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FASTSIGNS Franchisee Clint Ehlers Talks to FBR

FASTSIGNS Franchisee Clint Ehlers Went From Corporate America to Being His Own Boss. 

Listen below, or read the transcript to hear why he believes FASTSIGNS is the best of the best. 

Eric Stites:  Hi, it's Eric Stites with "Franchise Business Review." Today, I'm talking with Clint Ehlers from FASTSIGNS International. Clint, welcome.

Clint Ehlers:  Hey. Thank you.

Eric:  Clint, what many of our listeners probably don't realize is you and I have actually done a number of panels over the years at different franchise expos and events. I feel like you're one of the franchisees I know best in the industry. Just want to start with having you tell people...I've heard your story many times, but, for other people, I think they'll find your story interesting.

Clint:  I've loved getting to know you over the years, serving on all those panels with you, and sharing not only my story, my experience, but just the amazing things that the franchising world has to offer.

For me, my whole background, growing up in Texas. When I graduated college, I went into the advertising and marketing world working for large ad agencies on major global brands. I spent 18 years working on entertainment marketing, sports marketing, strategic marketing and advertising for brands like Nissan, Infiniti, NAPA Auto Parts and all those great brands.

As I've moved up the chain within the organization, I became a vice president of a pretty large agency. The job market in the area that I wanted to live in was just shrinking and shrinking. Like a lot of entrepreneurs that find their way to the franchising world, I was laid off a couple times from different companies.

They moved my job to another city that I was unwilling to move to, so I decided I was going to do something on my own. I was going to be my own boss. I looked at staying in advertising. I looked at buying an ad agency, a small little shop. Looked at a couple different things.

Then my wife, of all people, came and said, "Hey, let's look at franchising." My wife, who's the smartest person I know, just thought that was a pretty good idea.

[laughter]

Clint:  I started looking around at the franchise world. My gosh, there's thousands of [laughs] concepts, it seems like. Right off the bat, being from Texas, and I was living in Las Angeles at the time, but, being from Texas, I knew the FASTSIGNS name. I reached out to FASTSIGNS directly and requested some information.

Part of my research, I came across lot of different franchise consultants, so to speak. They're basically franchise brokers. I hooked up with one, and had some great conversations with him. I did a big personality profile test and all sorts of other stuff.

He came back to me and presented me a number of different franchising concepts that would probably fit my goals and my desires, my personality, which is obviously important and a few other things.

FASTSIGNS was actually on that list as well. I looked at flooring companies and gym companies, and I looked at food briefly. All these great concepts, but just not for me. FASTSIGNS was on that list, as well as a couple other franchise sign companies like Signarama, Signs Now, and Signs By Tomorrow.

I spent probably two months researching all these different brands, and I really settled on the sign industry. It made a lot of sense to me from my background in marketing and advertising. My background growing up ‑‑ my dad was in construction. The whole concept of making things was not foreign to me by any stretch of the imagination.

I settled on the sign business, and I really started looking at FASTSIGNS, Signarama, Signs By Tomorrow. Those were my top three. FASTSIGNS, hands down, rose to the top. There's a number of factors that I'm sure we'll get into in a little bit, that pushed me towards them.

The top reason why is that FASTSIGNS is dedicated to my success because they understand that if I'm successful, they're going to be successful. I know that that's a platitude saying and a lot of franchise companies will say that, but FASTSIGNS really does live and breathe it. It's been quite a journey. Gosh, 11, 12 years now. It's crazy.

Eric:  It's funny. FASTSIGNS first came on our radar back when I founded "Franchise Business Review" back in 2005, 2006 timeframe. The first time we researched their system, the franchisee satisfaction was off the charts, and we had surveyed many in this space, in the franchise end of the business services as well as science sector. They dwarfed everybody else.

Clint:  That was a huge factor in us buying into the system. I started researching in 2006. We signed our agreements at the end of 2006 and then opened up in 2007. I traveled a lot in advertising, and I traveled a lot, obviously out of that. Every market that I would go into I would always stop into a FASTSIGNS, or I'd stop into a Signarama or a Sign By Tomorrow.

I got to tell you, FASTSIGNS was the only one, the owners would stop what they're doing ‑‑ they didn't know me from Adam ‑‑ would stop what they're doing and spend time with me and talk to me about their business, about how excited they were, and how good their franchise was. I didn't get that with the other two brands. Not at all, in fact.

