Learn From This CEO How She Rose Up From Abuse And Alcoholism To Lead A Company With $400M In Sales

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By Ally Bogard and Allie Hoffman

Original Source: forbes.com

Catherine Monson is the CEO of FASTSIGNS International, Inc., which does over $446 million in systemwide sales and has 661 franchisees in nine countries around the world. Catherine has been recognized by the franchising industry as having led to its continued growth and development; she’s also been recognized for her contributions to the printing and graphic communications industry, and to the advancements she’s made in advocating for women in the C-Suite.

In 2012, she was featured on the CBS TV show Undercover Boss, and she currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the International Franchise Association.

In this interview, she breaks through her credentials and awards, to talk about where her drive comes from, which has its source in deep pain: an alcoholic, abusive mother; a paralyzed brother, and a partner taken by suicide.

Catherine also maps out her formula for success — it’s easy to follow and concrete. She shared with  us how anyone can rise to the highest heights of their dreams; we hope she’s the same injection of motivation for you that she was for us.

Allie Hoffman and Ally Bogard: What have you triumphed over?

Catherine Monson: I grew up in an abusive, alcoholic home. My mother was an alcoholic. I was the oldest of four. My mother blamed the unhappiness in her life on me.

You need to understand my mother’s background. She was a debutante. Her parents were very wealthy. She had a checking account when she was in college and the banker would call my grandfather when it was low and say, “Florence is out of money. You need to put another thousand in there.” She had a beautiful car. She took her friends shopping and she’d buy her friends things. She lived this life of luxury growing up and when she was in college. She was at a dance at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and she met my dad and they started dating and then he asked her to marry him.

They get married about a week after he graduates from Annapolis and then granddaddy says, “Now you’re cut off. He’s going to take care of you.”

So now she’s married to a guy in the Marines, just graduated from Annapolis, on a tiny fixed income. Eleven months later, I’m born. She’s gone from the life of luxury to this life of frugality. He was a pilot, so she had times where he would be gone for a couple weeks. She’s by herself, with this little baby.

I’m the oldest of four and my three siblings will tell you they had a different life than I did. They all have said, “Mother took everything out on you.” I had this abusive, alcoholic mother who was mean and horrible and said things to me such as, “If you weren’t such a bad child, I’d be happy and wouldn’t have to drink,” and “If you weren’t such a horrible person your dad and I wouldn’t fight.”

When my brother was 16 (he’s the youngest) he broke his neck and became a quadriplegic. She had a hard time dealing with life and reality before that. After that, she became even worse — not only abusing alcohol, but also legal and illegal drugs and was intermittently homeless. Sometimes she’d live on Skid Row. She’d just disappear and then she’d come back. It was kind of crazy.

The first day my brother got back from the hospital (he’d been in the hospital for six months) was the day before Thanksgiving. She was really bad. She was howling at the moon and she was cursing God. He’s in the kitchen crying and asking her to stop and that he needs a supportive mom right now, and she’s in the living room howling like a dog and cursing God.

At the time, I was a committed Christian. I said to my mother, “Satan, in the name of Jesus Christ be gone.” She shrieked like a wild animal, picked up a big glass bowl that was a piece of décor and broke it across my forehead. I picked her up and I literally threw her across the room. There was a strength in me, a crazy strength that just came into me. I threw my mom 15 feet across the room. She hit the wall. She shrieked and she disappeared for three days.

Growing up being told you’re not worth anything and being the child of an alcoholic — you have a couple choices. One choice is life’s bad, I’m going to be a victim, blame my circumstances, and drink too. And the other is, I’m not going to be like her and I’m going to prove that I’m good.

I set out to do that. I knew at a young age, when I was in high school that I wanted to be a CEO – I just knew it.

Now how did I get to where I am now? I grew up in my family’s business. My mom and dad had a chain of preschools. I got involved at 8 to 10 years old when my dad and I would spend the weekends at the schools to clean toilets, mowing lawns and other maintenance. My dad and I would talk business during these weekends at work.  As I got older (when I was in high school), I handled accounts payable and accounts receivable and other business or management aspects.

