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Fastsigns CEO Fortifies Franchise Leaders in Tough Times


"I'm a big believer in taking responsibility," said Catherine Monson, CEO of Fastsigns and chair of the International Franchise Association, in an interview with Franchise Times about leadership during the pandemic.

"My thought process is, leaders lead," declared Catherine Monson, CEO of Fastsigns, with more than 700 units, and chair of the International Franchise Association. "You always have to lead in the circumstances you're given. You never spend time worrying about stuff you can't control," she continued. So you may say, "Boy, I wish there wasn't a pandemic. You can't control that. I don't give any mindshare to things you can't control."

Monson gave a bracing interview to Franchise Times this week about leadership, fear and the courage to rise above it. Edited excerpts are presented here, in the hopes Monson will fortify our readers as much as she did this reporter.

FT: The last time I saw you was March 10, at our Franchise Investment Conference, and by that Friday the whole country locked down. Take me back to your mindset then.

CM: I was sounding the alarm to my executive team in late January. They were saying you are reactionary, you're crazy, this isn't going to happen. We'd been working for a year and a half on a plan called how to survive a recession. We said, let's pull that out and brush it off. It was 95 percent done.

And then I started saying, we've got to get ready to work virtual, and at franchisee locations too. 

By the middle of March my team was starting to say maybe you're not as crazy as we thought you were. But even when I saw you that Tuesday, I still had execs who said, no we're not going to stop travel. And I had already decided that coming Monday, if I didn't have them convinced I'd be authoritarian.

That Friday the shit hit the fan. They said OK boss , we're doing it. We got started way earlier than most franchisors did.

FT: How were you affected personally?

CM: I will tell you from the beginning of March through the end of June, I worked absolutely seven days a week, 13-15 hours a day. There are two things I'm working on: Fastsigns, the vast, vast, vast majority, and the IFA. And never before have I gone that period of time without even a day off. 

You might say that was exhausting, but I also know I have to listen to myself. If my body is really exhausted, I'm going to make myself take a nap. I know it's important as a leader to have juice in my battery, so I eat healthy, I take vitamins, I work out all the time. 

FT: You said you don't give mindshare to things you can't control. How do you resist that worrying?

CM: It totally is training. I would tell you that just as I lift weights to make my arms strong, I believe you have to do mental things to make your mind strong. That first weekend, I found myself for three or four hours unable to function. I said, 'Look stupid, you give speeches about this. So apply it.' I turned off the television and turned on smooth jazz, and said, let's get to it.

 I'm going to take a little detour. I grew up in an abusive, alcoholic home. I made a decision that I was not going to be a victim and that I was going to control my own destiny. In my late 20s I suffered from pretty severe depression and went through therapy. The single most important thing I learned  is to control my mind. I'd worry about things. I'm single, I'll never find a man, I'm overweight….I call it piling on. One of the things I do, I tell myself 'stop.' Sometimes I yell stop to myself, I mean out loud. 

The other thing I do, and I am probably classified on the freaky end of supplementation…the baggy of vitamins and minerals and potions I take, first meal of the day and the last thing at night. 

I'm a big believer in taking responsibility. Part of it is controlling your mind; it's the discipline of learning to have a positive attitude; it's the discipline of having goals. 

FT: You've been posting videos, speaking to your franchisees and IFA members about courage and fortitude and grit. Why did you start the videos?

CM: I went to the office the Monday after I saw you, and I walked in that office and you could feel the fear and anxiety. Everybody's heads were down, their shoulders were hunched forward. There wasn't a smile in the place and I thought, I better do something about this now. I sent an email, huddle at 9:30. I said, there's a pandemic, yes we're scared, but we have to act. This person, that person, call  franchisees, find out what help they need. I had no plan. I wrote five bullet points before I walked in. 

It was a pep talk, it was cheerleading, it was focused on what you can control. It thought to myself, if my staff is feeling this way, my franchisees are feeling this way too. I called my graphics person, and said meet me at noon. I talked about, expect the best, prepare for the worst, and capitalize on what comes. I got that video out within less than 24 hours, and the franchisees said that was great. 

FT: In one video, you shared the quote, and I'll paraphrase: Don't be afraid of fear, it's there to tell you what's most important. Talk about that idea.

CM: Courage is doing it in spite of fear. So, if you're terrified you're going to lose your business, you can be paralyzed by fear, or you could do whatever you can do. 

If there's one thing that's foundational, it's either a positive mindset or positive mental attitude. That's not like, 'Oh it's a pandemic and everything's OK.' It's, 'Hey, we can work harder and smarter than everybody.' Leaders have got to create and maintain a positive, results-oriented culture. And I've been working for 11 ½ years at FastSigns to create this culture. 

There's always something to be grateful and positive about, so that's a mind discipline thing.

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at




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