Sign of the Times
Northwest Sign & Design points the way
We see them every day; they tell us where we’re going and where we are. Though we rely on signs, most of us don’t think much about who created them or put them up for us. Brian Stoddard, President of Northwest Sign & Design, thinks about them a lot.
From its founding in 1993, Northwest Sign & Design has grown from a fledgling company to a thriving business. Located in Monroe, Washington, the company manages contracts across the United States and also in Canada, designing and fabricating projects for a variety of clients.
When Brian and his new wife took their honeymoon in the Seattle area 25 years ago, they knew their lives were changing—they had just married, after all—but they didn’t realize how much they would change. The two fell in love with the Pacific Northwest, and shortly after returning home to Detroit, where Brian drove a tow truck for a living, they packed up and relocated.
Brian had no experience with signs, but he was anxious for a new opportunity when his pastor, a former executive at a sign equipment company, loaned him an old vinyl cutter. From that loan, Northwest Sign & Design was born.
“Those first few years were interesting,” Brian says. “I was young, easily adaptable and hungry. I had an art background and I had done some airbrushing. I’d taken some classes in auto design back in Detroit. But I had no business background whatsoever. It wasn’t the best start, but I learned pretty quickly.”
When he first opened his doors, Brian focused on vehicle signage and truck painting, and still sees his work from time to time on the streets. He soon realized he needed to expand his offerings, though finding the right equilibrium took some time.
“For the first five years I was all about vehicle graphics,” Brian says. “Eventually, I started to get into other types of signage and design. I brought in a couple of employees, including a designer, and started doing other signs. Over time, I learned to try not to do everything. Now we’re focused on things like environmental graphics and electrical signage. We’re focused on who our client base is, and we’re a full design-and-build company now. We do a lot of signs for other designers and architects. They send us exactly what they want and we engineer it into reality.”
Among Northwest Sign & Design’s biggest products, environmental graphics are not the latest green technology, but rather digital custom wall coverings that reflect the environment the viewer is in, explains Scott Fithian, sales and marketing manager for Northwest Sign & Design. Examples include pictures of vegetables covering the walls of a grocery store produce department, or the balloons and animals on the walls of a children’s hospital.
“A lot of my job is education,” Scott says. “We’ll go on a series of tours with architects; we’ll present and talk about ideas to get architects and designers thinking about signs before it’s too late. Too often, they draw an empty box on their plans as a placeholder for a sign and leave it for later. We talk to them about the sign as a part of the project, an element of the structure that reflects the brand and atmosphere of an individual firm or company. We walk away knowing we’ve educated architects on how it’s done—we don’t expect to walk away with a purchase order.”
Some of Northwest Sign & Design’s most profitable products are the signs it makes for tower cranes, Brian says. These are the construction company signs affixed to the long arms of cranes used in building construction.
“I had this contractor come to me and describe his problem,” Brian says. “Because of weight requirements and regulations, the signs could only be 32 square feet, which is a 4-foot by 8-foot sign. He wanted something larger. We took the problem, did some research and development and figured out how to solve it. We’ve made signs that are 40 feet long and 4 feet tall but still only 32 square feet and meet the weight requirements. We’ve revised the system over and over again; we have it nailed down now.” That system has won Northwest Sign & Design clients all across the country, though it’s certainly not the only reason for the company’s growth.
“Hiring the right people is what really led to growth,” Brian says. “Hiring people from different backgrounds who brought different skills and knowledge enabled us to enter new markets and solve new problems. We stayed at around five to 10 employees for quite a while. Four years ago, we were at eight to 10.” The Northwest Sign & Design team has now grown to 34 employees. “We’ve also doubled our gross revenue every year for the past few years,” he adds, “and we’re on pace to do it again this year.”
Two years ago, the company moved into its current headquarters in Monroe. According to Brian, the business outgrew the office space in a matter of months; he’s now remodeling the office to accommodate the current size of the team. The remodel is leaving the company’s manufacturing shop alone, so production can continue unaffected. That side of the business includes a full metal shop, several welding stations, a paint booth with a fast-bake cycle, a paint mixing station and CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) machines for output of most sign materials.
“Basically everything needed to fabricate custom anything is in our manufacturing shop,” Brian says.
“It’s the design phase that’s the toughest part,” he continues. “Our focus is setting up proper, successful design. What serves one customer best isn’t best for the next. We want to create an appropriate design that’s readable, that draws in the client they’re looking for. The hardest note to hit is getting the best sign for their business that brings in the right people and does the best job for the customer.”
Sign of Quality
Brian backs up his signs with a three-year warranty and maintains a fleet of service trucks loaded with materials to perform on-site repairs for almost any sign. “A three-year warranty is almost unheard of in this business,” Scott says. “It’s usually 90 days or a year. That’s one thing that sets us apart. Another is our people. I know how trendy that sounds, but it’s true. Brian has done an incredible job bringing together a dynamic and experienced team—people like our creative director, Dale McLam. He’s an excellent designer for signage, master planning, branding. It’s really a pleasure to work with a brilliant mind like his, and he makes my job easier.”
Though the company has many far-flung clients, about half of its work is still local to the Puget Sound area, Brian says. Two of the company’s biggest clients are right in its backyard. One is SECO Development, Inc, which is building a 33.2-acre mixed-use development in Renton, Washington, and called on Northwest Sign & Design for all interior and exterior signage. Another is Fortress Development, which built the ambitious Avenue Bellevue, a mixed-use site in Bellevue, Washington.
“Fortress Development may have been the toughest job we ever did,” Brian says. “For their showroom, there were hundreds and hundreds of very complex signs built and installed in a matter of weeks. We had a full team there for two days and managed to knock everything out.”
Northwest Sign & Design has been on a steady upward trajectory of growth, and Brian and Scott both agree the company is poised to continue that growth.
“I see us really getting on the map in the Puget Sound area and nationwide,” Scott says. “We’re expanding our install and contract network throughout the county. We can design, fabricate and ship signage to other shops with install departments. We get a lot of requests for out-of-state installs. In just about every region, we can find and vet a company and trust [our product] will be installed with the utmost quality.”
“I’m pretty excited,” Brian says. “We’re in a place where we’ve worked through a lot of processes and procedures and can really scale up from here. We’ve got the right people in place and there’s lots of work out there for us to pursue as we continue to grow.”