Posted on Tuesday, December 31st, 2019
Shop size: 2000 sq. ft. total
Staff: Five plus Dave
Roland 54-in. printer/cutter
Graphtec Cutting Pro FC5100-75
Gerber Omega software
Dave Sautter began his sign career in the Stowe, Vermont, shop of Jay Cooke, who was first featured in SignCraft in 1985, and went on to work with another SignCraft alumni, the late Doug Williams, in Hawaii. Now 35 years later, it’s our turn to share Dave’s work and his story in SignCraft.
Dave eventually returned to Stowe and put together a team of creative signmakers who serve their resort community of about 5,000—which is visited by hundreds of thousands of skiers each year, not to mention other tourists. SignCraft spoke with David he was beginning another busy Monday:
Early days I got started in the sign business in 1988, working in Jay Cooke’s shop and really enjoyed the work. I learned how to hand letter and hand carve, and how to lay up a wood sign panel.
I was around 21, and eventually decided I wanted to do something a little different. Being a New England surfer, I was pretty limited to when I could surf. I wanted to go somewhere where I could surf year-round, so I decided to roll the dice and go right to Hawaii.
Jay had been to Hawaii, and he told me he had met woodcarver Doug Williams there. I read the article on Doug in SignCraft and saw his beautiful signs—and that he was a surfer. I wrote him a letter, then Jay gave him a call. Doug invited me to stop by when I got to Hawaii.
I bought a one-way ticket then took a bus to LA to catch the plane to Hawaii. Before long I was working with Doug. I worked with him for about five years and am really grateful for that experience. It isn’t easy for a mainlander to make it in Hawaii, but I was able to do it because Doug took me under his wing. He introduced me to his family and friends and showed me the way of the diverse culture.
He helped me become both a better sign maker and businessperson. As a subcontractor, I had to estimate my own jobs, determine the cost and set up the draw I wanted from it each week. Doug took my price and marked it up. It was great experience.
Besides being a mentor, Doug became a great friend. He did super work and was a big influence in my life. I introduced him to mountain biking, which was a relatively new sport in Hawaii. We rode a lot together. I owe a lot to him. He died from cancer in 2012.
Michelle, my wife, and I met in Hawaii— though not for the first time. [Laughing] We had known each other in college, then one day after I had been in Hawaii for a few months, I ran into her while walking to the beach to surf. She had moved to Honolulu and was on her way to work. We ended up dating and marrying, and have two sons.
Back to Vermont About five years later we moved back to Stowe. I worked with Jay for about a year then at Dave Couch Signs for a couple years. At that point, a fellow sign maker and I decided to buy out Dave Couch because he was retiring.
Without Dave Couch, the business would not even be here. It was Dave’s relationship with the Town of Stowe during the first 20 years that helped build the foundation for our customer base today.
Dave started the business in 1973. He is a very talented journeyman with a great sense of humor and knack for sales. Dave was so appreciative of his customers that he listed every one of them in a Christmas “Thank You” ad in the local paper each year, complete with a photo of himself with his broad smile.
I’m thankful for Dave, too. He gave my partner and me the opportunity to carry the business forward. Once I acquired sole ownership, I decided not to change the name of the company so to honor his legacy. Dave is retired in Sarasota, Florida, with his wife, Mary Lou.
Building the team When I bought my partner out. I hired Tracy Dunphy and then Heather Snyder. Tracy and Heather are responsible for many things: sign and logo design, sign production and customer support. Tracy also handles the digital printer operation and does any hand painted illustrations.
Dave Myers is a very good, knowledgeable journeyman. He can do it all—architectural detail drawings, sign fabrication, sculpting, whatever. He really is my right-hand man. Dave, Tracy, Heather and I have worked together for over 15 years.
Doug Owen helps out part time, assisting Dave Myers with fabrication and installations. He wears a lot of hats here and has been with us about 7 years.
Michelle, my wife, is our bookkeeper. She takes care of the books and tax filings. I couldn’t do it without her.
Even though we are a team of five plus a few subcontractors, we probably turn out the work of six or eight. We work really well together and have many overlapping skills.
I handle most of the sales and keep track of the jobs. I love the challenge of the business side of things. It’s an all-day multitasking event, and that makes my day go fast. I push a lot of paper—sending proposals and getting bids from subcontractors. Each evening, I make a list for each of my coworkers the night before that they can use as an outline for the day.
The workspaces The production shop is about 25-by-45-ft. and is set up very efficiently. For many years all four of us worked out of there. You’d be amazed at the volume of work we turned out. Our mill shop is in the basement of the apartment building next door, so all the dirty work is done down there.
Four years ago we converted the secondfloor apartment in that building into our office and design area. It is set up as a very cool studio space. Our large-format printer is up there, too. An open deck connects the offices and the shop. The extra space has made us more efficient and more profitable.
We have a full woodworking shop with all the old-school tools, but we don’t have a CNC router. When Jay Cooke shut down his shop, he continued to do our CNC router work. He did that for several years then retired. Now our friends at Great Big Graphics in nearby Morrisville does our CNC work.
In the early days of my career, sign making was very labor-intensive. It was hard to really make any money in the business, because custom work like that was so labor-intensive. Digital printing and CNC routers were game changers in terms of profit and production.
Signs in a ski town Stowe is a small resort town. Most of the businesses are seen from the main road that goes through town, which takes you to the ski resort area. A main identity sign is very important because it’s the best way to project the image of your business and help draw people in.
A large percentage of my business is main identity signs with some type of dimensional detail, followed by flat digitally printed signage. Then another good part is all the secondary signage that supports that main identity— things like parking and directional signs.
We do a little bit of everything. We like to say that if you have a vision, we’ll realize it for you. We do a fair amount of logo design that then leads to a sign project. Customers have learned over the years that they don’t need to go to a graphic artist first for the design. We can do that for them. We do no neon or backlit signage, though, because those are prohibited by the sign ordinance.
Instagram for marketing We’ve found Instagram to be a good marketing tool for us. We started posting images there in 2014. For years we were too busy to put a website together and didn’t have the money to invest a few thousand dollars and having someone design a site for us. Eventually one of my coworkers put together a website for us, but Instagram is where we share most of our work. Our website is more of a basic overview of who we are and what we do.
Working as a team We do a lot of work as a team, giving feedback on designs and sharing ideas. Tracy, Heather and Dave can all meet with customers and get the details to get a job started if I’m not around.
I enjoy the work and don’t get burned out because I work with such a good team. I really feel confident in leaving things in their hands. I may put in 50 to 60 hours a week, sometimes answering emails in the evening, but it affords me the flexibility to do a lot of other things. I never miss one of our boys’ sporting events, and we get time for family vacations.
I work with three really talented people. We have a great team and a good customer base, and I feel good about the work we do. Sometimes it feels like a grind, but most of the time, it’s pretty cool.