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Sign Craft experiences record growth

December 8, 2008
While many central Indiana manufacturers are feeling the pinch of the downturned economy, locally based Sign Craft Industries Inc. is posting record growth this year and projecting another robust year in 2009.

Sign Craft is making acquisitions, increasing its payroll, and adding hardware to expand its product and service offerings at a time many manufacturers nationwide are tightening their belts and locking down capital projects. Growth this year in the sign industry is increasing at a mid-single-digit percentage clip, and next year sales are projected to be static, according to the International Sign Association, a Virginia-based trade organization.

"We're aggressively going after a bigger piece of the pie," said Sign Craft CEO Greg Beyerl. "That's a strategy we started a number of years ago, and will continue into next year."

Sign Craft has made two key acquisitions this year, buying locally based Sign Studio in June, and one of its largest competitors, locally based Atlas Sign Co., in September. Those acquisitions along with organic growth will keep the company growing well above the industry average.

Beyerl projects Sign Craft will have $5.3 million in revenue this year, up from $4.5 million last year. He is projecting $8 million to $10 million in revenue in 2009 after the acquisitions are fully integrated.

Sign Craft, with about $1 million in revenue, was a company at a crossroads in 2001, when former owner, Steve McVickers, brought in Beyerl as a consultant.

Beyerl, an accountant by trade, advised company officials to invest in new technology to broaden their services and attract new customers. When McVickers offered to sell him the company in late 2001, Beyerl, who was formerly the controller at Bindley Western, a locally based distributor of pharmaceuticals later acquired by Ohio-based Cardinal Health Inc., jumped at the chance. McVickers, the son of the company's founder, continues to work for Sign Craft.

"A lot of companies up until 2001 were making signs by hand," Beyerl said.

Beyerl sought to make Sign Craft more efficient and flexible through automation and other upgraded machinery.

He invested in machines to allow the bending of light metals so signs could be custom made in virtually any shape, in computer-aided sign-making tools, and in LED electronic light technology to supplement the company's neon-sign-making capabilities.

Beyerl also invested in machinery that helps with complex neon work and painting. The six-figure investments were no small gamble for a company with annual revenue in the low-seven-figure range.

Last year, Sign Craft made another major investment in digital printing equipment that allowed the firm to boost its division specializing in temporary signs and quick turnaround jobs. As a result, Sign Craft has seen an increase in commercial real estate signs, as well as yard signs, banners and vehicle graphics and event signage.

"We wanted to make sure we were at the cutting edge," Beyerl said. "It's a strategy that has paid off."

Investing in manpower

Beyerl hasn't limited his investments to machinery and electronics.

In the last seven years, Sign Craft has grown from 18 to 65 employees. That makes Sign Craft an industry giant. Only 10 percent of the nation's approximately 35,000 sign manufacturers have more than 20 employees, according to the International Sign Association.

"Human resources has been our biggest investment," Beyerl said. "Bringing on the right people has really paid off. The quality of people working at this company has never been higher."

One of the key hires has been General Manager Phil Sheingold, 46, who joined the company about a year ago. Sheingold worked as senior vice president of operations for Brightpoint Inc., a Plainfield-based wireless communications firm, from 2001 to 2006. Before that, he worked as a plant manager in the local Universal Flavors facility and had stints in operations with Frito Lay and Gatorade.

"Phil brings a calm demeanor and a really good problem-solving mind to Sign Craft," Beyerl said.

Beyerl hasn't let economic downturns slow his investments in Sign Craft. His first round of investments came on the heels of 9/11. Even though Beyerl has already scooped up two competitors during this current downturn, he continues to look for ways to grow his firm.

Beyerl declined to reveal the cost of the acquisitions, but those expansions will solidify Sign Craft's position as one of the two largest central Indiana sign makers. Plainfield-based TKO Graphix is Sign Craft's nearest rival.

"Companies that aggressively build and grow during the down times tend to prosper when the economy turns around," Beyerl said.

Beyerl's moves are carefully calculated, according to those within the local sign industry.

The acquisition of Sign Studio in June helped the company increase its presence in national and regional markets, Beyerl said, and the acquisition of Atlas allowed Sign Craft to add employees with critical skills while also adding several steady clients to the books.

Through the acquisitions, Sign Craft picked up such clients as HHGregg and ITT Technical Institute.

"Both of those acquisitions were made at an attractive price and have allowed us to do broader work than we could before," Beyerl said. "We've positioned ourselves to be able to provide a variety of services no other single sign company can."

Making hay during downturn

Beyerl has even developed a knack for finding business brought on by uncertain economic times. Sign Craft, for instance, has earned work from several banks that have been acquired and required new signage.

"That's turned out to be a nice niche for us," Beyerl said.

Sky Bank hired Sign Craft in 2006 when it acquired 50 area branches of Union Federal Bank, and Huntington Bancshares in turn hired Sign Craft just a few months later when it acquired Sky. Industry sources said the two jobs totaled easily more than $1 million.

"We found out that Greg will absolutely knock himself out to get the job done," said Mike Newbold, president of Huntington Bank Indiana. "The banking business is essentially the retail business, and visibility and name recognition [are] critical. The most impressive thing from my perspective is that Greg and his staff came in already understanding our business and our objectives."

While most sign companies specialize in the fabrication of signs, Sign Craft staffers consult on the design, lighting and placement of signs, said Mike Rechin, president and CEO of Muncie-based First Merchants Bank. Sign Craft did work at 40 First Merchant branches in 2007.

"Signs need to be informational, but they also convey an image and culture of a business," Rechin said. "It's the most visible manifestation of your brand, and the people at Sign Craft understand that."

Sign Craft has stood out in the crowded market by emphasizing service, Beyerl said. "We differentiate ourselves by being able to handle a project from concept to implementation," he said.

Low-profile firm, high-profile work

Sign Craft is the company behind some of the most high-profile signs in Indiana, including the main monikers adorning Lucas Oil Stadium and others on the interior of the Indianapolis Colts' home.

Other clients include Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LA Fitness, Macy's, Comcast Cable, MCL Cafeterias and Starbucks, among others.

Sign Craft also recently completed signage work at Honda's new Greensburg manufacturing plant.

"This is a very competitive industry with a pretty high learning curve," said Jim Caudill, vice president of Sport Graphics, a local printing, signage and graphic arts firm that has done work at Conseco Fieldhouse and for the NCAA.

"Generally, people are in this industry their whole life," he said. "What Greg has done in a relatively short period is pretty phenomenal. He's hired the right people over there and let them do their jobs. And he's done a good job of managing the company in a way that positions them for growth."

While Beyerl, 50, is bent on growing his customer base, he didn't start out that way at Sign Craft.

"We quietly brought in the technology and equipment we needed to take care of the clients we had," Beyerl said. "That's really how the business has grown. We did a good job for our customers and word of mouth took root."

Sign Craft, which was founded in 1958, has expanded its footprint throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast. Word of mouth has been the only marketing the company has done until now, but Beyerl said he is looking at participating in trade shows and advertising in trade publications in 2009.

"Now that we have everything we want in place from an operations standpoint," Beyerl said, "we feel we're ready to spread the word more aggressively."
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