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Lessons Learned from COVID

Signs of the Times’ Brain Squad shares insights, innovations and other observations.




IT HAS BEEN said that the work of the world is largely done by ordinary people, but when these ordinary people strive to consistently do the right thing, they will produce extraordinary results,” wrote Stephanie McEwen of SignCraft Solutions (Wake Forest, NC), in response to our recent Brain Squad survey asking members to share a paragraph or so on one or more things they have learned about their sign business, their employees, customers, or anything else related to the pandemic. From the value of employees to the importance of cross-training and more, our “Squad” delivered some “extraordinary results.”

The Value of Great Employees

1. We learned that our company and employees are extremely resilient. We were able to pivot our business and adjust our daily processes and procedures through the COVID-19 pandemic as well as educate all but 4-5 of our 100+ employees through the ISA Online Learning portal. We are coming out of the pandemic stronger and more efficient; we were even able to add 2-3 additional national customers to our roster. — Brad Turpin, Jr., Ruggles Sign, Versailles, KY

2. Our business is only as strong as our employees. They have more power than ever and their decisions really impact the workflow of the shop… We have great employees. — Chad Lawson, Sign Pro of Skagit Valley, Mount Vernon, WA

3. I have been impressed by how my staff took the pandemic seriously. From washing doorknobs while they come in every day to wearing masks when needed. — Geoff Orlick, Quality Designs Ltd., Campbell River, BC, Canada

4. We are a resilient people. If we take care of our employees, we can get through anything! — Mary Kohler, The H and H Group, Lancaster, PA

Stay Safe

5. Without good health, other problems pale in importance. Family [is] most important. Protecting yourself and others is just common sense. — Larry Mitchell, SignChef, El Dorado Hills, CA

Some Employees (and Customers) May Disappoint

6. Most of our employees are concerned about the company; others are only concerned with how to collect instead of working and will do anything to avoid coming back. — Robert Burke, Burke Enterprise, Oakdale, CT

7. I do a lot of work for national sign companies and their customers are national corporations. The sign companies are all now getting to be quite corporate and do not give a darn about their subs. We had a COVID scare (luckily no one was infected) and had to close for a few days for testing. One of my oldest clients still expected us to go out to do a survey, which they wanted done for free, as well. When I refused, they said it still had to be done and I’d have to pay for someone else to do it. I refused, told them to forget the whole job and it nearly ended the relationship. They relented after a struggle, but it’s really changed how I look at these large customers. From now on, it’s just a business relationship, no matter how long they’ve been a client. — Rocco Gaskins, Abco Signs, Pennsauken, NJ

Be Proactive and Flexible

8. Look ahead and seek out pivot points. I was able to purchase large quantities of clear acrylic in anticipation of germ-screen opportunities. We secured hundreds of sheets when everyone else was out for many months. We marketed these items and sold a lot of them. We also purchased several dozen rolls of vinyl and lam so we could keep up with demand for COVID-related signage and decals. Everyone was running out; we were able to keep up with our orders. We also designed and engineered portable triage rooms made from aluminum and ACM for [hospitalized] COVID-patient isolation. One of our supplier’s outside sales reps recently told me that he has 25% fewer customers this year vs. last year. Instead of losing, we saw opportunity and pounced. Of course, we lost some of our regular business due to the virus, but were able to fill the void by forward thinking. — Paul Lachapelle, Signs Plus, Bellingham, WA

9. The lesson we learned was from the 2008 recession and that is to be proactive with everything. That goes for the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. Treat every problem in the same manner and you will usually come out on top. Employee morale was the hardest thing to manage. — John Johnson, A-Plus Signs, Fresno, CA

10. Strengthen banking relationships with multiple banks when times are good. — Alan Olinger, Houston Sign Company, Houston

11. Don’t rest on one revenue stream; always be looking for new opportunities. — Joe Gibson, Ramsay Signs, Portland, OR

12. Be ready to pivot at the blink of an eye. Pay off your debt. Always have reserves. — Jeremy Vanderkraats, Signs by Van, Salinas, CA

13. Be flexible, open-minded, nimble and able to shift quickly. Don’t be too focused on one area [and maintain] the ability to pivot quickly. Don’t ever give up and always work hard. — Derek Atchley, Atchley Graphics, Columbus, OH

14. Company-wide requests and mandates are necessary at times, but having individual conversations, especially during a very stressful event such as a pandemic, is much more beneficial to a business. You can’t always make everyone happy, but making an attempt to do so relieves stress for many. — Stephen Russ, Ortwein Sign Co., Chattanooga, TN

The Importance of Cross-Training

15. COVID taught me to diversify and train. One of my staff members caught COVID and was out for a month, so cross-training was a necessity. It also made me take a deeper dive into my finances and spending. — Earl Walker, Image360 Tucker, Tucker, GA