The network of owners that we have in the system are so wonderful and so...Not concerned, but they're so willing to help you be successful. We're as competitive as they come, but they are so willing to help me be successful it's crazy.

Eric:  It's great. Their culture is amazing. That's a thing that a lot of people overlook when they look at franchise opportunities. Often, one of the first things they look at is the financials. One, what's the cost? Two, how much money they're going to make. They often overlook that culture of the company and especially the culture of the franchising network.

Not all companies [laughs] are anywhere close to FASTSIGNS for sure.

Clint:  That's a big thing for me. There's people out there, when they buy into a franchise, they're buying themselves a job. They're more concerned about making money and what they can do and what not. Those are really, really important.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to downplay that, but the culture of the FASTSIGNS network, for me, is really important because I bought into the franchising model because of the success that the franchising model had. They had a game plan. They had a business plan that I could adopt.

I've seen so many franchises, and I would say, not only within FASTSIGNS, not as prevalent, but obviously in other franchise networks where the owner will buy the franchise and they decide to do things their own way and not really do things the way the franchisee has laid out, and they're not as successful.

Hands down, they're never as successful as if you take the game plan, take the business plan and all the knowledge that that franchise is giving you and run with it. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with franchisees within FASTSIGNS, but also other brands, where they're doing things on their own and in their own way.

They're not as successful, and they complain, "Well, I'm not as successful." Because you're not using the tools that are given you.

[laughter]

Clint:  That's why we pay the six percent royalties. I promise you I pay a lot in royalties, and I'm going to suck FASTSIGNS dry as much as I can for the knowledge that they have. They have 100 plus people dedicated to my success, and that's what I bought into. That's what I love about 'em.

Eric:  Yeah. Follow that system and use all those tools. [laughs] You're right, because you're paying for them. How does a guy or gal, coming out of the corporate...Many people that come into franchising come out of the corporate world. Here you are in a VP job, pretty high level. You probably have support staff around you.

I know that one of the struggles a lot of people have is suddenly they're in business and they don't have 10 or 12 people supporting them and doing all the administrative stuff. Tell me about that transition from the corporate world to owning your own business and how that worked?

Clint:  It's certainly a transition, and it's more from a security standpoint. Having people around you to help you do things, that's always amazing, but let's be honest, you can always hire that.

It's the security of a [laughs] known paycheck every single week, every other week, or whatever it is. That when you leave that and now, all the sudden, you're responsible for the hunting, the killing, the cleaning, and the eating, of whatever you bring across the table. It's a daunting task. Then you put on top of that you're now responsible for employees.

I take that very, very seriously. I want the people that we hire not only to be paid well, but to be taken care of because I want them to be good stewards in the communities in which they live in. We try to be a good steward as a business in the communities that we serve. I want my employees to spread that back into their lives and their communities.

It's really important to me that we're operating our business successfully so I can afford to pay those guys, I can afford to give them raises and bonuses, or things like that so that they can provide and be successful. A lot of people hate this work, but I love it, the trickle‑down economics of small business.

The transition for me was, "My gosh. Now I'm responsible for doing that." I'm not only responsible for that, I'm taking my family's wealth, what we've accumulated in savings and things like that, and now I'm investing it. I'm putting it all on me to make sure that we're going to be successful.

It can be challenging and it can be overwhelming at times.

Eric:  No pressure. [laughs]

Clint:  No pressure at all. [laughs]

You go home and you see your kids staring at you, "Daddy, what do we have for dinner tonight?" [jokingly] "Nothing. I don't have any money." No. It's one of those things that you're...That's the biggest transition for me, and that is the ever more reason that you need to make sure that who you align yourself with and who you choose to invest in. I use that word a lot.

When I bought into FASTSIGNS, I invested into FASTSIGNS. They, in turn, invested into me. They want to make sure that...Franchisor should be like this. They should be choosy as to who they allow into their brand because, if I'm not successful, that's a black mark on them.

If I'm out there running a hotdog stand out my back door as I'm selling signs out the front door, that's a black mark on FASTSIGNS, so they want to make sure that I'm a good steward of the brand, I'm giving back, I'm growing and I'm helping other owners grow because that then helps the network, that helps the brand, that helps sales at new locations and whatnot, and so forth.

