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In His Blood

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John Yarger is the third-generation president and CEO of North American Signs (South Bend, IN), as well as a member of Signs of the Times’ Editorial Advisory Board.

Was it your father who owned the business before you?
My dad inherited management of [the business] when my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack – my dad was 21, my uncle was 18. My dad ran the business for several years, and then my uncle joined him after he  got through college and some other  work experience. The two of them ran it together for 30 to 35 years.

How did you get involved in the family business?
I originally got involved working summers when I was in high school and college. It was like an internship. Welding, installation, pulling faces on a forming machine, accounting, project management, sales and collections – I had a different assignment each summer. I did that for about seven summers.

Any changes that you are particularly proud of during your tenure running the company?
When my dad and my uncle ran the business, there wasn’t much middle management. I really had to build a management structure; I couldn’t do what they were both doing. … There are a lot of people who had to make the transfer to me, including people I worked with when I was in high school and college – a few of whom said they’d never work for me, and ended up working for me. [Laughs].

How do you get past issues like that,  or something like an age gap?
I’m Gen X and still do manage a fair  number of Baby Boomers; it’s building rapport and trust over time, being that solid person who does what he says he’s going to do. I had one person who had been in a key position and had their vacations interrupted every so often because there was no backup for them. When I came in, I became one of their backups. A big job came in, and they’re like, ‘Ugh, my vacation’s ruined again.’ I said, ‘No, it’s not. I granted your vacation. I’m your backup and will handle this.’ They’re like, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. Have a great time. I may need to call and ask you some questions, but it’s my job to back you up as your manager.’ When you do things like that, people’s attitudes toward you come around pretty quickly.

There’s a younger generation of signmakers entering the industry and many come from non-signage backgrounds.
It’s amazing the opportunities they see that some of us in a traditional sign company – or who have come through the traditional channels – don’t see, and have often neglected. I always maintain that the sign industry is so diverse; there are so many different entry points, that somebody with an innovative idea can find a niche, even if it’s a small niche.

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What interests do you hold outside of the day-to-day sign industry?
My dad was very involved with code issues, working with planners and researchers to improve our understanding of how signs operate in our society. I’ve continued that tradition with the Sign Research Foundation. I’ve been involved for over 20 years with a local scholarship foundation. We give about $250,000 in about 110 scholarships each year to college students. We provide mentors for the students as well, so I have two to three students each year who I’m in contact with and make sure they’re getting through their college okay. Indiana has a big brain drain, so anything we can do to bring students back and keep them in contact with opportunities in this area is really important for us as we compete with other communities for future labor. I’m also president of our county parks foundation.

Doesn’t sound like you have much time for hobbies.
I’m still involved with my family. I have a son who is in graduate school  and a daughter who is in high school. And a wife who actually likes to see me at home occasionally. [Laughs].

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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