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“Immersing yourself in the business and building your knowledge base helps build up your confidence and soon you’re doing things you never thought possible”

“Immersing yourself in the business and building your knowledge base helps build up your confidence and soon you’re doing things you never thought possible”

Having successfully run the Belfast Signs Express for 22 years, Cathy Johnston’s determination helped her navigate the male-dominated industry

Signs Express is the UK’s largest signs and graphics business, operating for over 30 years and with over 60 centres across the UK and Ireland. At Signs Express, our vision is clear, we deliver trusted, quality signage and graphics, through exceptional service, tailored to our customer’s business needs.

“In a male-dominated industry we are proud to have a number of strong, successful female business owners who are all-natural leaders, have all built amazing local teams, supportive cultures and without knowing it are huge drivers in facilitating sharing of ideas and positivity across the network,” said Aaron Davis, Signs Express’ network development director. “I’d actively encourage more women to consider business ownership and the signage industry, as it’s creative, empowering, rewarding whilst simultaneously addressing the gender balance in the signage and graphics industry.”

Providing support and guidance to franchisees every step of the way, Signs Express is a franchise with a difference, offering opportunities to join our award-winning network via a number of established resale opportunities or via our prime start-up locations.

Paving the path for women

When we asked Cathy why she moved into franchising with Signs Express, as the franchisor, we were hoping to hear of her drive and ambition to own her own business and how sign-making was her dream…

However, in reality, and like many of us, she fell into it, and ultimately it chose her! Fast-forward 22 years later and Cathy is a successful, knowledgeable business woman, running her own Signs Express centre in Belfast with an award-winning team, a loyal customer base, fantastic reputation and an ideal work-life balance. And she is still loving every minute of it. Cathy is at this point in her career where her advice to any woman

considering franchising or joining Signs Express is simply to “just go for it”. “When your job doesn’t feel like work anymore and you are surrounded by an incredible team who are all on the same journey, you know you’re in the right place,” she said.

Back to the beginning

Having had a successful career in retail and quickly working her way up to a senior level, Cathy realised after five years that this wasn’t the path for her. She needed inspiration, so when her father and owner of Signs Express Belfast suggested she went to help out, she never looked back.

From sweeping the floors, though to becoming a self-taught designer and a skilled sign maker, Cathy soon began to flourish within the business. When her father sadly passed away, she took over ownership of the centre, ensuring her family’s legacy continued, moulding it into the successful operation it is today.

While the signage industry is still very male-dominated, this has in fact helped drive Cathy’s determination to shape a successful business and make her the person she is today. She explained: “22 years ago, there were very few women in the signage industry and in franchising as a whole, however slowly over time, as perceptions began to change, and we realised the strengths women can bring to the team, I’m proud to see a number of strong females in the Signs Express network and further afield and only hope this continues.

“In the early days I felt the need to prove myself so I emersed myself in the business and learned from the ground up. I now pride myself in my methodical approach to business, having an excellent eye for detail, a proactive approach at foreseeing potential problems and as an excellent communicator which are all essential given the bespoke and creative nature of what we do.”

The importance of a support network

“I learned early on that it’s essential to surround yourself with good people who can share the journey with you,” said Cathy. “I have an amazing team who I am very thankful for and, unintentionally, 75 per cent of my team are female, making us fairly unique in our industry.

“We pride ourselves in being multi-skilled in all areas, meaning we’re always ready to tackle anything. 2020 was also a very proud moment for me, seeing our star sign maker Judith Cropera after just one year in the industry, being named as Signs Express Employee of the Year for her outstanding commitment to the business.”

Explaining what empowerment means to her, Cathy has also discussed how we can best encourage women into franchising and the Signs Express network.

She added: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’re always going to have what you’ve got. But if you’re willing to put yourself out there, you’ll realise that there’s nothing you can’t do. Sure, there are still new projects, technological changes, new machinery, etc.

“That can terrify me, however immersing yourself in the business and building your knowledge base helps build up your confidence and soon you’re doing things you never thought possible. I feel immensely proud of what we’ve achieved in our centre and proud to be a woman in this industry.”

At a glance

Established: 1989
Number of franchised outlets: 64
Location of units: UK & Ireland
Investment range: £65,000+
Minimum required capital: £65,000
Contact: or call 01603 598455

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