It's an investment in each other. You really need to make sure that that marriage, that investment is good for both of you. I love FASTSIGNS. FASTSIGNS is amazing, but it may not be the right brand for others to invest.

Eric:  Yeah, that cultural fit. You're right, it's hugely important in understanding that. I like the way you describe that. Investing in them and them investing in you. It's not just the brand. It is the network and working with other franchisees.

Clint:  Yeah. It's not just a commodity that you buy.

Eric:  Everybody works together.

Clint:  Yeah, it's not just a commodity that you go buy at the store, take at home, and make money with. It's that investment, so it's really important.

Eric:  Right. I know you own multiple locations and have moved different locations. Was your goal to be a multi‑unit franchise owner from day one?

Clint:  No. When we opened our first center in Culver City, California, in 2007, goal was just to have the one location there. Actually never even thought about it. I didn't have a goal in that aspect. My goal was to sell a ton of signs so I could make money.

We opened up in 2007. The recession hit 2008. I'm telling you, I was so busy it was crazy. Going through the recession, and we thought, "Oh, the recession's forming. No one's going to buy a sign." Well, you know what? The stronger companies need signs to stay on top. Even through recessions, companies spend money.

We grew double digits ‑‑ 20, 30, 40, 50 percent year over year through the recession. We hit sales goals. We were the fastest growing FASTSIGNS. We were Rookie of the Year. We hit, I think, a million dollars in sales in three years, three‑and‑a‑half years.

I would love to say, "Oh, yeah. It was all me." Well, it wasn't me. FASTSIGNS has a great plan and we happened to open up in a market that was starving for professional sign company. A lot of independents, a lot of mom and pops, and out of their garage, just things like that. Here we were, this professional sign company that opened up that had capabilities that not a lot of people had.

We used to always tell clients, "If you have an idea, just call me. We'll figure it out. We'll do it." I can't tell you how many projects I sold. Then I went back and looked at my team and said, "We got to figure out how to do this," because we were all about working with our clients and getting them, making them look great.

When we built that up...I'm from Texas and I eventually wanted to move back to Texas. My oldest daughter was graduating high school and I wanted to move back to Texas. My wife is from Philly and she wanted to back to Philly, so we compromised and did what she wanted to do.

[laughter]

Clint:  We sold everything off. We sold the Culver City location in 2012 and we moved to the Philadelphia area, the suburbs of Philly, in January 2013. I looked around at the different FASTSIGNS that were for sale.

There was a couple open markets, but there were stores that were for sale I thought were great opportunities, so I ended up buying a small little center that we had done more in one month in Los Angeles than they had done the previous year combined. It was a great opportunity for us, so we bought that center.

That was the Willow Grove Center. We bought it in March 2013. By December, we had already tripled sales. Again, it wasn't because, "Clint was great." It was because we are following the system that FASTSIGNS had built up.

We follow the system. We answered phone calls, emails. We responded to customers on time. We did what we said we were going to do and customers responded to that. That's how we were able to jump‑start and turn the center around.

Then an opportunity came up with another center. Actually, a fairly large center that the owner wanted to sell and wanted to sell it fairly quickly. We went out. That was the Lancaster center. We went out and met with them and bought that in 2014.

Then a market opened up right next to our Willow Grove center in 2016, so we bought that market. Then, just past September, I bought the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, center. That had been opened for about five years. The previous owner has some health issues, so we were able to buy that center.

I ended up selling the Lancaster center this last December. We built it up. We turned that center around and built it up, and we were actually the 10th largest center in the United States. We were able to sell that center off to a local buyer. That center was an hour‑and‑a‑half drive for me each way.

I was able to sell it off to a guy that is local. He's amazing. He's going to do really, really well. We're very excited about it.

Eric:  Awesome. A lot of people that are looking at getting into franchising, they often overlook the opportunity of buying an existing location, a resale location. Every brand has resales in their system. Granted, it's going to cost you more, usually, to get into that versus starting from scratch. Obviously, there's some history there and brand...

Clint:  There's definitely pros and cons. It comes down to what your personality is and what you're willing to take on. Let's take the Lancaster Center. Very high‑profile, high performing center, lots of equipment, 14 employees, doing work all over the United States and the owner failed. That's a huge challenge.

