Profile: Paul Finn

Waterford, Ireland


Posted on Monday, October 31st, 2016

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Shop name:
Paul Finn Design & Display

Shop size:
5000 sq. ft. on the first
floor; 11,000 sq. ft. total

Staff: 9

Age: 54

Graphics equipment:
Two Seiko large format printers
Two Mutoh plotters
Gerber Sabre router
CNC hotwire cutter
Gerber Omega software

In 1980, I finished college and went in search of employment. Luckily I got a job straight away in a travel agency in Dublin City centre. The job entailed designing and producing artwork for newspaper adverts, magazines and making up the window display promoting the business.

I didn’t have much experience if any, but I completely immersed myself in the task. I also had a certain amount of freedom and this allowed me to experiment and try new ideas. Within three years I had achieved all I could in that job—I had designed and overseen production of all their summer and winter holiday catalogues for the entire country.

At this point I decided to take up an offer of work in a design studio. This lasted six months before I set about freelancing in Dublin for a year before moving to Waterford to get married. After 18 months working in another design studio, I started working for myself again; this was early 1986.

When I started the company on my own, it was very makeshift. It was located on the third floor—going up and down those stairs all day kept me lean. Over the following years, I purchased new equipment and took on some employees. The Gerber vinyl cutter revolution had just begun. I leapt straight in and bought a Gerber Sprint.

Growing times At the time, this was massive. Signmaking was going through a radical change from the signwriting skills we depended on before. After a couple of moves and many staff later, I finally located at our current address in 2000.

By 2005, I had 21 staff and many subcontractors working for me around the country. We had gained a reputation in the retail sector and produced signs for thousands of supermarkets and pharmacies, doing everything from simple cut vinyl to completing an entire shopping centre signage suite.

When I look back, I often wonder how we got through the volume. The important thing is that we did get through it and surpassed our own expectations at times.

Over the years, I purchased additional equipment, including two CNC routers, large format printers, waterjet cutting equipment and more recently a hot wire cutter and hard coating sprayer. We produce many different types of signage from run-of-the-mill graphics to forecourts and shopping centres.

New directions The most rewarding for me of everything is traditional signs. We made many, many traditional signs, using gold leaf, glass and other methods. These signs are ones that never date. Unfortunately, the demand has dropped off this type of work, mainly due to cost, but hopefully they will have their day again.

Around 2009, the economy was tanking and work was declining. Some of my best customers went out of business. Everything changed. Since then it has been a completely different landscape from before. I scaled the business down and currently we have eight employees.

I have been exploring different ideas and over the last few years have been working on making larger-than-lifesize props from polystyrene. I use a combination of hot wire, CNC routing, hard coating and hand skills to produce these props for marketing and promotional companies in particular. I invested in equipment to ensure our props can be coated and withstand both the weather and the public can’t damage them.

Sculpting is a hugely rewarding and relaxing experience for me. I hope to bring some of the 3D work into our signs where it is suitable. It’s not a cheap process but it is one which delivers results.

For example, I had a very large set of letters on the front of our building for a few years, which nobody really took notice of or commented on. It read “Signs that stand out!” The problem was that they didn’t stand out.

So I decided to sculpt four cartoon characters and install them on our roof as if they were installing the letters on the building. From the minute I installed this, I have been getting calls, e-mails and people driving by with their kids to show them. Every single day I see people slowing down or stopping to look and take pictures. It was proof that with a little bit of thought and producing something different, people would notice and also bring a smile to their face!

Currently business is still very tough. We have more competition from new entrants and this has developed into a “race to the bottom.” I’ve decided not to be a part of that approach. If you do, you are guaranteed to be very busy all the time and have very little money to show for it.

I have maintained staff in each critical department which ensures we can still produce our full range of signs and products. Quality is important and we always strive to ensure that what we make is the best. All of my staff have worked with me for a long time, ranging from 12 years to 29 years.

I’m fortunate to have all the lads still with me. We all get along and it helps everyone get through their work without any additional hassle. They have vast experience between them and this is an advantage sometimes when price is not the bottom line with the project.

I’m not sure what the future has in store. But I know we’ll be there trying out new ideas and trying to be different.

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