I loved business. I always wanted to be a leader in a business. Maybe that’s in my DNA.

I was three years into my career in when I realized that I was on the wrong path and made a pivot. At the time, I was a buyer at Beckman Instruments and I realized I would never be a CEO if I stayed that course; buyers become purchasing managers. They rarely make it to the C-Suite. Who makes it to the C-Suite? Engineering, finance, sales or marketing.

So I went and looked for a sales and marketing job. I got hired by a small franchise company called Sir Speedy Printing Centers. I started in August of 1980 at Sir Speedy in a position called sales coordinator. Within nine months I was promoted to Western Region Operations Manager.

At Sir Speedy, I fell in love with franchising. I was helping people achieve the American dream, owning their own business, being in business for themselves, but not by themselves. You’re putting people in business in a proven brand with operating systems, training and marketing. They then have the opportunity to build wealth for their families, create economic output, hire people.

At Sir Speedy, I fell in love with franchising. I was helping people achieve the American dream, owning their own business, being in business for themselves, but not by themselves. You’re putting people in business in a proven brand with operating systems, training and marketing. They then have the opportunity to build wealth for their families, create economic output, hire people.

Over the next handful of years at Sir Speedy, I was part of the management team that grew it from under 200 to over 850 locations. I progressed through the company. I got active in the International Franchise Association (IFA), working on committees and as a frequent speaker at franchising events. I have been on the Board of the IFA since 2008 and I am now “in the chairs” and will be chair of the International Franchise Association in 2020. I fell in love with franchising and making a difference in people’s lives.

When Sir Speedy bought a European subsidiary, MultiCopy Europe, I raised my hand to go run it. I became managing director of MultiCopy Europe. I loved it. My husband at the time — I’m single now — didn’t want to move, so I commuted to Europe. I spent two weeks a month in California and two weeks a month in Europe.

Then we bought our biggest competitor in the United States — PIP Printing — and I became president of PIP. I never planned on leaving that company, but I got a call in the summer of 2008 from the chairman of the private equity firm that owned FASTSIGNS and he said, “We think you’re the right CEO for this company.”

Six months later I moved to Dallas and became the CEO of FASTSIGNS International.

A couple years into my career at Sir Speedy, my mother committed suicide. She took a shotgun to her aorta. At that time, we were estranged. I had testified in court against her that she was a danger to us. She tried to push my dad down the stairs. She broke the large glass object of art over my head. She had talked about shooting my father and my brother. And my brother’s a quadriplegic; he can’t do anything to protect himself. So I testified in court against my mom. We received the restraining order we were seeking, preventing her from being near the family. We hadn’t seen her for about a year. She killed herself a week after my grandfather died of cancer. Even though you’re estranged, there’s still pain. It’s your mom. You only have one.

What I have come to learn and what I have come to believe is that the human spirit is stronger than we ever think, but too often we give in. I certainly am driven to be successful; I have learned that I can power through just about anything.

Hoffman and Bogard: If you could go into the mainframe of your mind and turn off one trait or emotion or quality that least serves you professionally, what would it be?

Monson: Wow. It’s something that I’ve had to learn to do! And if I could’ve turned it off it earlier, my career would’ve been a lot easier and more successful. I have in the past mistakenly expected that every one of the people that worked for me, or in my organization, should operate at the same level of intensity that I do.

That is really a bad place as a manager or leader to be because you can get disappointed in people or people feel extreme pressure being expected to perform at that level.

What I’ve had to learn is everybody has their own work-life balance. Everybody has their own priorities. If someone is right for a job, they don’t have to be right for your job. As long as you’re always looking to pick the best people — grow and develop the best people — you still have to remember not everybody is going to be at the level or the hours or the focus or the intensity that I am.

