National Sign Group owner and president Mark Stever wraps himself up with fibre-optics cable at the Kitchener company's offices.
Born and raised in Kitchener, Stever
is making a name for himself by putting the names of other companies in bright lights.Over the past year his
company has designed and installed nine signs for retailers in "the Big Apple," including two of the big, flashy variety that glow nightly in New York City's legendary Times Square. Stever
, 37, launched National Sign and Awning in 1995 and changed the name to National Sign Group last month.In the beginning, he
goal was to cash in on the rapid growth of franchise retailing across southern Ontario.
But now, employing a take-no-prisoners attitude at trade shows across North America, the little Kitchener company is trying to develop a much larger continent-wide profile.
"Our sales have doubled every year, and this year we're on target for $5 million in sales," Stever
About 65 per cent of his
business comes from the United States, thanks largely to the undervalued Canadian dollar.
"A $1-million sale in the U.S. is the same as a $1.5-million sale in Canada," says Stever
, explaining why he
can bid so successfully for U.S. work.
"At trade shows, we call ourselves the home of the 65-cent dollar," he
says."We make our margins based on the exchange."
And the push south continues.
"People have to look at all their opportunities," Stever
says."And there are plenty of opportunities in the U.S. People have to look beyond their own little area."
customers is San Francisco-based Chevron
supplies the signs for the oil company's lubricants division -- a $1-million-a-year deal that was arranged thanks to a Chevron dealer in Western Canada who recommended National Sign
head office. Stever
was still a university student -- studying economics and marketing -- when he
first business."I needed a little cash," he
Markrite Display Systems sold price tags, point-of-purchase displays and logo shopping bags. From time to time, however, Stever was asked about signage, so he branched out and became a partner in Orillia-based Voros Signs, which among others things, produced signs for the now closed Lulu's nightclub in Kitchener. Stever later joined Accent Sign and Awning in Waterloo as a salesman, but quit six years ago.He
was intent on developing his
own company. His
first customer was M&M Meat Shops.It was followed by Goodlife Fitness Centers
, 2001 Audio Video, First Choice Haircutters, Travel Lodge and Williams Coffee Pubs.
Also among the early customers was HMV Record Stores.When HMV wanted to open a store in the newly re-invigorated Times Square in New York City, it turned to National Sign
to do the job. Stever's
team went to work devising the biggest, most glittering sign it could.
"In Kitchener, there's a maximum amount of light, animation and size you can put in a sign," observes Stever
The two Times Square signs, Stever
admits, are the company's pride and joy.A large photo display of the two accompanies National's
sales people to every trade show.
The signs were conceived and designed in Kitchener, but owing to New York City's union labour regulations the structural and electrical work were done by shops in New York.But Stever's
crew was there to supervise.
Good relations with the unions will assure National Sign
of more New York work, Stever
says.And there will be plenty of that, particularly in Times Square, he
"I think there's another four good years of construction in Times Square," says Stever
, who says he's
in the running for jobs with two prestigious New York City stores, Saks Fifth Avenue and Cartier jewelers.
And then . . .
"Las Vegas is my next goal," says Stever
employs 16, but Stever
expects to add some sales people, designers and project managers over the next couple of months.
"We want to quickly expand," he
says."Our plan is to expand through sales and through acquisitions of other companies that are working in the franchise market.They may be in Canada or the United States, but they will be companies that are working in our focus market."
And then, says Stever
, the company will go public and offer shares to investors."Our goal is to make our IPO (initial public offering) in two years." Stever
wife, Joanne, are the majority owners of National Sign
.George Voisin, a Kitchener lawyer and longtime friend of Stever, is a minority shareholder.
"This business could not have taken off without George," says Stever
worked for the Voisin family when he
was a teenager, doing clean-up work at the family-owned plazas -- a relationship he
"Frank Voisin (George's father) taught me some good values of business, the simple things, the fundamental values," he
These days, Stever
spends two or three days a week travelling to meet customers and potential customers.It's a vital part of doing business, he
"It's very important to be in their faces at their offices," he
...Instead, it's fibre-optics cable that will be putting the fire in the signs that beckon us into stores and restaurants, says Mark Stever of National Sign Group in Kitchener.
"Fibre optics costs 30 per cent more to install, but after that the long-term savings begin," Stever
says."Two or three years down the road, people are glad they spent the extra money up front."
A neon sign, says Stever
, needs about 15,000 volts to get it going.Fibre optic cable can be fired up with a much less expensive 120-volt light bulb.
And while neon sign maintenance can be difficult and expensive, the opposite is true of fibre optics signs, which can even go under water.
Because neon lighting carries a powerful charge, it's heavily regulated.In Canada, neon signs have to be at least seven feet from the ground, Stever
Potential customers seem attracted to the bendable fibre-optics cables.
"It's like flypaper at a trade show," Stever