Immediately, from day one, you're drinking from a fire hydrant. It's very fast paced. Sometimes that's not for everybody. Buying a smaller center or opening up a new center and growing it may fit your personality or your immediate needs. It really comes down to evaluating where your strengths and weaknesses are and what makes sense for you at that time.

Eric:  Obviously, very successful multi‑unit franchisee. I see you at many franchise events, traveling around the country. How do you do it all? [laughs] When I think about the size of...

Clint:  I have a very patient wife. I got to say, there's a couple things. I love FASTSIGNS. I drank the Kool‑Aid when it comes to FASTSIGNS. I recognized the importance of...I've invested my time, money, and talents into the system, and I want the system to succeed. [sneezes] Excuse me.

They are gracious enough to ask me to go to different trade shows or franchise events and things like that, and either serve on a panel, speak here and there, or whatever. I'm always grateful for the opportunity to talk about how great FASTSIGNS is.

Again, it goes back to I want really, really good owners in the system. If everybody's a really, really good owner, then I'm going to get that much more business because FASTSIGNS is going to have the best brand name out there when it comes to signage. You have that.

Then, through my involvement with FASTSIGNS and being a franchisee I've grown to love small business and the franchising community. I believe that franchising affords people an opportunity to change their path in life, change their family's destination.

I can tell you so many stories of people that didn't have...They worked their butts off for other people, scraped up enough money to buy themselves a franchise, and they've grown. They've built wealth. They're paying for their kids to go to college for the first time in their family's history. They're buying houses. They're giving so much back, and I love that. I love that American story.

The entrepreneurial spirit in the franchising community gives you that. I'm pretty heavily involved in the International Franchise Association. I'm a state captain for the Coalition to Save Local Businesses.

I've gone to Washington. I've testified to Congress on policies and things that they're thinking about or trying to change that may adversely or positively affect the franchising in small business communities. I've gone to Harrisburg for state issues. When I was in California, I went to the State Capitol there for different things.

I love what the IFA does. I'm happy to be a part of that and to help out as much as I can on that as well. How do we do it all? Again, I have great staff that work their butts off. We have a mindset when we hire people, I don't want to hire employees. I want to hire business owners that will treat their job as if they own this business.

That's the kind of mentality that I want everybody to have. I'm able to take off and go do these other things and not have to worry that my center's going to go down the tubes while I'm gone. That's how I just make it work.

Eric:  It goes back to when you talked about doing the personality profile with the franchise consultant before you got in. I think that's so important.

There's so many people I see in the industry that do similar things that you're talking about, that go to these events or that go testify on Capitol Hill or whatever, but they don't have the successful business back at home because they just get so distracted and they can't manage it all.

Obviously, understanding your strengths and your weaknesses in hiring. I like that you say you hire business owners and not just employees. Saying that and doing that are obviously two very different things. I commend you a lot for pulling it off.

I encourage others to really do a deep dive, look at themselves, figure out where their strengths and weaknesses are, and fill the voids with their good hires.

I know you're a busy guy. I don't want to take up your whole day. Any nuggets or last bits of advice for somebody that's looking at getting into franchising?

Clint:  Just take the time. Do your research. Really understand who the company is that you're thinking about investing in, and make sure that it aligns with your value system and in what you're trying to accomplish.

There's thousands and thousands of franchise concepts out there. Don't chase a fad, chase a proven concept. That's, again, why I love FASTSIGNS. It is a proven concept. The signage industry is ever‑evolving. It's not something that is going to fade out. Every business needs a sign. That's what I love about it.

It's really a matter of do your research and make sure that who you're investing in is going to invest in you with the same passion and dedication that you're going to give them.

Eric:  Awesome. I appreciate your time, Clint. Anybody that wants to certainly learn more about FASTSIGNS can visit franchisebusinessreview.com and check out reports there. They are definitely far and away the number one most satisfied sign franchise in the industry, or just go to FASTSIGNS website directly at fastssigns.com and learn more about franchise opportunities there as well.

Clint, I wish you the best of success.

Clint:  Thank you.

Eric:  I hope to see you very soon on the Franchise Show road.

[laughter]

Clint:  Yeah, I'm sure I'll see you soon. I'll be in Vegas in a few weeks at the IFA Convention.

Eric:  Excellent. Thanks very much.

Clint:  Absolutely. Take care.

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