An Expressed interest
From a ‘heritage’ building of historic interest in Norwich the head office of one of the UK’s leading sign operations guides and advises its franchisees The venue is almost romantic, an old church in tree-lined grounds dappled with light and shade and sited at the top of a quiet residential street. Signage is pretty much forbidden here so it seems slightly ironic that behind these stone, unsigned walls lies the heart of the most successful UK sign franchise operation.
Once into the offices any pretence of quietude disappears to be replaced by the sort of staccato hum that indicates a busy, well-managed team at home in its skin. Signs Express is a domestic product, and was one of the short listed finalists for the 2009 British Franchise Association, Franchisor of the Year Award. With its growing network of some 80 franchisees
UK-wide, including four in Southern Ireland, the head office facility has an important role to play in supplying support, training and advice as well as running the national accounts.
Launched in 1989 by David Corbett and Frank Eliel, Signs Express evolved from its founders’ desire to look for “the best franchise concept”. At first they whittled their options down to creating a business-to-business set-up that must not be to do with food, and then that determination was further focused until their researches finally brought them to signage.
David and Frank took their fledgling business framework to leading materials supplier Spandex and spoke with Charlie Dobson and Rob Jackson. That discussion saw the companies agree to become business partners and the career of Signs Express settled into one of rapid growth. Even so the franchisees are not tied into a purchasing agreement and can buy whatever equipment they want (unless the client has specified materials of course).
[ Setting up ]
When a potential franchisee contacts Signs Express the first thing the team will do is send out a prospectus to illustrate how everything works, then the prospect is invited to Norwich for a mutual interview – after all confidence in strength of the relationship has to work both ways. Then they are invited to fill in a psychometric test. This is because the Signs Express policy is to only deal with people that have “a drive to succeed and proven strong skill sets”, because the franchiser needs not only to protect its reputation in the marketplace but also make sure that the interested party is making the right decision, not everyone has what it takes to run a successful franchise. Once in place the franchisee can ask the team for advice on people that they plan to bring on board and seek business advice, sure in the knowledge that they are talking to business partners with real experience in the sign marketplace.
This arises from the fact that before Signs Express began to advise others on how to run a sign business it brought in its own sign specialists to be part of its team (including its MD Craig Brown). Then it created an empowering ethic for its work force. It has a sophisticated mindset when it comes to business ideas, inviting the most junior members of its team to get involved in decision making and thus helping them grow into their roles with confidence. In fact the entire franchise group can put ideas forward, meaning that over 700 people can be involved in any single discussion – happily without causing the kind of rangling congestion that might occur with less like minded people.Most of the franchisees are business people first and salespeople second, they employ signmakers and where possible they are helped to choose the right sign personnel for their centre’s location and business demographic. That all-important demographic is also taken into account when it comes to marketing; Norwich supplies an array of bespoke promotional materials that ranges from glossy brochures for the higher end customer to more everyday, less financially intimidating looking flyers for the smaller, local end user. Some of these are provided as downloadable PDFs from the website. It was pointed out that this in no way denigrates the smaller customers, it just allows for the understanding that some of them would look at certain types of literature and just decide it looked too rich for their blood before ever getting to the price list.
[ It’s good to talk ]
We have all experienced and enjoyed the growing proliferation of Internet chat rooms and business forums, some are more successful than others, and some of the advice offered is more useful than otherwise. When they work they work very well, but can suffer from the ‘come one come all’ approach to information sharing. Not so with the exclusive Signs Express Intranet service that can only be accessed by the franchisees. On-line they can: join a forum, check out the classified section for items for sale, deal with invoice/payment issues, go to the price comparison site for base materials – while still being advised not to buy on the penny for a pound basis but on real information about the quality of both the product and the service on offer. This Intranet service is a literal ‘back room expert’ always available to help, and the information is never allowed to get stale. Imagine how useful it would be to be told that a certain supplier’s materials are just as good as ever but that deliveries have become shaky, especially if you were thinking of using them for a rush job. It can also be useful for the supplier to be made aware of any problem, especially if failing to address them may affect orders from nearly 80 workshops! Signs Express is constantly asking for test materials, running comparisons and getting feedback from suppliers; this is added to input from the franchisees themselves, which means that at any given time a franchisee has access to a constantly refreshed database on materials and products that would be a real Godsend to any independent. They can also use the Impact vehicle outlines software, which is licensed to the franchise on an annual basis, as well as get solid and practical advice on how to apply graphics and vehicle wraps. As mentioned before the franchisee needn’t actually be a signmaker before they join Signs Express – in fact in the entire group only four of them were – but they must have business acumen and not be too inflexible, plus willing to learn about new materials. Just recently Spandex provided a training session on the Slatz modular range that demonstrated not only the positive sides of the product but also its limitations; and this is just one part of a regime that ensures that the franchisees can enjoy a wealth of genuine, practical product information that reaches beyond politics or self-seeking materials providers, the Intranet site can even help them with advice on how to tender for a job.
