Designing for the Future
East Coast Sign and Design | Lewiston, Maine
We talked with Tim about how they started, what it takes to grow a sign business, and what new directions he sees his business taking as the economy opens up again.
Tell us about your transition from lumber salesman to sign shop owner.
Tim LaFrance: I enjoyed being a lumber salesman, but I never thought I’d be there forever. During my shifts, I would see the sign guy coming in every single day. I’ve been an artist all my life, and I asked him, “How do you make those vinyl signs? On a cut machine?” He said, “Oh yeah, there’s a new machine – I’ll bring you a trade magazine to look at.”
“The quality of the VG2’s print is incredible – it prints so realistically you’d swear it was 3D.”Well, he showed me the magazine and I did my homework. A few months later, I asked my boss, “What if I got a vinyl cutter machine and my wife made the signs to tag the lumber?” That was our first account.
We started East Coast Sign & Design in 1994 out of our basement. We took out a $5,000 loan, and the very first thing we bought was a 24-inch Roland DG cutter.
Give us a sense of your business today.
Now, our business is located on the outskirts of town, about three miles from where we first started. The actual shop, a 2,600 square-foot facility that’s attached to our home, includes a garage for vehicle graphics. Our youngest daughter, Samantha Minnehan, has joined us, and I hope one day she will take over the business.
What production equipment do you rely on these days?
Our production is based around Roland DG printers. About 15 years ago, we bought a used SOLJET XC-540. That printer is 20 years old and still works like a charm.
I’ve always trusted Roland DG equipment, so when it was time for a new printer, we chose a TrueVIS VG2-640 with orange and light black inks. The quality of the VG2’s print is incredible – it prints so realistically you’d swear it was 3D. The quick drying aspect is also really helpful.
I notice your website highlights the benefits of professional signage. How important is quality to your customers?
We have about 64,000 people in the area, and there are about six sign companies nearby. We’ve always tried to emphasize quality design and print as ways to set our work apart. The VG2’s amazing color prints are helping us keep that promise.
We try to really help our clients stand out. I had one shop owner that kept sending me images of the graphics her various competitors were using, which were mostly small designs on white vans. Although I could easily create a similar design, it wouldn’t be memorable for her potential clients. I was able to convince her to go big, and she’s really happy that she did.
My daughter and I are both designers –we’re a good combination. I’ve been doing it for so long that people know my style and come to me for my designs. My daughter’s style is completely different from mine and clients love her work too. It’s great to be able to offer a range of design options backed by consistent, high-quality print.
What types of graphics and signage do you produce?
We design, produce and install a lot of vehicle graphics for local service businesses. We also produce vehicle graphics for the police and sheriff’s department and for individuals who are looking to personalize their cars, trailers, snowmobiles and golf carts.
We design and produce interior signage and banners for our local hospitals, as well as backlit signs for restaurants and retail establishments. We run a ton of full-color 4’ x 8’ signs for the high school and for contractors. We also do a lot of wall and window graphics for salons, cannabis dispensaries, and other businesses in town. We print tons of labels, decals, and other branding items, including t-shirts.
How did you get into producing arena graphics?
I’ve always been a hockey player, so I’m naturally interested in designing and producing arena graphics. We have a large arena nearby that hosts semi-pro NHL teams. All the big names in hockey have played through here. I went to meet the new owners one day and won the business for our local arena and for other arenas that are managed by the same company. We do all the dasher board graphics, in-ice logos, stair riser graphics and sponsor signage throughout these facilities. We even wrap the Zambonis. Ice arenas are a specialty production workflow because the conditions are so wet and rough. It helps that the TR2 Inks we use with our VG2 printer/cutter are bright and durable.
Our local arena was resold recently, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to retain that business. Even if we’re not able to do so, we still serve other arenas around the country.
What were the effects of the pandemic on your business?
Our business was considered essential, so we have been able to remain open during the pandemic. We produced some safety signage for our clients. Unfortunately, COVID severely affected our arena business, and I was forced to lay off my daughter. We made our showroom smaller, so that only two people could be in it at a time. We were also careful to follow all the other safety protocols.
One thing that helped our business survive during this tough period was that we were able to wrap a lot of new vehicles. Shop owners and individuals would buy whatever vehicles they could, then bring them to us to make them the right colors. We could easily match their requested shades with the expanded color gamut on the VG2. That helped us make up for some of the lost revenue during the shutdown.
Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of new businesses starting up in town – smaller ones like cannabis dispensaries and companies that sell nutrition supplements and shakes. They all need logos and signage, and we’ve been busy designing, printing and installing for them.
What do you see for the future of East Coast Sign & Design?
In a few years, I’m looking at turning the shop over to my daughter. She’s a great designer in her own right and knows every aspect of the business. We feel confident that our new Roland DG TrueVIS VG2 printer/cutter will last, just like our SOLJET has, and that she’ll be able to continue to produce high-quality prints for our clients.
We have also been working on our social media presence and posting time lapse project videos. Those videos get a lot of traction and really help demonstrate the quality of our work. Recently we have been getting more requests for quotes and orders through our website for print-and-ship items. Going forward, I want to continue to grow that part of our business.