I really struggled with that early in my career. I was quite the task master, trying to make people operate at the intensity and commitment that like I operate at and that was a mistake. I had to learn to be more collaborative and to make sure I have the right people and the right positions. I also understand now that not everybody’s going to operate the same way I do.

Hoffman and Bogard: What advice do you wish you had gotten when you were just starting out?

Monson: I have really come to believe with every cell in my being that all highly successful people share a handful of common traits. Not only that, those are learned traits.

Having grown up in the abusive, alcoholic home, having been told how bad I was and how worthless I was, I had to really work through my 20s and 30s, struggling with some pretty significant depression. Work was the only relief from the depression. But there are those nights and weekends where you’re not at work. I’ve come to believe that the single most important foundational aspect for all successful people when we’re talking business or politics or being a parent, is positive mental attitude.

I had to learn that. It was very painful. There were two decades where I really struggled. Then I began to understand that it’s my job to create a positive attitude and that I’m responsible for feeding the positive messages to my mind and having the discipline to control my mind. The easiest thing to do is to dwell on negative things.

Whenever I have the opportunity to speak publicly, especially to young people, I deliver what I believe is the formula for success: positive mental attitude; goal directed behavior; self-motivation; perseverance, a sense of urgency, and never stopping learning.

How do you develop a positive attitude? I learned to yell “stop” at myself when I am thinking negative thoughts. I learned to find a way to have the self-discipline in my mind to think about all the things I have to be grateful for. If I can achieve this ability to discipline my mind and develop a positive mental attitude, then anyone can.

Goal directed behavior focuses your activities to set and achieve goals. I love teaching people how to set and achieve goals. There are goal-setting and achieving systems that work.

Self-motivation is key. You don’t have to do twice as much as anybody else. You just have to do 1% more, 2% more. You learn how to you make yourself do one more thing each day. I learned to say, “Okay, I’m going do one more thing before I leave today. Whether it’s talking to one of my team members and praising them for something good that they did, or calling a franchisee and encouraging them or congratulating them.”

Perseverance is key. Never give up. Don’t give in. If it is important to you, keep trying.

Successful people have a sense of urgency. You should never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Do the things you ought to be doing now so you can do the things you want to do in the future. The universe rewards action. I truly believe that.

And of course, never stopping learning. We all need to continue to grow and develop our skills.

I wish that at a young age that I had understood these things. If I had learned to control my mind when I was in my 20s and 30s, I would have had an easier time and achieved so much more.

Hoffman and Bogard: What is your big, hairy, audacious goal?

Monson: I want to quadruple the size of FASTSIGNS International.

We have 660 locations in 9 countries – I want to get to 2,500 locations in 25 countries. That’s the business goal.

On a personal side, I would love to find a wonderful man and spend the rest of our lives together in a loving, supportive, passionate, monogamous relationship.

And I hope to be remembered by all the people I’ve come in contact with as being someone who made a difference in their lives because I did something caring and loving.
Hoffman and Bogard: What would be the one life lesson that you would like to pass on to somebody you mentor?

Monson: I don’t know anybody that’s achieved great things just by luck. It’s putting the work in. It’s putting the effort in. Work smarter and work than harder.

I don’t know any CEO who works 30 hours a week — I don’t. Unless they own their own business and they’ve built up enough management staff. The most important life lesson I share with those I mentor in business is don’t be afraid to put in the work.

Put in more work than your competition. Bring more value to your company. In any organization, there’s going to be a promotion available at some point. Someone’s going to get moved up; if you’re always bringing more value to your firm, if you always do a little bit more than everybody else, then you’re the obvious choice.

Continue Reading: forbes.com/ceo

About The Authors:  We’re two friends surrounded by inspiring women. Over dinner one night in Jerusalem, Ally B started asking some of the most soulful, dynamic questions that Allie H had ever heard. We decided to join forces and use these questions to bring the voices of amazing women to a wider audience. Ally B also teaches yoga and meditation, and Allie H runs a social impact media lab called the Equality Equation. We live in NYC.

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