Interview With: Shane Drew, Owner
How did you get into the sign business?
It’s a very long story, but I’ll give you the shortened version.
My background is in computer sales, and the late ‘80s I was getting restless. My sales specialty was graphic design software (anyone remember the Amiga 500/1000?) and I had won several sales awards but was getting bored. I worked in the family computer business and we were all pretty sick of the industry by the early ‘90s. Then, two of our largest clients both went broke owing us a small fortune, and we decided enough was enough. We sold out to a competitor.
One of our regular clients was a sign shop at the time and we were told they were going broke. Through no other reason than poor money management and very poor work ethic. They had some really good contracts.
As the sign business was fully computerised, and I had a good working knowledge of all the cutters and computers, my sister and father were familiar with their accounting systems, and we even knew some of the staff personally, we made an offer to take over the running of the business in a management role.
All went well for a few weeks until we found out the work ethic of some of the staff was so poor, they were actually stealing our stock to do work for themselves on the weekends. Even the previous owner was caught with his hand in the till.
So we sacked just about everyone and found ourselves in a very vulnerable position. A sign shop with some big contracts, and not a lot of experience.
Fortunately we had two really good young guys who stepped up to the plate and gave me a crash course in application. Our primary income was from the tourism sector, which meant a lot of night work. So, I’d work the night shift learning the ‘trade‘, and worked days doing sales.
I did that for four years. It was a really good grounding in the business because I learned the hard way, but from the ground up.
My father got ill in ’96, and we sold the assets in the business to another sign shop, and I went out on my own, working from home.
My father is now 73, and doesn’t enjoy good health, but he and my 71 yo mum work with me as offsiders, and my wife and sister help with my accounting and office work on weekends.
Fortunately we are a very close family.
What types of work do you do?
I’ve always basically stayed in the tourism sector, mostly transport signage. I have a national contract for one of Australia’s best and largest coach companies, and I also have a contract for one of Queensland’s biggest shuttle bus companies. I am also contracted to reproduce original decals for machines associated in the mining industry, mainly for machines that have been refurbished.
Another facet of my business is that I am both a subcontract wide format print supplier to the industry, and a subcontract fitter to the industry. I also volunteer my time to teach those new to the industry about product selection, quoting and installation techniques. I’m also a regular on uksignboards.com.
What is your favorite kind of sign work? Why?
That is a hard question to be honest. I love what I do. But if I have a choice of what I’d rather do, its anything to do with bus or truck signage, in the digital print realm.
I love big signage. Building up to a big picture and standing back looking at the finished result is very satisfying for me.
What are your biggest challenges in the sign business, day to day?
Cash Flow is my number one challenge. Being essentially a one band, the time it takes quoting – designing – producing then fitting causes huge highs and lows in my income stream.
Plus, wholesalers look for loyalty from you, but rarely display any loyalty if you exceed your credit terms.
Do you have any funny customer stories?
My father and I have worked together for over 35 years. We have an excellent relationship, and share a lot of things in common. We both have for instance, a similar sense of humour, and we both play off each other really well. Its fair to say we laugh most days.
This also extends to our clients and sales reps. Rarely a job is done onsite without us having a laugh about something with the client. Some clients and most sales reps will even bring morning tea and we’ll sit down and have coffee and cake, as well as a good chat. Having a good laugh is pretty common too.
Several years ago, one of my opposition targeted my client base, trying to undermine my contracts based on price. My relationship with most of my clients is that when one of my opposition call around trying to get their business, they’ll usually drop me an email advising me who and when they called.
This one day, the operations manager was approached by this one particular sign shop asking if he could quote on getting their business.
The Manger said no, they where happy with ‘Shane and his dad‘, and had no intention to change.
The signie asked what ’shane’ had that he didn’t offer.
The manager looked at the guy and said, ‘when you supply an old guy like shanes dad, with a son like shane, that enjoy a good laugh like they do, I might talk to you, but until you come up with a better combination, you may as well leave now’
Then he rang me and related the whole experience.
The signie was livid by all accounts, and said that he’d have the last laugh when he sent be bankrupt.
That really upset the manager, so he called their security and had the signie thrown off the site.
I thought that was really funny!
What’s your favorite thing about the sign business?
People. I’ve still got most of my clients from ‘92. I work hard to maintain good relationships, and as a result I am pleased to call most of my long term clients friends, as well as clients.
Your least favorite?
My least favourite is the dishonesty in the industry. It seems some people don’t see our industry as a long term prospect, or see it as a get rich quick ideal. Here in Australia, anyone can buy a cheap sign system and call themselves a sign writer.
