Manufacturers and Environment and Products and Manufacturing & Technology

NY Times job helps ACS Sign gain attention

January 14, 2008

The sign on the door is ironically misleading.

ACS Sign Systems' moniker doesn't tell the entire story of this small-but-growing company on 22nd Street near the Monon Trail. A manufacturer with an artistic bent, the company goes way beyond stamping out directional and informational signs. Some of the 11-employee firm's products contain no information at all.

"I'm not sure some of these would be strictly considered signs," said Dick Lutin, ACS co-owner and president.

He points out a neon flower made for a Broad Ripple brew pub, which also had ACS make beer taps. Other company creations include sculptures, fountains and "environmental elements for interior and exterior applications," he said.

Of course, ACS also makes plenty of markers that would fall under the dictionary definition of signs. But Lutin and his business partner Joseph Lehner never conform to sign-making norms.

"We don't approach any project with preconceived ideas or templates," said Lehner, ACS' vice president.

ACS' unusual approach has helped the company grow its revenue and expand its footprint beyond Indiana. In recent years, sales outside its home state have grown from 20 percent of total revenue to almost half.

The company, which had sales of $1 million in 2007 and expects to grow to $2 million this year, has gained considerable traction in one of the nation's largest markets for signs: New York City. ACS recently completed a project to make 5,300 signs for 28 floors of The New York Times headquarters and is in negotiations to do the same for the newspaper's bureaus. It also has designed and made signs for the New York state library system and the restaurant on top of Rockefeller Center.

Now ACS is in the hunt to do its thing at the storied Yankee Stadium.

"We made these deals the way we've made most of our deals--through endless networking and industry contacts," Lutin said. "Once we get our foot in the door, we think our work speaks for itself."

ACS' Web site has helped the company land out-of-state work, and the New York projects have further elevated its profile beyond Indiana, Lutin said.

"It's difficult to put a price on the type of exposure we've recently gotten in New York," Lehner said. "But it is paying off."

The Indianapolis company has made incredible inroads, industry experts said, especially considering that it does almost no advertising and attends few trade shows. Lutin prefers a more personal approach to marketing ACS, pitching the firm at networking lunches and the like.

The quality of ACS' work doesn't hurt, either. "They know how to bring a blend of many things together: art, history and other cultural elements," said Eric Fulford, owner of Ninebark Inc., a locally based landscape design firm. "There are a number of quality sign companies in central Indiana, and ACS is one that stands out."

One of the things that sets ACS apart, Fulford said, is Lutin's creativity.

"Dick styles himself as an artist, and it comes through in the work [ACS] does," Fulford said.

Lutin wasn't born an artist, though, and he didn't set out to do creative work. Neither did Lehner.

Lutin, 54, previously worked as a district sales manager for Voltarc Technologies Inc., a Connecticut-based company that makes signs, lights and tanning products. But the sign business interested him, and it wasn't long before he was experimenting--bending neon over a Bunsen burner at his home without any formal training.

"My boss at Voltarc threatened to fire me every month as a motivational tool, so that got me thinking about my future," Lutin said.

When he'd had enough pink-slip threats, Lutin approached Lehner about going into the sign-making business together. Lehner, 36, was managing Mikado Restaurant in Indianapolis at the time. The two had met several years before at the Chatterbox Jazz Club.

On Jan. 1, 2000, the duo launched ACS out of a 1,000-square-foot shop at 115 E. 21st St. Lutin lived upstairs.

"All we had was some neon sign-making equipment and a computer," he said.

There were plenty of challenges early on, including a fairly steep learning curve. The partners had to figure out everything from where to get materials to how and where to do the machining. But one thing their backgrounds taught them was the importance of customer service and networking.

Initially, the two went door-to-door to make sales.

"Those early sales helped pay for ramen noodles," Lehner said through a laugh.

From the beginning, Lutin and Lehner focused on high-end architectural signage. They set out to learn everything they could about materials, design and architectural principles and historical and cultural integration.

Though Lutin had no artistic training, he said his father's and grandfather's experience working with wood, metal and leather helped.

"We've seen many great buildings and offices ruined by bad signage," Lehner said. "Some people look at signs as just a way to get the shop open. We think signage reflects a corporate identification in a very profound way."

To get in on high-end projects, the partners focused their new-business efforts on the city's biggest architectural and design firms. In 2002, they landed a contract to work on signage at Indiana Heart Hospital and Community Hospital North. Over the next few years, ACS landed more high-profile local jobs, including signs for Lockerbie Square, Castleton Square Mall, Eagle Creek Trail, The Orchard School, Embassy Suites Hotel and Finish Line Inc. corporate headquarters.

Along the way, the company tackled other projects, too, designing a fountain at the entrance of Monroe County Hospital and a 240-foot-long neon sculpture that sat atop the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

With its revenue growing at a strong double-digit pace, ACS moved into a 20,000-square-foot facility at 1110 E. 22nd St. in 2003.

ACS' growth doesn't surprise Barbara L. Carothers, director of interior design at locally based Ratio Architects Inc.

"They come at projects from an artistic standpoint," Carothers said. "That gives their work another dimension.

"What they do goes way beyond hanging signs. They look at the context of the building, where it sits in the community, the landscape and a lot of other details most people would never consider."

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