Dave and Betty Werner, the owners of Sign Masters, love a good risk. Take their decision, for instance, to leave solid corporate jobs behind three years ago to start a brand new business in a new community with their own money. Fortunately, the dynamic couple selected Colorado Springs – and relied on their own abundant energy and enthusiasm to get their fledgling enterprise off the ground.
“We both came from careers in sales,” says Betty. “Dave retired after 33 years with a major chemical company where he handled business-to-business chemical sales. I had an extensive retail background which included two years at Neiman-Marcus and several years with Harold’s and other retailers in Dallas.
“Neither one of us was afraid of networking and meeting people,” she recalls. “We decided to find a business that accommodated both our backgrounds.” The couple contacted a franchise advisory company, FranNet, and outlined the type of business they were looking for. The Werners sought a proven concept, but didn’t want to do a traditional franchise that involved on-going royalties – so often the case with fast food or other retail ventures. In the end, their advisor was able to find a business opportunity that offered training, vendor discounts, and a bright future without the complex contracts typical of most franchises.
In addition, prior to coming to Colorado Springs, they evaluated the market, saw plenty of potential growth and new development on the horizon, and opened for business with a store-front location on Austin Bluffs Parkway. The couple thrives on community involvement and networking – both vital to the success of their young enterprise. Testimony to their success: In November 2002, Sign Masters will celebrate its third (profitable) anniversary.
So how did Sign Masters penetrate an already-adequately served market? And what steps does the new kid in town take to build client relationships? Both entrepreneurs say that Colorado Springs has welcomed their participation in Chamber committees, leads groups and community functions.
The husband-and-wife team is also active in the Housing and Building Association of Colorado Springs, the Pikes Peak Apartment Association and the Better Business Bureau. “Colorado Springs is really a networking-friendly community,” Betty notes. “Dave and I both find this a great place to do business.” Betty attends the lion’s share of leads group breakfasts and lunches while Dave supervises the shop and handles finances.
They also relied initially on their own area of expertise – advertising. “When we first got here, we decided to place a half-page ad in the yellow pages. That has really paid off for us,” says Betty. She adds that today, other sign companies have caught on and have placed even larger ads, but Sign Masters got the competition started. They have gotten to know their competitors – and have a good relationship with another large sign company in town. “Occasionally we help each other out,” Werner adds.
“Dave earned his M.B.A. while still working for his former employer,” she says. “He understands how small business works. In our first year, we actually managed to earn income. By year two, we broke our previous sales records – and this year we expect to exceed all previous revenues.”
During last year’s tragic events of September 11, the Werners saw three or four weeks when business slowed dramatically. Suddenly, however, the market returned with a resurgence of interest from clients old and new. One of the first areas to begin aggressive advertising was the apartment industry which had been experiencing increased vacancy rates due to corporate down-sizing and a tightening economy. “Suddenly, a lot of our apartment clients began offering move-in incentives and specials; many of them decided to freshen up their signage,” said Betty. Other businesses such as restaurants and retailers also decided to increase visibility and advertising through new signage. As a result, 2001 ended on an upbeat note for the company.
When it comes to client relations, both Dave and Betty Werner say it pays to let the customer rule. “That’s our motto,” says Betty. “We are also careful to understand our clients’ budgets – and work within them.” But Werner is also ready to offer wise counsel when an owner requests help in designing a sign – sensitive to what’s best for the money.
To date, such local companies as Freedom Financial, Bach Commercial Real Estate, Sullivan-Hayes, The Saw Horse Company, Tan-Your-Hide, Tres Margaritas, Griffis-Blessing Property Management, The Village at Skyline, and the First Presbyterian Church have used Sign Masters to promote their organizations. According to Dave, the company produces a tremendous number of electric signs and banners for clients (they’re inexpensive and get the job done, he says) – but also does vehicle lettering, monument, site and mall signage as well. Sign Masters’ first client, The Pennica Company, owned by Mike Pena, came out of a Chamber newcomers event. “We were so new,” said Betty, “that we didn’t have any of our equipment yet – but Dave designed his sign and drove to Denver to get the job done. That’s how we do business – we never like to turn down work.”
Occasionally, a client will request signage production for locations outside of Colorado Springs. Chris Barnett, a local commercial retail broker, contacted the Werners about helping his client, Americash, with signs for stores throughout the Rocky Mountain region. “That was a real coup,” said Betty, “and resulted in a sizeable contract for us.”
As far as vendors, Sign Masters currently relies on both local and out of state companies for materials, software and specialized paints. “We prefer to do business locally whenever possible,” said Betty. Recently the company added digital production capability. “That really makes a difference when you need high-resolution reproduction for flowers on the side of a floral delivery vehicle or to illustrate a product,” says Dave. He also recently purchased a 48-inch plotter, allowing the design and production of signs to be of almost unlimited length or size. With an increasing client base, the couple also sees shop expansion on the horizon.
Along the way, Sign Masters has also served the non-profit community by donating signs for use by Greccio Housing and the Colorado Springs Little League. The sign-makers also support associations like the Pikes Peak Apartment Association (PPAR) and the Housing and Building Association(HBA) with pro bono trade show and table top display signage. “After all,” said Betty, “this community has been good to us – and PPAR and the HBA members have generated a lot of business for us. Needless to say, we’re happy to be able to give back when we can.”