Franchising · 4 January 2016

Franchisee profile: Lee Eaton from Manchester-based Signs Express

Lee Eaton
Lee Eaton

Thanks to the way he’s scaled up his business and the level of customer service he’s maintained along the way, Lee Eaton, who runs Signs Express in south Manchester, was named the British Franchise Association’s HSBC Franchisee of the Year in October.

With work ranging from pro bono local charity work to Team Sky’s Tour de France victory parades, he has to stay at the top of his game to meet eclectic needs. As he says, his team have made all the difference – he doesn’t leave home without them…

Q&A subject: Lee Eaton, owner at Signs Express and BFA HSBC Franchisee of the Year 2015 winner

How did it feel to be named Franchisee of the Year?

Elated to be honest and what a brilliant accolade to have won within the franchise world. It’s great for us to be recognised for all the team’s hard work in 2014/2015 and I’m also very happy for the Signs Express group/HQ and especially Craig Brown [managing director], who has waited for this moment for a long time. To have a category winner but to then win the overall BFA award was a fantastic feeling and I’m very proud.

Were you confident after the judging and on the night that you had a good chance?!

I was quietly confident of winning the category after I had done my presentation. Beforehand I had asked the staff if anyone had any ideas that I could use in the presentation based around our team efforts. One of the team suggested I take everyone with me to London – said don’t be daft! He then came up with the idea of photographing all the team, and reproduce us all as free-standing cardboard cut-outs. This went down a storm with all the judges and I loved having the strength of the team with me on the day to make the presentation.

Can you tell us about starting the business and its growth since then over the years?

My father and I started the business back in 1997. Neither of us had any signage experience but we thought it would be a good idea to have the back-up of utilising a franchise business with the foundations already in place and the support when required. We have then grown year upon year, now employing 18 members of staff and we have a brilliant team structure allowing us to become more profitable and have shown a growth of 25% in 2014/15.

To what do you attribute your success?

A happy team, quality, customer service, and going the extra mile. Everything we do has a visual impact and the quality has to be right first time and to the client’s high expectations. “Right is quick” is our motto. It’s all in the preparation. If you take the time to get it right from the start, the end result will be perfect.

How do you make sure your team buys into your ethos and culture?

Let them into your vision and keep them in tune with the business at all times. This keeps them interested and we involve them in future decisions and growth.

You’ve built up a large and enviable client list with some big names on it. Is it difficult to ensure that all your customers, however large or small, receive the same level of service?

It might seem a bit cliché but every client is of equal importance to me, regardless of how big or small the job is. I like the client to have the experience of knowing they’ve come to the right place for their signage requirements. Our experience is portrayed from the team from start to finish and we keep the client up to date throughout the whole process. This level of feedback and information to the client goes a long way to help gain repeat business. Our largest customer came from the order of one simple vehicle graphic.

What are your favourite experiences you’ve enjoyed as a result of your franchise?

Being able to work with some very high profile companies including various cycling teams such as Team Sky and British Cycling. Cycling is also a personal passion of mine so it has been an amazing experience. This has lead us to travelling around most of Europe with Team Sky many times and being entwined into its team ethos and spirit, with the great drive for success.
Delivering a visual impact to clients and giving them the wow factor is a great feeling and you always get to see the end product.

Has being part of a franchise brand helped your growth and if so, how? Can you still identify value and benefits from the Signs Express head office and network after so many years?

Yes. Being part of a franchise has allowed us to use the knowledge and experience from other franchisees and the franchisor to handle national works and larger signage projects, otherwise we may have turned this work down due to our lack of experience in the early years.

This still applies today. There is usually someone within the group that has the relevant experience or they may know someone or somebody who can provide assistance or advice, not only on signage but also other business issues that may arise.

The Signs Express family allows us to seem bigger than just one branch which helps us to quote and complete multiple national works for big blue-chip companies.

The future with the Signs Express family looks positive with a good vision for success.

Can you give your top 3 tips for someone considering starting a franchise?

First of all, try and choose a business that you can get excited about.

Ask to visit some of the existing franchisees to see what support structure they are currently getting from the franchisor and what are their future projection/growth plans.

Don’t assume business is going to come to you because you have taken on a franchise. It will help, but it is your business and you will always be responsible for its development and growth. Ask yourself if you are willing to work long hours and make tough decisions to establish your business and to ensure it thrives.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Paul Stafford is the British Franchise Association’s PR manager, which allows him ample opportunity to indulge in two of his passions: writing and business. A background in various SMEs led Stafford to the franchise sector in 2012 and a role which sees him work closely with businesses of all sizes and sectors, from international giants to kitchen table startups.

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