16. COVID has taught us that cross-training is a key component to have in place when things go bad. Most of our employees were trained well enough to work in two or three different areas of our business, so when people were out sick we were still able to operate. We have now ramped up training efforts to make everyone even more efficient at doing different jobs in our business. — Melvin La Pan, Fastsigns of Augusta, Augusta, GA

We Can Work Remotely

17. Two key lessons learned at our busy sign company through the fun “COVID Times” were the importance of internal technology and strong company culture. We were fortunate to have transitioned to a complete cloud-based platform (Office 365) for our email, calendars and communications about 18 months prior to COVID, and the additional platform of Microsoft Teams was a critical element in our success as an essential business operating in a remote work environment. Our sales team held morning meetings together from 10+ cities. Our typical morning production meetings were held with production staff on large screens with office staff remote. We moved our organization into an entire new era of technology. In business over 20+ years, we have always focused on building a team first … and a business second … and the resiliency, dedication, focus and true caring nature of our valuable team members couldn’t have made me more proud of the company culture we have built. Much like the tough recession we felt here in Detroit in 2008, we were pleasantly reminded of the importance of developing a strong company culture when faced with the uncertainties of COVID. — Bob Chapa, Signarama Troy | Metro Detroit, Troy, MI

18. Given the lockdown measures imposed in California, we learned that we can effectively function by [having] each employee working from home. — Skip Moore, Bill Moore & Associates Graphics, San Rafael, CA

19. Being open to change is part of the growing process. An example of that is remote work. We allowed our team to work from home when it was necessary. Going forward, while it may not be standard practice, we will be open to the idea if needed. — Stuart Stein, ESCO Mfg dba Stein Signs, Watertown, SD

Give Back to the Community
20. We made 18 x 24-in. heart[shaped] thank you signs and gave them to anyone who wanted them. [When] people asked how much they were, we asked them to make a donation to the local food bank. Several thousand dollars were donated. Word got around and we got lots of positive PR. A print/copy/sign business in town was selling them; we just felt [it would be] wrong doing that. — John Miller, Signs by Autografix, Branford, CT

Be Wary of Government Intervention

21. Our customers and team members are determined and resilient. Private citizens and small business owners need to band together and demand that our state legislatures pass laws severely restricting the power of governors to make “emergency” edicts. Most governors showed that they are power-hungry fools with the ability to destroy their economies and ruin the lives of their citizens by scaremongering. — Vince Cvijanovic, Graphic Components, Greensboro, NC

22. Power equals corruption. — Jeffrey Cross, Cross Signs, Seminole, FL

Keep On Keepin’ On

23. In the words of the great coach Jimmy Valvano, “Never give up!” The signage industry is essential and helps fuel the local economy. In our case, healthcare and food service are … big part[s] of our work. Businesses count on us to be innovative and provide solutions for their challenges… We didn’t chase after the gimmicky stuff or slash our prices in 2020; we stayed the course, worked harder and longer, got creative and gave our customers our very best. Last year this strategy paid off for ourselves and our customers. — Stephanie McEwen, SignCraft Solutions, Wake Forest, NC

24. Take it one day at a time in a crisis. — Gwen Snow, Innovative Sign Systems, Vista, CA

25. It reinforced what our niche really was. Focus on what you do best, especially if you’re one of a few that can offer a particular service or product. — Gary Gower, Jr., G&L’s Sign Factory, Bethlehem, PA

26. We are able to get past all the rhetoric and get some work done. — Brett Jeltema, Fresh Coast Signs and Graphics, Spring Lake, MI

27. During the shutdown here in Florida, which was probably less time than most other states’ shutdown, we did not lose too much revenue. We found that many clients took advantage of the time they were down to wrap their vehicles. We actually saw an uptick in business from contractors who were expanding their fleet due to increased revenue they were experiencing from people who were taking the time they were working from home to do home-improvement projects. The government stimulus checks helped our business in that we had an increase in clients with personal vehicles who were using the money to make improvements to them. I realized during the mandatory state quarantine which of my employees were carrying their weight and which were not. We made personnel changes after the quarantine. Our sales have been steadily rising, even through the pandemic. — Catherine Bacot, Wraps For Less, Orlando, FL

28. What I learned, as a salesperson, is to never give up. I kept in constant contact with my clients, even though they weren’t spending money. I wanted them to know that I was available to them if they needed anything. Now that everything is opening back up and my clients are spending their marketing budgets again, I have been the first they have been reaching out to. — Becky Duke, AP Corp, Sykesville, MD

The Unexpected

29. People handle events very differently and have diverse tolerances of risk. While many were scared to leave the house, many others relished the time and traveled. Some of the best trips of my life were during COVID. No traffic, quiet airports, empty planes. I enjoyed seeing the country! — Christopher Meinsen, Perspective1, Tampa, FL


30. Everything is a challenge. — Doug Bray, Alpine Sign, Dallastown, PA




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