Fastsigns CEO Catherine Monson: Five Traits to a Successful Career

(Fastsigns CEO Catherine Monson is the fifth successful female executive to be profiled in our series highlighting women in business.)

CARROLLTON, Texas ( TheStreet) -- Catherine Monson, CEO of Fastsigns International, is no stranger to hard work and long hours on the job.

She started working in her family's pre-school business (at one time they had three) as a kid in California, at first helping her dad with janitorial duties, but gradually taking over office tasks as well. She was so involved in the business that as a high school student she ran the business for two weeks while her parents were in the hospital for different reasons.

Monson, now 55, says the experience not only gave her a strong work ethic but a solid understanding from there. Her roots were formed.

"I knew by high school that I wanted to lead a company," Monson writes in an email. "At the time, my goal was to be president of Exxon (now Exxon Mobil ( XOM)), only because it was one of the biggest companies I knew of."

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Monson took over the chief executive position at Fastsigns in December 2008.

At the time, she says, one of the biggest issues for the 25-year-old company was a lack of communication between corporate headquarters and franchisees. Franchisees were furious and felt they weren't receiving the support they needed, which led to a lack of company growth, she says. Same-store sales dropped and franchise locations were closing.

Monson immediately created a sales-incentive program, instituted monthly company meetings for sales updates, program developments, company announcements and praise for departments on their projects and efforts; and monthly "Connect with Catherine" calls with the franchise system to provide updates and answer questions, among other things. Since implementing the programs, the franchisee satisfaction has improved and the company's growth has picked up, she notes.

Monson is an avid equestrian and says she's willing to try anything once, including skydiving, for instance.

Like her good friend BrightStar Care's Shelly Sun, Monson also serves on the board of the International Franchise Association, the franchise industry's main trade group.

A conversation with Monson follows.

Tell us a little bit about the company and what Fastsigns does.

Monson: We have been in business since 1985. We're the largest sign and visual graphics franchise. We've won third-party awards for franchisee satisfaction, which is really critical. If you're looking to become a franchisee, you want to consider a franchisor that has a really good franchisee/franchisor relationship. We have over 535 locations in eight countries. About 470 of those are in the United States.

We're very much a B2B model. What signage and graphics do is they inform, they direct and they sell. So it could be signage for a hospital so that people who come in know how to get to the right department or the right floor. That's one kind of signage. It could be marketing-oriented signage that helps a company sell more of their products and services to end users or it could be informational kind of signage that might be at a donor wall or where a company's just trying to communicate information to its constituents.

How has your upbringing has shaped your work ethic?

Monson: I grew up in a family business. When you get the opportunity to work in a small business growing up or to work on a family farm, you really understand that the way you get ahead, the way you build wealth in your family, the way you take care of yourself, is to do hard work. It builds a work ethic that perhaps does not exist for those kids who were given an allowance for doing nothing, just for being part of the family. It was expected. It wasn't until I was probably in my teens that I actually got paid by my family.

You've obviously come a long way since those early days. Tell me, as a CEO of a large franchise, where can we still see the roots of your strong ethic?

Monson: Throughout my career I always did whatever it took to do an excellent job. I am a workaholic. I love my work. It is normal that I work 60 or 70, sometimes 80 hours a week. Last week I was on vacation. I worked every day I was on vacation. Do I regret it? No. Do I resent it? No. I love what I do.

I knew as a little kid that I didn't want to be a mom. I just knew it as a little kid. I didn't think I'd be a great mom and I didn't want anybody to not have a great mom, so I decided kids weren't for me. Now that makes it easier for me to work very long hours.

That brings me to my next question. Where do the challenges lie for women executives in general?

Monson: The fact that women are expected to also be the primary caregiver of kids and expected to keep the home up and expected to do dinner, at least in our society, is that fair or not fair? It doesn't matter. It's called reality. There is more pressure on women to "have it all." I've never heard a single guy talk about, "Is it possible for a man to have it all?" It's not even a cultural consideration. So if you want to be a career executive and if you want to be the most amazing mother in the world, that's some real tightrope walking that you're going to have to do.

I do believe that if men are forceful, assertive and direct, they're considered to be powerful, smart executives. If women are forceful, assertive and direct they're sometimes called a witch with a "b" in front of it. Do I let that bother me? No. That's just reality. I'm going to be forceful, assertive and direct and if somebody's feathers are ruffled, I have learned to believe that's their problem and not mine. Now is that an excuse to be bitchy in the workplace? Absolutely not, because anybody who is bitching or negative isn't going to be successful.

How has your managerial style and ethics influenced the culture at Fastsigns?

