SignCraft learned of Donna’s work while doing the feature on Rodger MacMunn for the July/ August 2018 issue. He mentioned that he and Donna worked together on some projects and sent along photos of some of her work as well. Their 15 years of collaborating has helped both of them grow their businesses and provide creative signs for their market in southern Ontario, Canada. We asked Donna about her business, her work and how she came to work with Rodger.
Donna Larocque’s Sign Shoppe
560 sq. ft.
Donna plus part-time help as needed
Graphtec CE5000-60 cutter
While pursuing a career in commercial art and design, I was pleasantly amazed by so many opportunities! My college diploma in graphic design back in 1986 prepared me for the print industry but really opened many more doors. I definitely got my money’s worth! Ten years into the graphic arts industry I was introduced to sign making and was hooked. Without it, my customer branding services would seem very incomplete.
Today, living in a rural community requires a lot of versatility. One must be a jack of all trades. My strength in illustration/portraiture has allowed me to provide murals, portraits, sign pictorials, theatre backdrops, etc. as well as graphic design and signs. Every job is very different from the last and makes this career a true joy. That can make estimating tough, though!
Introduction to the industry
Upon completion of college in Edmonton, Alberta, my first job was a courtroom sketch artist for Canadian TV, combined with freelance design/illustration work. Eventually I worked full time in the prepress industry and was introduced to computer technology in design, learning on the job.
In 1997 I found myself back in my hometown. Seeking work in my industry, I purchased a sign business—close enough I thought! Little did I know how creatively rewarding it would be. It came complete with a small customer base, one of the very first chain-driven CNC routers, sandblasting booth/equipment and last but not least, Patti Galbraith. Patti worked with me for five years. She was a very talented self-taught designer, sign maker and CNC router tech.
She taught me everything she knew about the industry. We nicknamed ourselves “Chicks with Knives!” We used the router for all of our cutting needs, even vinyl. Looking back we should have had a plotter. We covered the gamut of sign products, including sandblasted/ routed cedar signs and cutout letters, setting us apart from our local competitors.
My future husband came into the picture and thanks to his patience became an integral part of my sign business from then on. At the time he owned and operated a restaurant and would show up in his whites to help us with a difficult installation. We always got laughs.
Dennis also has a background in carpentry and more recently a masonry contractor. Today he helps with most of my installations, some sign construction and his beautiful stonework graces some of my projects—all while running his own business.
In 2002, after selling my business, my family and I moved to Sharbot Lake, Ontario. This rural community was decorated with the most impressive signs. They really dressed up the area like icing on a cake, and were the work of Rodger MacMunn, T.R. MacMunn & Sons. I must say I was intimidated and took some time before introducing myself. We began working together soon after.
Collaborating with Rodger
Rodger is an excellent craftsman and taught me many traditional sign making techniques—carving, gilding, doming, sculpting. He also introduced me to new products and sign construction techniques. He influenced my sign design. All this experience with Rodger took my sign projects to a new level.
After my employment ended we continued to work together in a contract arrangement. I pursued customers in Westport, Ontario, where I set up a small shop. I developed a good customer base there and they continue to keep me busy.
I’ve since moved my business home and have become a closer competitor to Rodger. But I don’t advertise here, and don’t even have a business sign. Word gets around, though, and I am picking up a little work locally. We find ourselves quoting against each other occasionally but each have our own loyal clients. We see each other as an advantage rather than a threat.
Rodger and I continue to work together, and he has brought me some really unique projects. Mostly I do sign pictorials and mural painting for him. In turn, I send him the art files, and he provides me with dimensional sign blanks or letters in cedar or high density urethane board. We also swap materials, tools and ideas. It doesn’t take much for a one-man-show to get behind so Rodger also lends a hand to get me caught up.
Working from home
After some extremely busy years in Westport I decided to simplify and be more available to my family. So I left my retail/shop space there to work from home in Sharbot Lake.
My customers barely noticed as consultations were via email or at their locations anyway. I didn’t need the workspace and equipment that I had in my first sign business as my products and services had evolved. Sign construction is roughly 50% of my business with illustration— sign pictorials, murals, etc.—and graphic design taking up the rest.
Sourcing out iron work to local blacksmith Tim Wheeler, digital printing to SignCraft Canada and dimensional panels to Rodger and cut-out letters to Gemini
works really well. I get a quality product and keep my overhead down.
We live in a beautiful rural area with hundreds of freshwater lakes and therefore have a tourist-based economy. Most of my market consists of smaller retail/service businesses. Some are seasonal and close during the winter months. There are many startups as well, often gift shops, tearooms, B&Bs and such. These businesses need to look attractive and eye catching but have more limited budgets as their short high season needs to support them year round.
Most of my signs are lower budget—usually flat panels. But I do my best giving a quality product and finish that has 10-year-plus longevity, a nice design/shape, some handpainted graphics or a hint of carved appliqué. I’m offering more and more digital prints now as their longevity is improving and can be easier on the budget.
As sign makers our work is already in the public eye, so it does a lot of our promotion for us. I also get many referrals from my customers and really appreciate that. Making your customers happy by offering a great product at a reasonable price and delivered on time goes a long way.
I have found that joining the local chamber of commerce works well, too. It’s a great way to get in touch with local businesses, and they
are very committed to supporting one another. Also, in the past, Patti and I used to participate in local trade shows, which were a great way to expand into new markets.
Over the years I have purchased ads and sign spaces in local magazines, newspapers and sports facilities but feel as though I was simply reciprocating business rather than gaining any real exposure, but that can encourage repeat business.
And then there are the cold calls—ick. I’m a bit shy and always hated asking people for their business but it works! If you’re sincere, people appreciate that. I know I do. I’d rather do business with someone who wants it rather than someone who “puts me on hold”.
I also contribute to my community whenever possible—endless hours of theater sets, donating signs to the chamber of commerce, freebee design work for a baseball team, that kind of thing.
As for online, I’m not as active as I probably should be and my website could be more than just an online portfolio. Being a one-person business, I find just being involved in the community is better marketing than anything. It’s definitely enough to keep me busy.
Sticking to the budget! Not letting my ego get in the way and resisting the urge to give my customers more than they’re paying for. It happens often enough, and is justified as “good public relations”. A happy customer is very rewarding—and who doesn’t thrive on positive feedback?