important to partner with a franchisor that is interested in seeing you succeed and will keep you on a sustainable growth path. With Fast-signs there is no limit to how far you can grow because we are fast and more than just signs.”

Family affair

Another husband and wife team that have cited the benefits of expanding into the franchise market is Tracy and Jeremy Andrews, who took over the Signarama Birmingham South site six years ago. Tracy hails from construction, having run the family business of selling safety equipment to this sector before accepting a buy-out from a larger company.

Jeremy opted to take up the Signarama Birmingham South franchise, with Tracy joining him six months into the venture after stepping aside from her previous role with the safety equipment firm. Now settled in to life in the sign industry, Tracy is similarly ebullient about the decision to take over the Signarama franchise.

Husband and wife team Tracy and Jeremy Andrews took over the Signarama Birmingham South franchise six years ago, and have enjoyed a successful spell in charge

Tracy explains: “There’s no question that being part of such a well known global brand can open certain doors for you. Often the impression of size and national reach is very instrumental in larger clients trusting you with important and high value projects. We have some large construction companies as customers, and being based in Birmingham we are particularly delighted to produce a lot of work for Land Rover.”

In order to further facilitate growth, the firm also recently took delivery of a very large flatbed printer that allows it to produce high volumes of bespoke hoardings for its building clients. This sort of machinery is a major financial investment, but Tracy says she was absolutely confident in her team’s abilities.

She explains: “The best way to keep the business growing is to make our-selves as competitive and capable as possible so our customers have no need to look elsewhere.

“It’s been challenging of course and it’s been a steep learning curve at times, but we have the advantage of always knowing that there is support there whenever we need it. We can call on the Signarama franchise team for anything we need, whether that be for the latest industry knowledge or just simple advice on a project. We are also part of a large network of franchise owners who are more than happy to help each other out or even work together to deliver on national contracts.”

It has been challenging of course and it has been a steep learning curve at times, but we have the advantage of always knowing that there is support there whenever we need it

Regarding the type of people who are likely to be successful in this market, Tracy says they should have the right level of commitment, as there is a lot to learn in a short period of time.

She adds: “You need to be lively and outgoing with the ability to get on with a wide range of customers from small local businesses to large corporates. You need to be both a team player and good leader, as you will need to manage your staff as well as remembering that you are part of a larger network that is strongest when it works together.

Signarama has a large franchise network in the UK with locations all over the country, including this site in Birmingham. The multi-national recently underwent a global rebrand to help it improve its high street impact—after all, what is a sign company without good signage?

“There’s no escaping the hard work and long hours either, but I don’t think anyone expects to start a business and put their feet up.”

With so many members of the industry citing the benefits of moving into the franchise sector, it seems that there are plenty of opportunities for success in this area of the market. Like all things in business, there are likely to be risks, but with a thought-out plan and the right level of commitment, there is every chance that you could take over your own franchise and, be-fore long, reap the benefits.

Understanding the business model

Spencer Kelly, sales director of Innova Solutions, says the franchise business model is ideal as it offers the security of an established brand with tried and tested business processes—though this still has the pressure of targets from head office and regular audits. He says that Innova Solutions stands out in the franchise market as it understands this business model.

Spencer Kelly of Innova Solutions works with franchise Signs Express

“We’ve been working with Signs Express, one of the UK’s leading franchises within sign making, for over 10 years now,” says Kelly.

He continues: “Given the range of services a Signs Express franchise offers, we tend to supply a wide range of our industry leading products, including high strength tapes and structural adhesives suitable for bonding a wide range of material utilised within the sign industry and, more recently, photoluminescent products for safety signage and wayfinding systems.”

The team works with the head office of a franchise to get a good understanding of objectives and goals as a whole.
Kelly adds: “We strive to become involved in the activities of the franchise group, too, as well as servicing the franchisees individually. In fact, we’ve been headline sponsors at their annual convention for the last two years. At this years convention along with the core product range we'll be showcasing the NovaDura range of bespoke anti graffiti recyclable signage.

“Signs Express pride themselves on technical knowledge, competent staff and rigorous quality standards; the fact that these are things we also instil at Innova Solutions means that from a business point of view we have a very natural relationship.

“Obviously this isn’t limited to Sign Express, so if you’re business has similar principles, or if you’re a Signs Express franchisee and we’ve not spoken yet, we’d love to hear from you!”

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