As one enters the state of Colorado from the southern border, a sign appears—presented with a rustic, Western flair—that reads “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” in bold, white block lettering. It hints at the liveliness and active characteristics of the state. It harkens back to opportunity, much like the days of the gold rush or manifest destiny. For sign makers 20 years ago, Colorado represented a maturing market and a chance to establish a successful business. John Dobie, owner of BSC Signs, became aware of that opportunity back in the '90s, literally moving across the world to lay down his roots in Colorado.
“I started my first sign company in Perth, Western Australia in 1992, but I really caught the 'sign bug’ doing mainly sandblasted wooden signs,” Dobie tells. “In 1996, I moved to Denver and worked for Rainbow Signs in Boulder (Colorado) for three years.”
Dobie considers himself lucky to learn under the tutelage of Rainbow Signs owner Randy Armijo, praising Armijo as “a real sign master.” By 1999, Dobie was ready to go out on his own again and started his current business, Broomfield Sign Company (now trading as BSC Signs). At that point, it was time to ramp up business and build a foundation for the future.
In The Beginning
As a young shop, BSC took shape based on what the customer dictated, Dobie says. “The demand for wood signs—popular in the '70s—had diminished; so BSC ended up being a regular custom vinyl shop. Soon customers started asking for electric signs, so after two years, that’s what we did.”
Denver’ population had risen more than 18 percent from 1990 to 2000; cities grew, new communities took shape, and the need for signage increased.
“As the area between Denver and Boulder started to expand, we grew too,” Dobie explains. “Soon we were a big shop—crane trucks and 20 employees.”
The workload broadened as well. Vinyl and screen printed work turned into larger, more intricate projects. BSC went the extra mile to establish itself.
“We developed a reputation for tackling jobs no one else wanted to do,” Dobie says, “and quite frankly, we broke even on a lot of spectacular signs. But, we learned from it and developed a strong reputation during those years.”
Just a few years ago, BSC upgraded its facilities by more than doubling its building size, and the company has set its sights on expanding operations, improving workspace, and training its staff. While making these commitments, BSC focused on promoting a great company culture and stressed the need for teamwork.
“In the process of moving and getting reestablished, we underwent lean manufacturing training in order to become a more efficient operation.” As part of that transition, and because written work orders were becoming obsolete, the company implemented the Casper on the Cloud business management software to process orders.
Manufacturing is key to any hands-on sign shop. BSC takes pride in all of the work it does, but there’s just something about those larger-scale, unique projects that seem to scream for attention. After initially producing mainly vinyl, screen printed, and site signs; BSC moved into doing more flat cut-out letters, sign cabinets, channel letters, and neon signs.
“During that time, we became UL listed, bought our first router table and then finally our first crane truck, an Elliott L-55,” says Dobie.
Above all else, BSC maintains its quality offerings; using only top-end materials on projects and adhering to a higher standard. Dobie believes that true quality exists when the test of time has not minimized or affected the strength of the sign.
“It isn’t about what the sign looks like when it goes outdoors,” says Dobie. “It’s about how it looks two or three years down the road.”
By 2014, the company had enough momentum to start a new division—BSC Custom, Custom Architectural Lighting and Specialties. The next year an Architectural Etched Glass division was created to produce ADA signage and custom glass projects, and ultimately complement the customer architectural group.
“We felt the need to diversify a little, and although we had grown every year, we also wanted to reduce the risk of reduced revenue during economic downturns,” explains Dobie.
Tools and Gadgets
With these departments in place, BSC depended on a number of machines and materials to ensure quality and on-time project completion. Dobie admits that he began purchasing equipment early on, something he may advise against in today’s market.
“Being the tool-junkie that I am, I bought equipment before we needed to,” he confesses, offering up a suggestion for other sign shops to “use sub-contractors until you can clearly demonstrate an economic advantage.”
Nevertheless, Dobie’s strategy worked with his business model, and he explains the function of his equipment:
- For routed signs: “Our two MultiCam router tables stay busy cutting aluminum, acrylic, wood, HDU foam and any non-ferrous materials.”
- For channel letters: “After hand-bending letters for years, and after careful due diligence, we purchased a CLN Channel Bender which we love.”
- For digital printing: “Primarily for our electric sign needs, we have a 54-inch Roland XC-540 SolJet printer, and a laminator.”