Monson: Throughout my career, throughout my adult life, I have studied successful people. I have had the opportunity to be mentored by some amazing executives. I've had the opportunity to meet some very successful CEOs and presidents. And what I have found is that there are five common characteristics of successful people. It doesn't matter if you're talking about being successful in politics or successful in business or successful in saving for your retirement.

The first is positive mental attitude. I believe that positive mental attitude is learned. It is a discipline. It is the easiest thing in the world to be negative. Maybe some people have a sunnier disposition than others, but every successful leader is positive.

The next is goal-directed behavior. In a business, that would be having a business plan. One of the best ways to be goal-directed in your business is to have key objectives and an action plan and a budget on what you want to attain.

Then the third one would be self-motivation. Successful people will make two more sales calls in a day. They'll make the time to coach one more employee. They'll check on one more customer. Whatever it is, rather than saying, "OK, I can be done and I'll put that off until tomorrow," successful people just tend to be more self-motivated. They make things happen.

The fourth one will be a sense of urgency. I love success quotes and positive quotes and I try to feed my mind with that every day, and one of them that I love is Thomas Jefferson's, which is, "Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today."

And then the fifth characteristic is never stop learning.

How does that change the culture here? I try to always be positive and when I see any of my management team not being positive , I pull them aside and say, "Guys, remember, nobody wants to follow a pessimist. Nobody ever built a statue to a critic. You need to be positive in how you deal with people, in your outlook about the business, how you deal with franchisees."

I also bring that goal-directed behavior. We were a company that didn't really have a business plan. We now have one every year for four years. We didn't necessarily communicate what the business plan was to the entire team. Now every month I go over the business plan and where we are. We didn't even share the company's financial statements with anybody outside the executive committee and every month in our company meeting, part of the never stop learning, you've got to understand that if a company brings in $100,000 of revenue in month one, they don't have $99,000 of profit in month one. What are all of the things that go into that?

We have a long central corridor in our office that we call Inspiration Hall and it is filled with quotes about positive mental attitude and planning and self-discipline and all of those things. What I'm trying to do is feed the minds of my entire team about what it takes to be successful. That's kind of how I've tried to filter it through into the culture.

I'm assuming that trickles down to the franchisees as well.

Monson: Absolutely. In fact, I have spent a couple different convention speeches and different columns in our regular newsletter talking about that philosophy, coaching franchisees. At our upcoming convention next month I'm doing a seminar on how to develop a success culture in your business and so that same philosophy, not only do I use that in dealing with my teams of my employees, the 100-plus people that are here, but also the 500-plus franchisees out there.

What lessons did you learn about yourself and about the company from being on CBS' "Undercover Boss"?

Monson: First, I need to say that the "boss" has nothing to do with the casting. The production company does all the casting and you really don't know, until that morning, the first name of the person you're working with and what you're going to be taught.

I'm totally blessed that all of the employees I worked with are fabulous employees. They care about customers. They're passionate about Fastsigns. They're focused on quality and great service. That was hugely rewarding to find out that the sampling that the production company picked were just great examples of Fastsigns so that made me very, very proud.

We did uncover two really significant issues that we have. The first was addressed the following week and the other we're in the process of building a whole new curriculum.

1. We had always communicated all of our programs, marketing initiatives and everything, directly to our franchisees and expected our franchisees to communicate that to their employees. And with all of the employees that I worked with -- each was employed by a different franchisee -- all of them had misunderstandings about the company and what we did.

One of them said, "Your marketing -- it's too basic. Why don't you let us customize it?" Well, we have two new marketing programs. One is, "On your behalf or we do it for you," and the other is, "Do it yourself where you can completely customize every message." That employee didn't know.

Another employee said, "Why do all the websites for all the Fastsigns have to look the same?" Well, they don't. Our website infrastructure is set up with huge customization capabilities, but that particular franchisee chose not to use it and just go to the default website.

So starting right the week after "Undercover Boss," now every time we send a communication to our franchisees, we also send it to every employee e-mail address we have.

We're starting to see employees understanding better, knowing more, using our tools more.

The other one, as I was three floors up, outdoors on a lift on a cold windy day in Phoenix, installing an exterior sign ... I learned from the franchisee I was working with that he had to learn everything about exterior large sign projects on his own. And I came back to the home office and that was true. We did not have any training on what's involved in large exterior sign projects and so we've now hired a gentleman who has 25 years in the exterior signs industry and in January we're going to be giving to all of our franchisees a detailed manual, videotapes and a lot of training seminars on that at our convention. So those were two great business lessons.

Now what did I learn personally? I learned that maybe I need to take a little more time for Catherine and not be such a workaholic. Have I implemented that? Not so much.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To contact Laurie Kulikowski, send an email to: Laurie.Kulikowski@thestreet.com.

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