Blast from the Past
Mike Thomas is the general manager of Valley Sign (Orting, WA).
What was your entry to Valley Sign?
I started here in 2011. I had worked in retail management for about eight years prior to that. Valley Sign was started by my sister (Debbie McFarland) and brother-in-law (Joe Knowles) in the early 1980’s. I had known for many years that they were looking for someone to take over so they could retire.
The shop’s specialty is sandblasted wood signage. Why?
Back in the late ’70s/early ’80s, my sister and brother-in-law were a part of a company that made sandblasted wood golf course tee signs. They would go to golf courses and offer these tee signs for free, but in exchange they reserved the right to have an advertising panel at the bottom of the sign. They would go out to local businesses and have people pay for ad space on that sign. That’s how they made their money.
Someone bought out the company, and my sister and brother-in-law didn’t want to continue with that company. As part of their payout, they asked for the sandblasting equipment so they could start their own signshop. They started getting a lot requests asking, ‘Hey, you make these really cool wood, sandblasted signs for golf courses. Can you do a sign for my housing development? Can you make a sign for my business? Can you make a sign for my house?’ They saw the need to make these kinds of signs for people other than golf courses. That’s how the business started. I believe the business’ official start date was in 1984.
Within the next couple of years, they started getting requests from other signshops, asking them to do this kind of other work on a wholesale level. For the last 35 years, the majority of our work has been wholesale work for other signshops.
It’s funny how that works out. Sometimes you need the competition.
Right. My brother-in-law has always viewed competition as a good thing, not a negative thing. There’s plenty of work out there for everybody. You can gain a lot of knowledge and insight by partnering with other shops instead of viewing them as an enemy.
You’re proud of the wood that you use for the sandblasted signage.
One of the things I feel sets us apart rather significantly from anyone else that makes sandblasted wood signs is that we get all of our wood from Alaska. It’s probably the best cedar anywhere you can find on the planet. We only use vertical grain old growth western red cedar. When I see pictures of signs that other shops have created, I can always see the inferior quality of the wood they are using because typically they’re just going to their local lumber distributor and buying random lengths of cedar. We actually get ahold of the logging companies in Alaska and tell them, ‘The next time you come across some really good quality old growth western red cedar, call us.’ We’re able to buy the best quality wood at the same price that other people buy lower quality wood because we go directly to the mills and logging companies.
How did the shop discover that western red cedar was the best?
Back when the business started, they were using redwood. As time went on, redwood become much more expensive and harder to find. Probably somewhere in late ’80s/early ’90s, my brother-in-law realized that in order to survive and to keep prices low, he had to find a wood that was a suitable substitute. He used to work as a logger in the ’70s, so his knowledge of the logging industry helped him know what would make the next best substrate.
What’s the most important thing for a small business when it comes to marketing?
Focusing on customer service and the quality of your product. There’ve been quite a few times where we find ourselves going way above and beyond what any other company would do to satisfy our customers. I can remember when we had made some signs and shipped them to California. There was an issue with one of the signs. The owner happened to be on vacation in California, so I called him up and he stopped his vacation, drove four hours to the signshop, picked the signs up, drove them back to his vacation home, made repairs to the sign, then drove them back to the customer. I don’t know of any other shops that would have gone to those lengths.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.