Joe and Sandy Paffoon
Lynn Haven, Florida
Posted on Saturday, August 29th, 2020
For Joe and Sandy Paffoon, moving to Florida to semi-retire didn’t quite come off as planned. Instead it led them to the sign business and two decades of creative sign making. Here’s what Joe told us about where Boardwalk Designs is today on a Friday afternoon at the end of a busy week:
This is our 22nd year in the sign business. It’s a pretty typical sign shop story. We moved here from the Atlanta area with the idea of semi-retiring. In Atlanta, I had a hardwood flooring company. I also had some experience with CAD and had purchased a used Ioline plotter.
After moving to Lynn Haven, a friend of mine suggested I try sign making, and we started off making a few vinyl signs in the spare bedroom. Since I love carving by hand, we eventually made a few carved signs.
After the first few projects, which we obtained from cold calls, almost everything else has come from referrals. Fortunately, we landed several large development companies as customers and still service them to this day. There’s been a great deal of growth in our area, but basically the only advertising we do is the graphics on our vehicles.
We’re really busy right now, which is great. We fabricate our own monuments and have several projects in the works right now. So far we have made over 250 of them. They are very popular in our area.
About half of our work currently involves digital printing or dimensional signs that incorporate raised digitally printed elements. But I still like hand carving—making those large lobsters and great big sharks!
A great deal of our work comes from smaller businesses like the service, tourist and vacation management companies. We’re starting to do more interior work and other specialized graphics.
Of course, we do a lot of the routine work, too, like real estate signs. It’s not real creative, but it helps pay the bills. It’s amazing how little projects can lead to big projects—and then big projects often lead to little ones. Sometimes you make a little real estate sign for someone, and it leads to a big development job. Other times you make a large monument sign, and they ask you to do some yard signs!
Often we’ve made a sign for a small company which they later decide to use as their logo. It’s backwards, but it’s still how it works with a lot of small businesses. They come in wanting just a sign but you know they really need a logo as well.
There are ten of us here now. At one time we had 18 employees with five trucks, but we decided to downsize and make the business more enjoyable and less stressful. Sandy and I are trying our hand at semi-retirement again. We now have a business manager, Steve, who came from outside of the sign industry and is doing a great job. That’s taken a lot of pressure off of us.
At times we all wear different hats, but we each have a primary task. Steve is also our VP of Operations and oversees all the mainstream sign work, including the digital printing department. We also do a fair amount of printing for other sign shops.
We recently hired someone for sales and customer service liaison, and he has taken on a lot of Sandy’s responsibilities. Until recently, I’ve been the “lead” designer, but I have begun to step out of that role. However, I still handle the high-end carved signs when they come along.
We’ve noticed a trend over the past few years of customers who bring their own design and want us to handle the production. It’s unfortunate, because you can’t always suggest a new design.
The designs are almost always drawn by people who don’t understand sign design. They’re either a little too busy or the primary copy isn’t strong enough and the colors lack contrast. These customers often are not open to suggestions or changes to their layout. That can be frustrating, especially when you know how much more effective a sign can be when the design is right.
We are building monuments that are made completely from PVC, which is pretty unique. We have developed our own method for fabrication. In the sign business, everything you learn comes at a cost. It takes time and materials to learn new ways of doing things. You experiment a lot and sometimes the cost is pretty high.
Succeeding in signs
Sandy has really been the secret to our success. She came from corporate America, so she’s great with presentations and connecting with people. She has a knack for finding those really good projects—big projects—that you need now and then.
It’s important to deliver a quality product that fits your market. One of the most important things we found is to extend professional courtesy and show up for an appointment. You’d be surprised how many times we have kept an appointment with a customer and were told afterwards that other sign companies never showed up. There’s a lot of other do’s and don’ts in the sign business, but it is very important to be professional, reliable and produce a quality product.
You also really need a love for sign making. Signs are an art form. They can do so much to contribute to the success of a business or development. One can get such a thrill out of finishing a sign and hearing the client’s “Wow!” reaction.
That’s why Sandy and I are still here. We have talked about getting completely out of the business, but we still love the work and the people. We’d like to do a little more sailing and take time to enjoy life, but making signs can be very gratifying when it’s “in your blood.”
The retirement plans didn’t get off the ground the first time … maybe it will this time!