'Undercover Boss': Fastsigns International CEO Admits She's A Workaholic

Catherine Monson Fastsigns undercover bossEven if you know your ultimate goal, you may need a sign to direct you. If there was anyone who should be adept at seeing and reading the signs, you would think it would be Catherine Monson, CEO of Fastsigns International, the country's largest custom signs company.

But by Monson's own telling, it wasn't until her appearance on "Undercover Boss" this past Friday that the CEO of the $300 million-a-year company finally came to terms with the brutal truth of her own personal reality -- she's a workaholic whose devotion to professional success has had some big personal costs.

The episode featured an unusual storyline for the CBS series, now one episode away from wrapping up its third season. (A fourth season has already been ordered by the network.) Most often, the series revolves around a self-assured boss confronting lapses in his or her workplaces, and then going about rectifying those problems.

To be sure, Monson, had her fair share of on-the-ground comeuppances during the episode. (Not having a proper e-commerce outfit in 2012 was a glaring embarrassment, as Sheldon, the second employee she visits on the episode pointed out to her.) But her turn on "Undercover Boss" was really about her personal catharsis and, ultimately, her rejection of a life lived in the corner office at the expense of the family room.




A Hard Beginning
Monson coped with a challenging childhood by developing a Teflon exterior. As she puts it at the top of the show, "More important than being liked is doing what's right for the company." It wasn't just that her brother barely survived a surfing accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. While growing up in Southern California, Monson had an abusive, alcoholic mother. After a series of traumatic incidents, including her mother shattering a glass over her head, Monson and her siblings got a restraining order against their own mother. Tragically, their mother responded by shooting herself to death.

Monson, perhaps not surprisingly, threw herself into work and has no children after two failed marriages. She even uprooted herself and moved to Texas to take on the Fastsigns job after more than 30 years working at the California-based Franchise Services.

Undercover Boss Has Emotional Moment With Employee


Her soul-searching began early in the show. After working with a site surveyor named Jen, Monson and Jen went bowling together. Bowling happens to be Jen's passion, and it was through her league that she met her husband. "When you are passionate about something, you make it happen," was how Jen explained fitting her hobby into her life. Monson, posing as Louise Steeley, an aging rocker looking to launch a new career on the reality show called "Second Chances," couldn't help but compare her own passion for horseback riding. "I've put it on hold, and maybe I need to bring it back," she said, but added, "Right now my commitment is to Fastsigns."

Her conviction in work, however, was chipped away. Working with Sheldon, a sign maker at a production center in Austin, Tex., Monson couldn't keep up with the assembly line for production and accidentally tore off parts of the signs. How does Sheldon do it? she asked. Raising children, he said, taught him patience. Upon finding out that he is raising a kid with a wife who is battling breast cancer, the CEO says, the experience "must have been an amazing lesson in caring and love."


The Moment Of Truth
But it was really during her next site visit, working on installations in Culver City, Calif., that Monson has her epiphany. She couldn't apply decals without letting in air bubbles, but Gary, another worker, calmly gets it all done -- he's a "teddy bear," she says. Gary coolly explained to her that he grew up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood, got mixed up in gangs and drug dealing, but had a change of heart when he was 19. Facing a possible a 25-year sentence, he said, a judge let him off, telling him that it was his lucky day. "Good things come from bad things," he told Monson, although on that very day of the show's filming, he learned that he was getting evicted.

Monson was visibly moved. "I've never met anyone like Gary, on one hand, and then, on the other, he's very much like my brother," she said.

During her last site visit, she worked with Gary on installing high-rise signs from a crane in Phoenix and learned that Gary and his wife adopted a child, despite the fact that his wife has multiple sclerosis. Monson says, "If given the chance to go back, I might do it differently."

Her new emphasis on the personal over professional animated the reveal. She told Sheldon, the Austin worker who is raising a kid with his wife who has cancer, "It would be a dream to find a man who would stand by like you stood by Michelle." She gave him $50,000 to help with medical bills, in addition to $10,000 for a honeymoon.

She told Scott, of the high-rise crane, how hearing about his choice to adopt led her to regret her own decision not to have kids, and so she gave him $10,000 to start a college fund for his daughter, and another $15,000 for their home life. And for Gary, of the eviction? $50,000 to help restart, and another $15,000 for his 2½-hour commute. "The love we have for our families far exceeds anything we accomplish in our business lives."


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Dan Fastenberg

Dan Fastenberg

Associate Editor

Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.

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Abdul Cole

Love Obama

December 29 2012 at 2:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sammy7851

Where the hell was this amazing woman all my life? Oh, she has some minor flaws like everyone, but she is sharp. I don't think women understand how exciting being smart is to the right man. Of course, in this case she is so outwardly beautiful also, that's just gravy. Rare woman.

December 24 2012 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GEORGE

Luv the show I can't Wait for the end to see how peoples lives are changed by the generosity of those people that have the means to do so.Catherine monson is one beautiful woman inside and out.would luv to meet her.

December 24 2012 at 7:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pssadipiombino

Monson proved that we can learn from everyone, if we only have the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the heart to understand what others plights are in life.

May 08 2012 at 6:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fordgarye

The show is a load of crap - and anyone who believes it's real also believes in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. It's all scripted - do you not think someone wouldn't notice that a video camera was tailing another person's every move and not wonder what the hell it was about? And so the CEO feels bad....for how long, long enough to buy off their conscience and go right back to doing the same stuff to employees all over again. I'm trying to imagine Donald Trump going undercover - he'd need to go into witness protection.

May 08 2012 at 3:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
threedawgknights

Im always amazed at what they do for the people they mix with, but do nothing for the other 10,000 more or less people that work for them.

May 08 2012 at 12:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michael

what i love about this show is how much the ceo realize that there employees are overworked and underpayed yet there is still this epidemic in america of these greedy ceo taking everything away from the worker and giving big big bonuses to his goons

May 07 2012 at 9:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
tierkh1

There are still many good-hearted people out there!

May 07 2012 at 9:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Going Ballistic

Women are and can be fantastic, even inspirational leaders, but they also need to beware, as one employer commented previously, of unscrupulous employees that are only out for them selves - having once seen seen this when working for a great woman boss, it is incomprehensible when they lead with too much heart and place their trust in the wrong people. Sometimes, a sob story was enough to let the slackers catch way too many breaks, causing top talent to become disgusted and leave. A balance must be struck and maintained, objective detachment preserved.

May 07 2012 at 7:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Christi

I wish my boss would go undercover................................

May 07 2012 at 7:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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