Dana Signs, Redmond, Oregon
MC Smith Signs, Bend, Oregon
Dana Signs: 3600 sq. ft.
MC Smith Signs: 4500 sq. ft.
Roland Eco Sol VS-540 printer/cutter
Gerber Edge printer
FlexCam CNC router
Two Graphitec plotters
Gerber Envision plotter
Epson SureColor F2000
Direct to Garment printer Online:
When Brent Grenfell first told Judy, his wife, that he thought they should buy Dana Signs back in 2001, she had a natural reaction. Brent was a contractor turned-realtor with no experience in the sign business.
“I thought he was crazy at first,” Judy says. “Neither of us had experience in sign making. But Brent likes to learn new things and tackle interesting projects, so here we are— 16 years later with two sign shops.”
Brent’s experiment was a success. He and Judy now own Dana Signs in Redmond and M.C. Smith Signs in nearby Bend. The two towns are in Central Oregon, in the high desert on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. They are about 17 miles apart.
spoke with Brent and Judy on a typical busy day, in between the usual interruptions of customers and phone calls.
How long have you been in the sign business?
I’ve been in the business since 2001. I’m 66, and I’ve done a lot of different things in my life. But I feel like it all led to the sign business. It was something I knew I could do right from the start.
I’ve been a licensed real estate broker since 1984, and that sales experience and training has been a big help. In the business, you learn some great tools that you can use when you’re trying to sell something.
Before that, I also was a general contractor so that helped on the construction side. It helps me visualize how to put things together.
You were comfortable with the sales and fabrication, but what about design?
About six months after Judy and I bought the business, I ran into Max Clark. He wanted to relocate to our area from the Portland/Salem area, and ended up coming to work with us until 2015. Max has a vast amount of knowledge about signs and sign design. He mentored me and taught me a lot about design. He preached to me the importance of using the design principles of Mike Stevens, from his book Mastering Layout
We get a lot of inspiration from the work we see in SignCraft. We’ve learned a lot from the magazine. Mike Jackson’s articles and tools have been a big help over the years. I can’t wait to get each new issue—I study every one for inspiration from the awesome work of other sign makers from around the world.
I have great relationships with many of the local graphic designers, too. They know our work and that we can transform their designs into a good-looking sign.
What about the actual production and the day-to-day part of the business?
Judy is such an integral part of the shops on the business and marketing end of things. Being a husband and wife team has its challenges but overall works great for us.
Nothing would ever get done if we didn’t have such an amazing staff. We have a manager in each shop who has been with his respective shop for a decade or more. Smith’s shop foreman, Wayne Bovi, did stuff at Disney and other LA studio work. The employees make the wheels turn; if it weren’t for them, it would all be smoke and mirrors. We like to partner with local shops for powder-coating and steel fabrication, and a local contractor helps with most of our complex installations.
How did you come to buy M.C. Smith Signs?
I’ve always made it a point to get along with my competitors. In my opinion, there’s enough work for all of us. Different shops have different niches, so there’s room for everyone. In October of 2015, one of my competitors in the nearby city of Bend, Mike Smith, told me he wanted to retire. M.C. Smith Signs had been in business for 42 years, and Mike wanted someone to take over the business who would take care of his customers and his employees. I had wanted to expand into Bend, and Mike made it happen. So somehow I ended up with two shops, about 25 minutes apart.
How big are the shops?
There are four people here in Redmond, and five in Bend. Dana Signs is 3600 sq. ft. and Smith Signs is 4500 sq. ft. Dana Shirt Shop is a separate business, but it operates out of our Bend shop and is about 800 sq. ft.
Has the shop always done garment printing?
No. When the economy took a nosedive, we lost some very good customers who did a lot of repeat business with us. We wanted to find a way to replace that. Judy started looking into that and decided that garment printing would be a good fit with our sign work.
We bought our first direct-to-garment printer five years ago, and two months ago we upgraded to an Epson Sure Color. It’s really worked out great. The Epson print quality is outstanding; it has enabled us to print vividly on dark color fabrics, which is a big plus. I think the reason we’ve done well with T-shirts is that it’s such a natural combination with signs. People come in to get their storefront sign or their truck lettering, and they realize they need shirts as well. I don’t think we’d do near as well if we were just a standalone T-shirt shop. We have the audience, so the T-shirt business has really taken off.
Judy’s right—garment printing works really well with the sign business. When we do a truck or a sign for a contractor, we’ll print up a free T-shirt with their logo on it. Almost every time it leads to an order for T-shirts or safety vests or whatever. It’s a great opportunity.
What’s to learn from all this?
At the end of the day it’s all about relationships and helping the customer. Our priority is to create signs that will help mainly the small businesses we deal with. I believe an attractive attention-grabbing sign is essential to their success, so we design and sell our products with this in mind.