I have too much respect for the traditional signwriters, so refer to myself as a sign maker. I have been an advocate for application licenses by the sign industry in recent years. 3M in Australia have gone down that path with real training and real testing, not a marketing exercise as most of the other suppliers offer. I sat my exam and passed this month. I’m now a Certified ‘Silver’ 3M applicator in Australia and New Zealand.
What equipment / software / materials do you work with every day that you couldn’t live without?
I have a few items that make my life easier. My Ezytaper is, for a small business like mine, a must. (I hear Ezytaper.net are going to be displaying at the 2010 Orlando Sign Show too). Its probably the best thing to come out of Australia since the Hills Hoist.
Another is my Aquaseal Liquid laminator. For my wholesale business, I’d be lost without it.
My Techink Bulk Solvent inks make my two Roland 540’s much more competitive against my opposition using solvent inks with results in CMYKOG far better than the previous eco sol inks or settings.
Last, but not least is the Estimate software. Since enlisting the software to keep track of my quotes and pricing, it is one thing less I have to worry about in my daily operation.
How do you use EstiMate on a day to day basis?
I use it for everything. I wish it had a purchase order module though.
With the wholesale business, I offer a % discount on every job produced for my sign shop clients. Usually they just quote their own clients my retail price, and know that their margin will be the discount I’ve offered them. As my prices are pretty much the industry’s going rate, they know that their client is probably being quoted a similar price, so are happy to use my prices as a guide. They all know I’m using a specialist quoting system, so that my prices will always be consistent.
What impact has it had on your operation?
I’ve been using it for a number of years now. One thing it has allowed me to do very easily, is to see what jobs are not worth doing. You can still do the job of course, but you have a clearer understanding why you are not making money on some jobs.
My accountant tells me that my margins have been much more consistent since I’ve gone from my ‘brain working out the pricing’ to the computer setting the standard.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the sign business?
Sit down and do your homework. Understand the importance of margins as opposed to turnover, and don’t try and win every job. Frankly, if you win every job, you are obviously too cheap. If you get a reputation for being cheap, you’ll be pigeon holed and may miss out on a lucrative job if it comes along. You’ll attract a lot of time wasters too.
So often new shops go into a market thinking the cheapest price will automatically get the most business. But, people will pay more if they see value for money, and the cheapest way to provide value is to supply an exceptional service. Corporate clients understand that service is a value added item. The better the service, the more they will likely pay. The more lucrative jobs will usually go to the company that can impress, and the first impression is usually service related.
If you wanted to be known in the industry for one thing, what would that be?
Honesty and integrity. I’m not motivated or driven by money or wealth, but I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy meeting and helping people, and hopefully that will be my legacy.
Where do you want your business to be in one year? Five?
In the next year or two I’ll still be doing what I do I guess. In 5 years both my kids would have left school and will hopefully be working with me, which is something I really look forward too.
If they choose another career path before then, who knows, I’ll probably look at taking it easier and cut back my workload to 5 days a week – LOL!
What is the primary reason a customer should do business with your sign shop?
I’d like to think it is the personal service I offer. Easily 95% of my business is by referals, so I am always keen to do the right thing by the referer and be sure that I’m worthy of the recommendation. Not as easy as it sounds, but its cheaper than advertising.
Tell us something personal about yourself – your hobbies, interests?
Apart from being a work-a-holic?
I enjoy writing and write my own company newsletter every month. Been doing that since 2002. Started out as a kind of stress therapy and I’ve not stopped.
I also write for one of Australia’s premier wide format online printing publications as a contributor. I write about anything, but usually industry related.
I am also a keen photographer, and my teenage son and I have some quality time together spending a day at one of the airports photographing planes.
I have a D200 and a D70, and I’m one of those photographers that takes 1000 shots and might only like 2 shots in total. It drives my wife nuts!!! She takes our teenage daughter shopping on those days. She reckons its less stressful. (My hobby is a lot cheaper though!!)
I used to have my own dark room, which was my therapy in the computer industry days, but with the advent of digital photography, the darkroom was dismantled and sold.
I’m more a traditionalist photographer in that I don’t manipulate my photos with software usually. I’m hopeless at photoshop, as I’ve used Corel Draw all my sign making life, so I try and wait for the right moment to take a shot. (that really annoys my wife too LOL)
We go to New Zealand every couple of years for a 2 week vacation because on the south island, around every corner is a postcard view, and a photographers dream. Even if you do have someone in the background saying… ‘have you taken the shot yet?’
A Gallery of Work By Drew’s Sign It (click to enlarge)
Drew’s Sign It Pty Ltd.
4 William Street
Queensland 4133 Australia
+617 3805 1166
I’m not motivated or driven by money or wealth, but I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy meeting and helping people, and hopefully that will be my legacy.