I have long been a believer in this quote by Andrew Carnegie, the founder of U.S. Steel “problems are only opportunities in work clothes”. What that means is that you can look at U.S. recessions as either something to cry about or something to celebrate. I choose not to cry. Indeed, recessions such as the Covid-19 pandemic are great buying opportunities for billboard signs. You just have to know what you’re doing.
So how do you find “troubled” billboard to buy during recessions? There are several attack plans.
- Contact billboard companies. You can send a letter or call all of the existing billboard companies in your market and see if they want to sell any of their weakest signs – typically ones that are chronically vacant. When you factor in ground rent, insurance and R&M, these signs are actually costing them money to own. Don’t be shy – you never know until you ask. I have bought such billboards from all the largest operators who simply want to cull out the signs that are embarrassing to them for non-performance.
- Contact lenders. It is never a bad idea to send a letter to every bank in your market that essentially says “I buy foreclosed billboards” or “I buy non-performing billboard loans”. It’s a market that nobody ever even thinks about, but I have bought many signs over the years from such banks, including portfolios (I once bought 11 signs in one batch). The prices are typically extremely low.
- Watch for “troubled” signs. We all see these every day when we’re out driving around. You know they’re in trouble because they either 1) have no panels on them 2) have a ripped or torn vinyl on them or 3) have an ad that is extremely old and faded on them. You can go to these signs companies and/or landowners and find out the complete story.
When approaching owners of troubled signs (or the landowners that these signs are on) you want to “poor boy” it as much as possible. The theme should be that you think you can bring the sign back to life but you know it won’t be that big a success. If the seller thinks you have anything more than a tiny level of interest, they will think that there’s an angle they have not considered and lose all interest in selling it to you. Here’s a typical conversation: “look I know this sign is of very little value, but I like a challenge and maybe if I’m lucky I can make a couple hundred dollars a month out of it”. That way the seller thinks that there’s no real reason to keep it. I once used that attack plan on a sign owner and bought the sign nearly nothing (around $2,000) and it made me around $20,000 per year. It’s all about smart negotiation.
Think like a “deal maker” and not a “deal killer”
Signs that are failing all share a common trait: they’re failing. Some can be brought back to life and others not. But it’s important to think through each issue to see if there’s a creative way to make it happen. I once bought a sign that was complete blocked in both directions by tree tops. I went to the neighbors and got an agreement to trim their trees back. The prior sign owner had never tried that, just assuming that it would be denied. You will be amazed at what a little gumption can get you in this regard – and also how weak some people are on fighting for their investment.
Acknowledge the window of opportunity and sense of urgency
There is indeed a sense of urgency in this type of investment plan. You are fighting two deadlines at the same time 1) the recession might end at any minute 2) any deal you uncover might be found by someone else at any moment and they will steal it from you. As a result, the minute the recession hits you need to go into full power mode. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Any deal you can sign up on Friday you should never lag until Monday. If a bank calls you with a lead – and you miss the call – you should call the banker back every hour until you reach them. Time is not your friend on this mission.
There are huge profits to be made from national recessions such as the one that Covid-19 has created. Take advantage of these opportunities. Remember that it’s been over a decade since we had the last recession (2007) and you don’t get these opportunities that frequently.