- For glass etching: “We can do etched signs up to six foot by 12-foot sheets on our Fratelli Pezza (Italy) automatic blast machine, with a 25 horsepower screw compressor.”
- For vinyl applications: “We use mainly 3M vinyl products for cut and printed vinyl.”
Dobie summarizes his stance on machine and material investments this way: “It is a proven fact that the cost of automation (factoring in a monthly payment) will typically outperform the cost of manual labor. Just be honest and realistic with your expected workload or you’ll end up with an expensive machine sitting around becoming obsolete while technology quickly changes.”
Elements of Design
Having the right equipment for a job certainly makes things run more smoothly from a sign fabrication standpoint. However, there are still elements that need to be carefully evaluated in order to create an effective sign. Design is one of those items that must be represented accurately to properly manufacture a large-scale sign.
“We work with professional designers from concept to completion,” says Dobie. “Our industrial designers are capable of presenting 3-D design plans, which is very helpful when you can rotate a fully rendered design on the screen.”
Working with larger parties such as architects, developers, contractors and franchises, BSC must typically adhere to specific guidelines and sign codes. The company even maintains a $5 million liability insurance policy which grants BSC access to work in all Colorado shopping centers.
“In Colorado, every town has its own sign code and in many cases multiple codes, so we are working with about 100 codes on a daily basis,” says Dobie, also noting that his company is licensed in nearly 70 Colorado municipalities and employs a full-time permitting technician. “We do a lot of work on the front end to make sure a sign can be permitted before designing a sign that won’t pass code.”
By implementing a well-conceived plan from start to finish, BSC is typically able to provide its customers with assurances such as completing a job in one trip and a goal of fulfilling sign repairs in 72 hours or less.
40 West Project
In the western suburbs of Denver, there sits a quaint and historic art district—40 West—which is home to many exhibitions and tours. The district was in need of a revamp to build on its cultural significance to the area, but to also attract new visitors to its site.
“Or sales rep had been in communication about the 40 West project for a long while,” explains Dustin Monroe, division manager, BSC Custom. “We secured the job without going to bid by providing excellent design iterations that gained their confidence in using us as their sole sign contractor.”
Having great knowledge of the area and being able to provide an all-encompassing plan for the customer, BSC brought expertise to the table that proved invaluable to the 40 West project.
“They came to us with a design that was produced by a local design firm we used as a base for the final design,” says Monroe. “So I worked with them to develop something that really fit with what they wanted to represent for the district."
The final agreed-on style is mainly contemporary, but with hints of the old eclectic style that made the original area's location on Colfax Avenue so attractive. And because the customer’s budget was specifically set, BSC was able to use less expensive, standard sign fabrication methods even when building in unique shapes.
“The large gateways are a small portion of the overall development of the 40 West Arts District,” says Monroe, “so we have a shoo-in for the wayfinding package, light rail and RTD kiosks, as well some other architectural elements like benches, trash cans, and bike racks that complete the district.”
Management and the Market
The 40 West project, along with a number of others in close proximity, might involve too much for some shops to handle. But organizationally, BSC is on a level of superstardom. Dobie keeps close tabs on his timeline to maintain an accurate schedule for each job.
“As the owner and general manager, I’m constantly looking at the crystal ball,” he quips.
Forecasting current and future man-power needs is a necessary step for planning purposes. It’s a practice he would recommend to other shops trying to manage a full plate of work.
“We can convert our estimated labor into days, weeks and months and can predict fairly accurately when we have more work than people,” he explains. With this process, BSC can manage not only its time more efficiently but also more closely control its pricing model. Using tablets to record time and materials during the fabrication and installation periods, costs can be tabulated in real time.
"As we get better at monitoring actual versus estimated labor and materials, our quotes become more accurate,” describes Dobie. “This means that when our customers tell us they can get it for 20 percent less, we can say ‘Okay, good luck.’ And we can say it with confidence.”
With a management system in place, BSC accurately forecasts its jobs while also controlling and enhancing quality, which includes top-level service and on-time delivery.
“This enables us to gently advise our customers to the best solution for a given budget,” says Dobie. And, being a full-service sign and lighting shop, people appreciate not having to go to several companies for their signage needs.”