[ Someone to turn to ]
However not everything can be found on line, in fact it is best that the Internet is not seen as the be-all and end-all of information gathering. In fact it was pointed out to us that any signmaker who spends most of their day looking at the Internet is wasting the time they could be spending working, seeking new business or liaising with existing customers. Thus Signs Express has set up a massive mentoring network to
supply real time, expert input towards any project’s success. This facility works with the web information to speed up the working day and the franchisee’s turnaround of business – after all the faster one can work the more one can earn. At the time of our visit there were in fact just fewer than 80 franchisee sign shops with staff levels in each ranging between three and 26. The franchisees are trained and aided to maximise the potential of their staff, increasing turnover and the volume of work getting done, but sometimes a job can go wrong. As members of both the BFA and BSGA Signs Express gets help with the handling of complaints, in fact as members of the BSGA it has access to Chris Thomas, the guy that used to write sign legislation and who is still part of the Outdoor Advertising Council. In fact Craig Brown himself is on the BSGA council (he was once the president, unpaid and with no expenses) and he thinks that it might be time for the signmaker to rethink their attitude to the association. He told us: “The BSGA provides an overall benefit to every single signmaker working in the UK, but its activities are limited by the number of players willing to add to the pot. But that hasn’t stopped it from protecting us from some of the less useful European laws such as the French ‘Sign Tax’ that we heard about earlier this year.”
[ The man at the top ]
Craig came into signmaking in 1984 but he nearly took another path – as part of his YTS training he spent some time as the junior goalkeeper for Plymouth Argyll! Football’s loss proved to be the sign industry’s gain, but perhaps that early experience has gone some way towards helping him to keep a firm grasp on his business ethics. He started his sign career with a set of brushes and a mahl stick, plus he learned to hand-cut vinyl. Since then he has evolved with the sign industry, embracing the new products and technology that has changed and expanded so much of what the signage industry has to offer. That well-earned growth and insight has helped lay some of the foundations of what Signs Express has become as Craig was one of the first of the specialists brought in by the founders, and he has been deeply invested in its development ever since. A well-built man, he can be found in his biking leathers more often than in a suit, and he approaches his day with an easy going “can do, will do” attitude that has permeated the Norwich office’s staff – hard work rewarded by hard play and respect. He is an enthusiast about the benefits on offer to those that succeed in winning a franchise, adding to the comprehensive list we have already outlined: “ We circulate material about our sign shops’ work to the local press and trade journals, provide end-users a guarantee on signage, and we can advise on all aspects of running a sign business, including: HR and employment law, plus provide information about not just the various business guidelines a sign business has to adhere to but also the exemptions available to them.
“We also have the Signs Express Charter which lays out how the various centres can work with each other. For instance: say the franchise in Falkirk gets a contract to wrap a fleet of 40 vehicles but some are in Scotland, some in Preston and the rest in Southampton. Our charter will provide a method that means the work will be done by a group of centres across the UK, and done to everyone’s satisfaction, including the fleet operator.” Sometimes Craig gets so involved in the centres’ needs that he ends up feeling like some kind of glorified agony aunt, but he doesn’t see that as a negative thing and still relishes coming into work every day. He became MD after growing up through the business from the shop floor and believes that management often works best when it is funnelled upwards with ideas coming from the team and the franchisees. Signs Express is proud to be part of the Investors in People scheme, and has just passed its third, two-yearly assessment, having had to prove an improvement in staff development each time. This means that the staff all enjoy professionally monitored, personal direction development, during which their work direction and objectives are discussed and any relevant training put in place.Training for dealing with the needs of franchisees is ultra-important, whether performed in-house or at a distance, and is often supplied by experts, with bespoke modules designed by specialists such as Norfolk based Jarrolds. “If we are going to effectively advise our centres,” Craig explains, “then we really need to understand what it is we are advising them about.”
[ Hiding the light ]
He continued: “The classic signmaker’s stance is one of ‘hiding ones light under a bushel’ the sign industry is really poor about coming forward and needs to learn about how to spot business opportunities – and how to win them! There is no truer saying than the one from Samuel Goldwyn which goes: ‘I am a very lucky man, and I’ve noticed that the harder I work the luckier I get.’ We work hard for our success, and all of our people reap the reward.
“When a new product comes into the sign arena we have the contacts and the insight to respond quickly. Whether it be a new piece of technology or a new item of legislation we can advise our people on the best reaction to it, whether it works and even explain how it might affect them.” And there’s more; the Intranet service has a gallery of completed work available for the franchisees to use as a sales tool; and a list of authorised suppliers that can be searched for simply by company, product or even contact name, which then supplies a direct
link to the desired website. Time gets saved, and the information is “kept fresh and is always at the users fingertips”. It seems that the franchisee’s needs have been looked after from A to Z, and as new technology becomes available it is considered and introduced or rejected. Signs Express has changed with the industry, its services have matured and its support has become stronger as a result. The concluding statement belongs to Craig: “We can only ever be as successful as our franchisees, so it is beholden to us to push for success and provide everything a hard working person could need to achieve it, anything less would be failure.”