Local FASTSIGNS franchisee taps emerging markets to become one of top-selling locations in world

Virginia native Ben Knight knew business strategy and the art of a turnaround.

For years, he was vice president of sales for food-packaging giant ConAgra Foods. Then he took the top sales and marketing position at a smaller packaging company on the brink of bankruptcy and – within a couple of years, he said – ratcheted sales up to $100 million annually.

But after getting the entrepreneurial itch and buying the FASTSIGNS South Tryon franchise with his wife, Betsy, Knight saw how vital even the most minute decisions could be for the future of a small business.

FASTSIGNS makes everything from “for sale” signs on manicured front lawns, to way-finding signs for universities and corporations, to “coming soon” wall wraps for retailers at shopping malls.

Knight now owns FASTSIGNS locations in Ballantyne and Rock Hill as well and has a combined total of 18 employees. And his South Tryon location was recently named one of the top 1 percent of franchises in sales among the companies’ more than 500 locations worldwide.

Here are some of his keys to success:

‘Two good drinks’ and a revised plan: When Knight bought FASTSIGNS South Tryon in 2007, it was after considering more than 150 businesses, from restaurants to tourism companies. He was drawn to this particular franchise, whose previous owner died in a car accident, because of its diverse customer base.

Everyone needs signs, he reasoned, from local governments to small businesses to major manufacturers.

When Knight took over in 2007, however, 40 percent of the company’s revenue was coming from commercial and residential real estate projects. And by 2009 – in the throes of the recession and subsequent housing crisis – those revenue streams were drying up, he said.

Knight said he was shocked when his accountant gave him the company’s financial statements that spring.

“I went home, had two good drinks and had to go in the next morning,” Knight recalled.

He walked out the following evening with a new game plan.

Tapping emerging markets: Knight, who said he regularly digests all the local news he can find, identified emerging markets in Charlotte’s economy that he could tap, including health care, energy and education.

But to reach those markets, Knight realized he needed to hire several sales representatives who could target potential clients. Before, he’d been doing all the selling himself.

He also realized he’d need to update his technology to take on even more diverse projects. Investing in big flatbed printers isn’t cheap – Knight says just one of his cost more than the mortgage on his home – but he meticulously studied the potential return on investment. He also started testing their newest signage options. For example, he hung wallpaper the machine can make from a photo in various rooms around the office. After six months, they’ll decide if the quality is good enough to start offering to customers.

‘I’ve seen that sign before’: Knight says another small but critical decision was to create a portfolio of local projects to give potential clients. Previously, the company had been using the franchise’s corporate promotional materials, a pamphlet with generic photographs of FASTSIGNS work around the country.

So he printed a 40-page portfolio for big clients and a two-sided flier for smaller clients. Each featured photos of FASTSIGNS work locally, including the sign outside the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, the street sign for the Ritz Carlton’s restaurants, and work the company did inside SouthPark mall.

“I wanted something people would look at it and say, ‘You know, I’ve seen that sign before. ... Oh, you did that work?’ ”