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Sign of the Times


  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:37 a.m. July 13, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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A mouse erased any doubts Jaime Harden had about transforming his sign business at the cusp of a recession.

And not just any mouse - Mickey Mouse.

Harden's Tampa-based firm, Creative Sign Designs, won its first project with Walt Disney World in 2008. That was about a year after Harden altered a majority of the business, from residential work, like stop signs and mailboxes for master-planned communities, to commercial work. But it was the firm's ability to land contracts with Disney, says Harden, “that gave us the 'Good Housekeeping' sign of approval.”

That sign now illuminates the 26-year-old company's recession survival effort.

Click here to watch Creative Sign Designs in action.

Indeed, Creative Sign Designs, which also has an office outside Orlando, is now in the middle of one of its best years ever in terms of annual sales. Harden projects the firm will surpass $10 million in sales in 2012, which would be at least 20% over 2011, when it had $8.3 million in revenues. That figure would furthermore be a 90% increase over 2008, the firm's recession low point, when it had $5.24 million in sales. The company has 75 employees, down from the 100 or so it had in 2006, but up from the low point of 45 in 2008.

Creative Sign Designs was previously Creative Mailbox and Sign Designs, and from 1986 to 2007 more than 90% of its work was residential, mostly for homeowners associations and developers. Clients included large national builders, like Lennar Homes, and prominent regional builders, such as Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities. Says Harden: “We were just rocking and rolling.”

But when Harden saw incoming jobs dry up in 2007 he decided to shorten the name of the firm and enter the ultra-competitive and fragmented commercial sign industry. The company, with a 44,000-square-foot sales center and manufacturing facility in the Westchase area of Tampa, still has residential work, about 30% of total annual sales. But it also now does interior, exterior and digital signs for a variety of commercial clients. It has clients on the Gulf Coast, in Florida and nationwide.

Some of the firm's recent high profile jobs include signage for the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa, Florida Turnpike toll booths, and the Dali Museum in downtown St. Petersburg. It has also worked on projects in Boston and Nashville, and it recently won a bid to do work for the Republican National Convention in Tampa next month.

At Disney, meanwhile, Creative Sign Designs' first contract was to assemble and install road signs on some streets leading into the massive amusement park. That work led to more jobs, and even a visit from Disney's famed Imagineering personnel, who design the theme parks. “When we had our first visit from Imagineering it was one of the most nerve-racking experiences in my career,” says Harden. “They are great people. We just wanted to win their business.”

The firm hopes to win more work from Disney in the future, part of its overall strategy to get repeat business from clients. “We took the opposite approach” other firms did in the recession, says Harden. “While a lot of people retrenched, we focused on growth.”

Strong relationships
That newfound focus on growth through business reinvention, however, wasn't without risk.

For starters, any shift in the business model was significant because Harden only got into the sign business in late 2005. That's when he and a business partner, well-known Tampa-based philanthropist and auto sales entrepreneur Larry Morgan, bought Creative Mailbox and Sign Designs.

Harden had been a commercial loan executive with Bank of America for 15 years, and Morgan was a client. Harden worked for the bank in Tampa from 1990-1999, and then he moved all over the country for the lender, from Kansas City to Dallas to Los Angeles.

Harden, though, sought more stability for himself and his young family. Plus, all the work on the banking side of business whetted his desire to own a company. “We weren't going to be only a private equity firm,” says Harden. “I was going to run it.”

But running the business put Harden in a place he had never been before: Now it was his own money — and Morgan's investment — at stake. In this case, says Harden, that was an investment “well into the seven figures.” While Harden proudly built strong relationships with clients in banking, he always had a comfort zone in knowing his paycheck didn't rely solely on his client's successes.

“At Bank of America, you could host your team and associates at your house and thank them,” says Harden. “But you never worried about making payroll. This is a very different deal.”

Moreover, Harden says the shift to commercial work was initially like launching a startup while simultaneously running a struggling business in a recession. In the same building. With the same employees.

“On day one it looked pretty seamless,” says Harden, “but it turned out to be tougher.”

Challenges ranged widely. Harden had to retrain employees, hire salespeople who could aggressively target commercial clients and buy the right machines that could make the firm more competitive. Harden estimates the company spends about $100,000 a year on equipment.

Control and communicate
Harden learned some other valuable business lessons in his quest to transform Creative Sign Designs.

For one, Harden discovered that while subcontracting work to outsiders is useful in certain situations, nothing beats in-house crews. “You have to do your own work,” Harden says. “Otherwise you will lose control very fast.”

Harden also found out that when leading a company through a change, especially a big one like seeking an entire new base of clients, it pays to communicate often. That goes from little items to large issues. “We way over communicate within this company,” says Harden. “Everyone knows what we are doing all the time.”

Harden further learned a banker's creed, of having a diversity of services and products for every client, translates to just about any industry. For instance, when he targeted commercial clients for sign work, Harden realized the firm had to offer more options, such as design and sign placement consultation.

With the business reinvention phase complete, and the firm on a growth track not seen in six years, Harden is now onto a new set of hurdles. Most pressing: Hiring more employees. Like several other local executives, Harden says despite high unemployment, the firm sees few job candidates who make it to new employee status.

“We get people who we love, but they can't pass a drug test, or they don't have a clean driver's license,” Harden says. “That's a huge issue from a growth perspective. We would add other (factory) shifts if we could find the right people.”

Harden has a few other short-term goals at Creative Sign Designs. He would like to see the firm's sales cycle shrink. He would also like to see the company overhaul its warehouse and use more technology to improve its system of tracking jobs. Both of those steps would improve the firm's efficiencies.

“It's a very competitive market,” says Harden. “We try to do less bidding work and more relationship work. Everyone says that, but we know how important it is.”

'Annihilate complacency'

Employee recognition has a deep significance at Tampa-based Creative Sign Designs.

The firm, which has done sign work for clients such as Disney and the Florida Turnpike, recognizes employees every month in six categories: teamwork, sense of urgency, commitment to excellence, positive outlook, innovation and do the right thing.

The company's management team developed six core values, says Jamie Harden, the firm's president, while employees identified 57 key behaviors that illustrate those values. Awards are given monthly and quarterly, and prizes include $50 gift cards and $250 bonuses.

But it's those well-defined employee behaviors that separate the recognition program from what many other companies do. Says Harden: “This is the single best initiative that we have done here.”

A partial list of behaviors, with the values, includes:

+ Recognizing that each month we have financial goals to meet. (Sense of urgency.)
+ Feeling empowered to 'stop the line' if there is an issue. (Commitment to excellence.)
+ Asking myself “would I be willing to say I made this? Would I be willing to pay for this? (Commitment to excellence.)
+ Being coachable and approachable. (Positive outlook.)
+ Never letting up after initial successes. Annihilate complacency. (Innovation.)
+ Making it easier to do business with us and practice giving alternatives. (Do the right thing.)
+ Proactively seeking ways to make other jobs easier. (Teamwork.)

Jamie Harden explains the process the factory goes through to produce their signs.


Video: Amanda Heisey

 

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