The Sign Guy: Operating A Sign Business Franchise
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The Sign Guy: Operating A Sign Business Franchise

When Lino DeFeo bought a Sign-A-Rama franchise in West Palm Beach, Fla., he didn't know much about signs.

That was about 15 years ago. DeFeo had sold his trucking business in Manhattan and moved to Florida with his wife Maria and their two young children to join a family business. But that didn't work out exactly as planned. "I got out before we totally killed each other," he says with a laugh.

DeFeo spent the better part of a year exploring business opportunities and attending trade shows before spotting an ad for a sign company. He said to wife, "I've looked at everything else, why not a sign company?" They bought it.

"When I got into the business, I knew absolutely nothing about signs, fonts, marketing, advertising - I never even had my hands on a keyboard in my entire life," he says. And this in a business, even then, that was computer-driven.

They attended Sign-A-Rama training together, which went a long way toward allaying his fears about entering a completely new field. "I didn't know a keyboard from a hole in the wall--or design or fonts. They taught us the basics of that," he says.

But it wasn't smooth sailing from the start. His first rookie mistake came on the first day they opened their new shop. It was two days before Christmas and a customer came in to order two real estate signs. It was a repeat order and seemed easy enough. "I said, 'No problem, we can take care of that.'"

DeFeo spent the entire day making the two signs. "I was so proud of that," he says. The customer came back at the end of the day, looked at the signs and said, "They're beautiful, but why aren't they on both sides?"

After the customer left, DeFeo turned to his wife and said, "We may have made a mistake here. It took me all day to make two signs and now I have to do the other sides." Today, he says, "We make that sign in seven minutes."

Not every sign they made in the beginning was the best, he says. But they were good enough, and the business grew. "We took a failing store in West Palm and brought it to number-one in Florida for 12 consecutive of the last 14 years."

When they started out, their plan was that he'd go out and sell and Maria would do all the inside work--administration, phones, etc. Although those remain their primary roles, "In the sign business, you wear a multitude of hats," he says.

DeFeo "took it to the streets, if you will. I pounded the pavement and made acquaintances. We had just had moved to Florida, so we had no contacts here. We started from the ground up." One possible advantage: "We came from New York. We were a little bit more aggressive than the typical store owner down here," he says.

"If it wasn't for my wife I would never have been able to get anywhere near where we have. We're a phenomenal team that I don't' think anyone can duplicate. She handled all the bills, the customers, and the phone, while I was out pounding the pavement. She may not have known much about signs, but she got customers to come in - and has done that over and over thousands of times over the years."

The couple had not worked together before in a business. Maria had been a teacher in New York. "For the most part, she has her roles and I have mine. My role is sales," though Maria has become involved in sales as well.

Eager to succeed, they kept the store open half a day on Saturday, but after six months cut back to five days a week, 8:30 to 6:00. One of the appeals of a business-to-business franchise like the sign business, he says, was its Monday-to-Friday schedule. "We had two young kids and didn't want to get involved with seven days a week."

For DeFeo, the sign business is appealing - and satisfying - in many ways. "There are a lot of factors around purchasing the right sign for the right job," he says. Every sign is different. Locations vary, as do size, color, design, message, installation, distance from the road, glare, etc. - all of which appeals to his creative side.

"We try to customize the sign to give it the greatest visibility," he says. "You're always learning something new." And continual advances in sign-making technology helps keep the business fresh.

"I love what I do. I love helping people, and I love helping people grow their businesses," says DeFeo. While most people take signs for granted (or worse), a well-designed, well-placed sign can play a critical role in attracting customers to a business.

When they bought the store, DeFeo says, "I thought building signs would be part of what I did." And while it was in the beginning, he soon realized his focus was on building the business, making acquaintances, developing a reputation in the community, and doing business the right way, he says. "People like to do business with people they like, people who are successful."

Some store owners, says DeFeo, enjoy making signs and are satisfied with a smaller business. "I was not satisfied. I had higher goals," he says. "You go in thinking you're the technician, but you can only make so many signs." Today the DeFeos have 10 full-time employees, some of whom have been with them for 8 to 10 years.

It also helps a lot to have a great franchisor behind you, he says, in this case, United Franchise Group (UFG). "As a franchisor, they are second to none. They're good people, very knowledgeable in the franchise business. And they're the largest sign franchise on the planet." That means other Sign-A-Rama franchisees are also doing well, which is good for his business.

The couple also owned an EmbroidMe franchise for about a year (another UFG brand), but have since sold it. DeFeo says they bought it during a transition time. They had just expanded and were in a rebuilding stage. They hired a manager, and the new store was just next door, but he says the timing wasn't right. "We may have had too much on our plate. We decided to focus on signs."

They sold the EmbroidMe unit to a franchisee who still owns it, and it is still right next door. "We feed business to each other all the time," says DeFeo - another benefit of being part of a multi-brand franchise company.

More recently, they bought a Billboard Connection, another UFG brand. "It's kind of related to our business. It has the same customer base," he says. And his son, who just graduated from college, has stepped into that role. "We have some big plans," says DeFeo.

For anyone considering the sign business (or any franchise, for that matter), "They really need to love what they do. that's number one. If you're struggling with enjoying what you're going to be doing, you might have some trouble," says DeFeo. "I do love my work - it's innate - you either love what you do or you don't."

But even with that, success not a piece of cake. "Everybody thinks it's easy to run your own business, but it comes with a lot of hats - manager, sales tech, cleaning the bathrooms - you have to do a lot of things, be a policeman, even a mom and pop. If that's something that drives you, jump in with both feet."

The rest, he says, is desire. "You're going to wind up with obstacles, but there's nothing that should stop you. You go over, around, or through it - you have to."

Published: May 27th, 2008

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