Why Independent Business Owners Earl and Teresa Walker Converted to Image360®
MEET EARL AND TERESA WALKER, trailblazers, who work hard, play hard, and are passionate owners of Image360 of Tucker, Georgia. Earl has over 30 years of creative design and business-management experience. Teresa was in banking for 25 years when she finally joined Earl full-time in their independent sign business. The two are known for their firsts: The first independent sign company owner to convert to Image360; the first Image360 Center in Georgia; and, the first of their siblings in their respective families to own a franchise. You’ll find, too, that their story is best told in the first person.
Earl: We started our sign company in 1998 as a home-based business working out of the basement. As we grew, I moved into the garage, and then back into the house taking up the entire basement. In May 2000, I decided to move into a 500 square-foot space in a small office park.
Teresa: We had kind of an interesting arrangement in the beginning. Earl would network in the day and come home at night and produce the work he’d sold. I would go to my day job and do the books and invoicing in the evenings. My very first job, I started out in the front of the bank on the teller line and ended up in the back doing mortgages and underwriting. But in 2007, right before the bottom fell out of the mortgage industry, I convinced Earl to let me come do this full-time. He didn’t think it was such a good idea at the time.
Earl: My father-in-law was the one person who challenged me to start this business. He believed in what we were trying to do, so he put up his house as collateral to get a loan and gave us the proceeds to buy our equipment.
We started off as Indigo Arts. The challenge with that was people thought we were either a custom art shop or had no idea what we did. I had a customer walk into the shop one day and ask if we sold body oil. I changed the name from Indigo Arts to Indigo Signs, to let people know that we manufactured signs.
Periodically, I would get calls from people asking me about selling the business. I would always decline. Then I received a call from Mike Miller in Franchise Development at Alliance Franchise Brands. It doesn’t hurt to listen, so I took his call. He asked if I was interested in selling. I said, no. Then he asked if I’d consider joining. I’d spent time looking at another sign franchise, but it didn’t feel right. Mike came and visited my shop. After looking at my business model and doing some research, I realized I’d taken my business as far as I could take it. He invited me to come to Baltimore and meet the people at Alliance Franchise Brands. It was the best decision I ever made.
Teresa: We converted to Image360 on August 13, 2013. At first, our clients actually thought we had failed. They were like, Oh the nice little family; they don’t have a business anymore. They didn’t realize it was the same ownership and that we’d converted to a franchise.
Earl: Family and friends knew how hard we’d fought to build what little we had with Indigo Arts and Indigo Signs. They thought we were giving up something. I never was concerned about losing Indigo Signs, or losing customers. I was still here. Now I have brand recognition, and I’m part of the Alliance Franchise Brands network. Our credibility shot up through the roof. It was like day and night. People looked at me differently. I’d gained respect in the industry and with my clients. And we gained customers.
Teresa: Our first year we doubled our numbers. When you explain the Image360 name and logo to somebody, that we are a circle—we encompass everything graphics communications, you can just see the light bulb click on. They’re like, Wow, you mean I can come to you with an idea. And you can help walk me through all the stages until it is on my wall or in front of my store or my building or my whatever. You can take it from the beginning, all the way through to the end. Yes, we can do that. And that’s what’s impressive about Image360.
Another thing, when you’re an independent, try writing your own brochures and marketing materials. It’s very difficult. Joining Image360, we had immediate access to those things.
Earl: Having a strong background in graphic design, I was very hard on myself. The first brochure I designed for Indigo Arts and printed and sent out, a customer called and said, “Earl, you realize that you have no information on how to contact you.” I’d forgotten the phone number and our address.
Teresa: We had no website, too. We spent years trying to build a website.
Earl: I wasn’t a numbers person. I knew art, and I knew graphics. I knew how to make signs, and I knew how to print. But I didn’t know all the ins and outs of running a business and looking at numbers, comparing margins, and having a supply chain that you can buy from. Now we have a regional director, and we’re part of a Performance Group that’s holding me accountable. As an independent business owner, you have to have someone holding you accountable. I’ve become a numbers guy, and I don’t like it when I have to send out sales reports and I’m at the bottom in my group. No, I can’t have that. That motivates me. Sometimes we need to be pushed beyond our comfort level and that’s what Alliance Franchise Brands has done for me. We’re being held accountable. We have structure now.
Teresa: As an independent, you’re winging it and hoping that it gets you where you want to go. With Image360, we’re a member of a network of sister Centers that we can talk to. In the past, if we couldn’t figure it out, it wouldn’t get done. Now we have people who we can actually go to and bounce ideas off of.
Earl: Our client mix has changed. Before, I felt I couldn’t come to the table and talk with the big guys simply because I didn’t have a credible brand. Now when I go to a meeting, I pass out my card and our full catalogue. There was a lot of thought that went into the name Image360. Right there, we stand out. We even have presentation standards. When someone walks into our Center, it’s well kept and looks professional. That gives customers a sense of how we’ll handle their projects. We have a wonderful staff that has bought into Image360 and our vision.
Teresa: The Home Office is not going to come run our Center, and I don’t expect that. But if I have a challenge, I can call and seek out advice and get assistance where before that wasn’t available to me.
Earl: Being that creative person, I love the response when we do a project and the customer looks at it and says something like, Hey, wow, that’s nice. I can’t buy that. We just completed a project for a community library. As long as that library is there, my work is there and that’s a joy. I’m touching lives and communities with projects like that.
Teresa: Earl, you stole my thunder! I don’t have a creative bone in my body. I’m on the numbers side, but what he said is true for me, as well. When I go by that library or anywhere I see our work, it’s a joy because that’s my work. So until that building comes down or that company goes under, it’s very gratifying and humbling to know that I had a small part in that. And, the fact that we do something different every day keeps it exciting, keeps it fresh, keeps me wanting to come back to work. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Is it hard? Yes. But I wouldn’t go back to letting somebody else make decisions for me.
Earl: This model is not for everyone. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to get involved. And I would say if you’re looking at this model to just be a money-maker and you really don’t have any passion, then I would suggest go somewhere else.
Teresa: We’re trying to build something as a legacy. Our oldest daughter is our VP. She’s our main customer service person. She oversees daily operations and helps guide client projects from inception to completion. She began as an estimator while completing her business degree at Georgia State University. Our other two daughters ran from the business. “You work all the time,” they’d say. But when they were in college, they both worked during the summers to get a little jingle for back to school. After both of them graduated from college, they decided to enlist in the Air Force. We are proud that they are serving our country in the Military.
Earl: In my spare time, I like photography and building things.
Teresa: I tease him that if he ever gets out of the sign business, it’s going to be Earl’s Woodworking. Our favorite thing to do is to go on cruises. I tell my family I work hard, and I play hard, because I earned it. I don’t hear them saying I work too hard when I’m getting ready to leave on a cruise.