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Signs of the Times

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:27 a.m. September 6, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Strategies
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The floodgates opened when Stewart Signs' employees gathered at a booth inside the Assemblies of God national conference in Orlando in early August.

The Sarasota-based company, which makes traditional letter and LED signs for churches, schools, businesses and other organizations, received more than 300 client leads during the four-day conference, says executive Eric Keller. While some leads won't turn into sales, the haul is nonetheless vital amid what's now a significant three-year sales turnaround at Stewart Signs. Annual revenues are around $20 million, says Keller. That's up 100% from the latter part of the 2000s, when the firm was in single-digit annual percentage sales decline.

“It wasn't a massive slide,” says Keller, vice president of sales and marketing, “but it was headed in the wrong direction.”

Now, says Keller, who joined the company in December 2010, sales are on a growth trajectory. The average price per sign sold is up significantly over last year, and Keller projects the firm will grow revenues at least 20% in 2013. “Our business is very sustainable,” says Keller. “I don't see a slowdown in the near future.”

The company has 40 salespeople and around 80 total employees. The sales force is up from 20 three years ago. And that sales force makes every pitch, hurdles each rejection and closes every deal exclusively through phone sales made from a cubicle. It's a tricky task that requires an excess of persistence.

“The thing we focus on is a consultative approach,” says Joshua Wortley, division manager for the firm's business and school sales division. “A lot of people say that, but it's critical that we do that.”

Keller says the firm's sustainability stems from leads the company generates because sales growth at Stewart Signs is a numbers game predicated on the ability to get in front of customers. So the more leads there are, the more chances there are to land new clients. The sales leads, beyond industry conferences and trade shows, come from an online marketing campaign that partially utilizes pay-per-click ads.

Stewart Signs products are manufactured by a sister business in Alabama, and some cost up to $30,000 apiece. Keller says the firm, much like several competitors in the region, is a full-service sign company that handles work from “cradle to grave.” Adds Keller: “We build the signs, we sell the signs, we support the signs.”

Lead reservoir
Stewart Signs, with more than 40,000 customers since it was founded in 1968, also has the support of a $2.2 billion parent company behind it. That's Birmingham, Ala.-based Ebsco Industries, one of the 200 largest privately held firms in the U.S., with subsidiaries in everything from fishing lure manufacturing to Web publishing to multifamily real estate.

Ebsco bought Stewart Signs, which operates out of an office in a corporate park north of Bee Ridge Road, in 2001.

It's in that office, above a pediatrician practice, where the army of Stewart Signs salespeople dips into the reservoir of leads. While that database is an asset, the flipside to the volume, Keller has learned, is having a sales staff that regularly turns the prospects into closings. Finding those salespeople, says Keller, is Stewart Signs' biggest and most pressing challenge.

For starters, the sales positions pay 100% commission. That can be both lucrative for an excellent closer, and painful for someone who isn't. A top salesperson at the company can easily clear $100,000 a year. “It's not for everyone,” concedes Keller. “Not seeing a customer and not shaking a hand can be a tough sell.”

Wortley adds that Stewart Signs does an extensive interview process — over the phone in most cases — to weed out candidates not right for the position. “We don't have pushy, hard-close salespeople,” Wortley says. “We have had salespeople like that in the past, but they aren't as successful.”

Keller, a four-time All-American track and field athlete at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, says another factor in the sales success are managers like Wortley and his counterpart Robert Smith. Wortley and Smith, who runs the church, municipalities and civic divisions, remove barriers for the sales staff, Keller says. Wortley worked in sales at Bradenton-based IMG Academy before he joined Stewart Signs in 2010. Smith has been with the company 18 years, and was promoted from senior sales consultant to division sales manager in 2010.

'A nationwide feel'
Another big help for sales, says Keller, is the firm's sophisticated customer relationship management software program. It's basically a second brain, he says, that notes when follow-up calls should be made and other important data. The program allows employees to focus on customer calls, says Wortley, which can last up to an hour.

Technology is also integral to the firm's lead generation system. The company runs multiple online pay-per-click advertising programs, and it uses a sophisticated search engine optimization system. Keller, previously an executive in the paper manufacturing and apparel industries, says Stewart Signs spends well into the six figures a year on Internet marketing campaigns for leads.

Wortley says the firm's website is another good use of technology to help close sales. The site uses variable content programs, so a customer in any location can access information about that particular geographic region.

That gives Stewart Signs a nationwide feel, which Wortley says is a distinct edge. “We always say our biggest competitor is the local sign guy,” Wortley says. “We are like the local sign guy, but we have a national presence.”

Obstacles to continue to build that presence run the gamut, from challenges specific to a local area to national issues. On the local side, Keller says restrictions municipal governments place on sign size and locations can impact sales. Nationally, Keller says the federal government sequestration forced some military agencies to delay sign orders.

The good news for Stewart Signs, however, is thousands of churches and schools break ground on construction every day across the country. Those buildings need signs, which is why Keller is optimistic. “If you know how to sell or lead sales people,” says Keller, “it doesn't matter what you are selling.”

Mission Accomplished
An inside joke recently made the rounds at Stewart Signs: If it's good enough for rocket scientists, the line goes, then it must be good enough for all the other customers.

That's what landing a project with NASA will do for a company. In this case, Sarasota-based Stewart Signs sold a state of the art LED sign for use at NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. The sign, which the company won a bid for in February, was one of the more high-profile projects it's ever done, says Vice President of Sales and Marketing Eric Keller. The company, with about $20 million in annual sales, was founded in 1968.

The sign, the firm says, has an active display area more than 11 feet high and 19 feet wide. The Vehicle Assembly Building is one of the largest buildings in the world, according to NASA. It has been the home for vehicles used in Apollo, Saturn and Space Shuttle missions. The building covers 8 acres, and it's 525 feet tall and 716 feet long.


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