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Monson Goes ‘Undercover’ –Cagle

July 2012
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The television-viewing public has reached a saturation point with reality television, from wannabe singers and dancers to finding Mr. or Ms. Right (or Wrong), or the bevy of game show topics including cooking, fashion design and weight loss.

But, every now and then, a show comes along that offers some redeeming qualities that exceed mere entertainment value. CBS has one such show called “Undercover Boss,” in which the president or other high-level executive from a major business (sometimes national or even global) undergoes a physical transformation to disguise himself/herself and gain employment within the firm at a more granular level.

The upshot for the execs is an education from the lower-level folks whose blood, sweat and tears have enabled the featured company to attain its lofty status. The stories are often humorous, sometimes gut-wrenching and sobering, and occasionally disappointing. The execs soon find, to varying degrees, that their business is not always an accurate reflection of their mission statement. But the takeaways often outweigh the negatives. The rank-and-file employees featured during the episode—many of whom have their own remarkable tales of triumph and tragedy—are rewarded at the end for their tireless efforts.

The show recently featured FASTSIGNS International President and CEO Catherine Monson, who spent nearly 30 years with franchise printer PIP Printing/Sir Speedy. Monson came to FASTSIGNS in 2009, intrigued by the challenge of turning the company around. In front of the camera, however, she found herself a far cry from the corner office, working hands-on in various capacities, including site surveys, production and installation.

“It was a very amazing experience,” Monson tells B&P. “The whole process was exhausting and grueling. But it was a load of fun and a great way to get a completely different view into the company and how to make it better.”

Monson is contractually bound not to give away any production secrets; she did admit the taping sessions were unrelenting. “It’s very intense, exciting and fun. Even when you go to the ladies’ room, you’re still miked for sound.”

In order to protect Monson’s identity—after all, many franchise owners/employees have met her through various company functions—she was decked out in all black as “Louise Steely,” a somewhat gothic-looking free spirit. The filming was done under the guise of shooting the pilot for a new reality show, Second Chances, where a downtrodden “Steely” was vying to win money to buy her own franchise.

Monson bounced around the country visiting franchises. She didn't have any hands-on experience with the signage aspect of the business and found it to be fun and frustrating as she attempted various duties, from applying vehicle decals to rigging an exterior installation.

While no one caught on to Monson's real identity, there were some close calls. She'd spent extensive time with Scott Koehler, the Phoenix franchise owner, and had visited his franchise twice prior to the "Undercover Boss" taping.

“He didn’t have a clue,” Monson laughs. “It was a combination of the fake tattoos, heavy eyeliner, heroin-chic makeup and more F-bombs than he’s used to me sharing.”

The FASTSIGNS' honcho reaped a number of takeaways from her experiences that were or are in the process of being implemented as changes or modifications for the company. She was floored that Koehler had to fend for himself when it came to learning the installation aspect, including training, permitting and safety standards. So, now the company is in the process of creating a corporate curriculum. Marketing and e-commerce enhancements have also been developed, in part, from Monson's interaction with franchise workers.

One unintended consequence of the show was Monson relating some aspects of her personal life, including memories of her abusive, alcoholic mother. She was interviewed for several hours to provide some background, and the relationship with her mother bubbled to the top.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the thousands of e-mails and letters I’ve received from other people who have had abusive childhoods,” she relates. “The more we talk about it, the less it affects us, and the more we understand that we’re in control of our happiness and our destiny.”

Another positive splash has been the added business generated by Monson's appearance. FASTSIGNS' Website saw a tenfold spike in traffic, and a number of new clients discovered the sign franchise through "Undercover Boss." A number of franchises across the country also held viewing parties that were covered by network affiliates, which brought positive publicity and expanded brand recognition.

Monson has no regrets about the experience, which taught the CEO a little something about herself.

“All work and no play makes Catherine a boring girl,” she laughs. “I don’t want to be boring anymore.” PI


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