Le Mars, Io
Posted on Sunday, April 23rd, 2017
Old School Signs
2800 sq. ft.
Roland VersaCamm SP-300V printer/cutter
Roland Camm-1Pro cutter
On Facebook as Old School Sign Company
This morning, Cathy Krommenhoek is working on a couple of quotes for LED message signs. After spending 12 hours on a wrap project yesterday, she’s glad to be off her feet.
“It’s nice to be at my desk,” she says, “and listening to music as I figure these jobs. I wrapped a 24-foot boat yesterday with lots of contours and craziness. It was fun, but it made for a long day!”
Cathy started hand lettering in high school in 1985. At first it was stock cars, then her father, a local electrician, started telling other business owners and farmers that Cathy painted signs. Before long she was doing a little of everything.
She went on to college and majored in commercial art, interning with one sign company over two summers. In 1989 after college, Cathy began work as an apprentice sign writer in an “old school environment” at a highly respected sign company in northwest Iowa. In her early years there, each morning began with a handlettering training session by one of the area’s top sign makers. Here Cathy learned the business and developed her skills in designing and producing commercial advertising.
Later, she freelanced for a while then worked at another billboard company in Sioux City, Iowa. In early 2000 she took a job in printing/ packaging/labeling with IBP/Tyson Foods, and then moved onto a position as Marketing Coordinator at Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream. Cathy’s whole professional career has been centered around layout and design.
All the while, she was still painting signs and plenty of stock cars—as many as 60 in one summer. In 2007, she decided to open a shop and do signs full-time. She started out solo in a 700-sq.-ft. building and added her first employee a year and a half later.
By 2010, she was in a larger shop with three employees and turning out a much larger volume of work. Though she was busier, the business wasn’t significantly more profitable— but the stress and hassles were taking the fun out of it. She decided to downsize in late 2013.
She knew what she wanted to do, but wasn’t quite sure how to do it. She sought the help of some of her largest clients who she knew were also good business people. Their advice was all similar and straightforward: “Raise your prices and get choosier about the jobs you take. Don’t take every walk in, and don’t try to please everyone. Don’t attempt to get every job that comes your way.”
Cathy says the change was a wise move. She took their advice and the business was soon fun again. With the help of one part-time person, she handles flat and 3D signs, vehicle lettering and wraps, right up through lighted signs and LED displays.
“I outsource work that I don’t have the equipment to do in-house,” she says, “and I really enjoy working with other local shops on these bigger projects. I don’t have a boom truck or welding and fabrication equipment, but I know people who do. Working together works well for me.”
Le Mars has a population of about 10,000 and is surrounded by other small towns. Most of Cathy’s work is in a 25-mile radius of the shop.
“When you work in a small town,” she says, “your reputation is everything. You have to be true to your word and play fair. If you do that, word gets around. But it can work for you or against you, so you have to be aware of that all the time.”
Selling the benefits of branding
Over the past few years, Cathy has been working at helping her clients understand the value of having a consistent image—a brand. Since many of her customers serve the surrounding small towns, she emphasizes the benefit of having a memorable image that prospective customers see consistently.
“I explain that people see your truck in the parking lot at the store or at church,” Cathy says. “They may see your logo on someone’s T-shirt at the basketball or football games. Most customers get the picture after a few sentences. I want that small contractor to have a consistent brand that makes him look like a professional—on his shirts, on his truck, on his business cards.”
Most of her customers don’t have logos or generous budgets. She would like the opportunity to do more 3D signage, because much of her work is flat signs. Her market doesn’t always allow for that, so when she can, she uses cut-outs and layers on spacers to add dimension to an otherwise flat sign.
This July marks ten years for Old School Signs. Cathy says she’s happy with the business and the work.
“Being a small business owner in Le Mars has been both challenging and rewarding,” she says. “I’m grateful for my children and my husband, Matt. They have really helped me be successful in my work and my business.
“I still love making signs. And I love the reaction of the customer who realizes that their sign is really working well for them. It’s great to see.”