Getting to Know the Faces Behind the Signs
The Story of Topline Advertising Inc.’s Newest Owners
If you’ve driven on a road, eaten at a restaurant, walked through an airport or, really, visited any public area, you’ve undoubtedly encountered a sign. But do you ever wonder who made it or how it got there?
“People see signs every day, but don’t really think about them. Nobody wonders how they get up there,” notes Jessica Dahl, co-owner of Topline Advertising Inc. in Minnesota.
While the majority of the population may spend little to no time contemplating signs, the Dahl family is one exception. It’s their business to provide high-quality custom sign manufacturing and installation services within 100 miles of the Twin Cities and throughout surrounding states.
From Employees to Owners
Founded in 1984, the company has transferred ownership twice, the latest occurring in April 2016 when Jessica and her husband, Phil Dahl, purchased the company.
At the time, Phil was working for Topline as an installer. Jessica and their oldest son, Jacob, had worked for the company in varying capacities. Though initially Phil and Jessica only intended to purchase half of Topline, timing proved right, and they found a way to purchase the entire company.
For Phil and Jessica, ownership of Topline has been a chance for a better life. As Jessica notes, “No one from either of our families has ever done anything like this before.”
The Journey to Ownership
Involved in the wholesale sign industry from an early age, Phil started out building signs at Minnesota Sign Co. Inc., then went on to work for Crosstown Sign and Arrow Sign before joining the Topline team. Once at Topline, Phil worked his way up from the bottom of the chain of command over 10 years before assuming his most recent role as co-owner.
Jessica’s path to the sign industry was less direct. Prior to Topline, Jessica assisted with hiring and operations at companies like Slipstreamer Inc. and Glenn Construction. Though a self-described “outsider” to the sign business, she is highly sought after within the broader construction community because of her administrative expertise.
ith his extensive knowledge about sign installation and her background in business operations, Phil and Jessica make a dynamic ownership team.
A Family Affair
Prior to purchasing Topline, Phil and Jessica first consulted three of their biggest supporters: their daughter and two sons. Being frank with their children, Phil and Jessica warned that if their family purchased Topline, life would change—more work, less free time. However, they didn’t have to engage in much persuasion. Jacob, Frances and Jonathan—who are now 19, 14 and 10, respectively—were “all in.” In fact, Jessica notes that not only do her children choose to work with their parents, but also, Jacob and Frances already plan to take over the company when Phil and Jessica retire.
With an obvious commitment to future ownership, Jacob currently works as an apprentice at Topline while attending college through a union program. He will soon graduate with a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in construction technologies, which requires him to perform on-the-job training. Jacob reflects, “It was great that I had some say in my parents’ decision to purchase the company, and I think right from the beginning I knew I eventually wanted to take over. My parents purchased the company with the intention of keeping it in the family.”
Understanding Employees’ Needs
As former employees on the front lines work with other Topline personnel, Phil and Jessica have a keen understanding of their employees’ needs. Both take their friendships with their co-workers seriously, so much so that they requested the support of all prior to making the decision to buy the company. In fact, it was fellow employee Lori Vukelich who first encouraged Phil and Jessica to purchase Topline after news broke of the search for new owners.
Because Phil has been at the company for so long, his transition from employee to owner has been natural. “Because I’ve been in their positons, I understand my employees,” he says. “I don’t sit behind a desk, but rather I still do my normal job, and each day I work hand in hand with my employees.”
While Phil is passionate about his day-to-day work installing signs, it is the one-on-one connections he has developed with his employees that truly motivate him. Phil describes, “For instance, just today I had an employee tell me that he and his wife are having twins. I love that I am involved in my employees’ lives, and I want to support their families.”
Prior to his time at Topline, one thing that bothered Phil about the sign industry is the fact that his previous bosses didn’t care whether or not he had a family; their only concern was about the completion of a job. Jessica remembers the general sentiment of some of Phil’s earlier bosses in his career: “You have to work overtime? Too bad. Your child has a doctor appointment, a field trip? Forget it.” By contrast, Jessica shares, “We want to show our employees we care about them. Not only should they be able to pay their bills each month, but also their kids should be able to spend time with their parents.”
Phil and Jessica’s focus on family has translated into a positive management style. It was their dedication to a family-friendly work environment that turned out to be the selling point for Topline’s newest install foreman, Kevin Hoeft.
For years prior to joining Topline, Kevin grew accustomed to working 60 to 80 hours a week for other companies in the industry. He reflects, “I worked so often that I hardly had time to spend with my family.” Now, Kevin’s work hours are manageable and leave him plenty of time to see not only his own family, but also his co-workers’ families at scheduled gatherings outside of work. Happily, he reports, “Everyone needs it this good.”
The amount of work necessary to design and install a single sign is incredible. For just one sign’s installation, Topline typically communicates with at least five or six entities, including the client to discuss design and placement, the city to obtain a permit, an electrician to connect the sign to a power source or an architect to decide whether a sign’s design is conducive to its installation.
On top of the coordination involved with sign installation, there is an overwhelming number of variables relevant in any one project. For instance, during an installation, Topline personnel have to consider questions such as: Is the ceiling from which the sign needs to be hung a drop ceiling? Will we be drilling into concrete? Is another sign already hanging from the same spot where this sign must be hung? Does the wall on which the sign will be hung have a backing? (If not, forget installation in sheet rock.) Jessica summarizes, “In this industry, nothing is routine. No job is or can be the same.”
The Customer is Always Right
Though a complex process from start to finish, Topline makes sign installations easy for its customers. The team serves as a trusted advisor to its customers and works diligently to make their sign “visions” a reality. With customers ranging from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and the University of Minnesota to small mom-and-pop businesses, in Phil and Jessica’s minds, no job is too small and the variety of work excites them.
For the Dahls, Topline customers are always right. “Topline is definitely geared toward making customers happy. Our customer is always right, and we want to make things right—even if in some cases this means taking a loss out of pocket,” says Phil.
Jacob describes the satisfaction that results from seeing the “glow” on the face of a Topline customer after seeing a newly installed sign. He says, “When customers see their new signs, you can almost always see a bit of a glow on their faces. They are putting their names out there, and it is great seeing their reactions to the finished product.”
Phil and Jessica have a lot in store for the future of their company. Ambitious to serve all sectors, they not only want to hire more employees and work with new customers, but also expand their services as a full-service sign contractor. As an already successful family- and woman-owned and union company, Topline has nowhere to go but up.