Follow-up: Ray and Rose Grossi
Posted on Monday, March 1st, 2021
Ray and Rose Grossi were first featured in the January/February 2012 issue of SignCraft and are still busy making signs. Their shop, Midwest Signworks, is in Morris, Illinois, a town with a population of about 15,000 about an hour from Chicago. Here’s what Ray told us recently about their work and their business:
Size: 2400 sq. ft.
Rose, Ray and Lynn
54-in. Roland VersaCAMM
Roland 300 vinyl plotter
Signlab sign making software
We’ve been here for over 36 years, so we know a lot of people. That’s the good thing about a small community—you work for your neighbors.
In a small town, you really have to be able to do a little of everything. When customers ask what I do, I often say that we will letter their mailbox or make them a big pylon sign with a digital display, and anything in between. It’s a fact.
I would love to specialize—maybe in super clean flat storefront signs—but it doesn’t work that way here. I’m doing two of those this week, but I might not do another one for six weeks. In between I’ll do everything from trucks to letter installations to routine informational signs.
We’ve stayed busy over the past year, even with the pandemic. We’re down a little, but we still feel blessed. We have friends who have small pubs and eateries who have really been hurt by the pandemic.
Technology in the mix
We use the technology alongside the traditional skills. It’s just another tool. We do digital prints and cut a lot of vinyl. But we also still do a lot of work by hand and a lot of hand painting.
I would really like a flatbed router. I think we could do a lot of interesting work on one of those. At the same time, I look at all this great work that Gary Anderson has done over the years, and he never had a router. It’s not the equipment that makes the difference—it’s the designs.
One of the problems with technology is that upgrades don’t always go smoothly. Recently we upgraded a computer but couldn’t get a driver for our older printer. Resolving something like that can get expensive when you’re paying a tech to figure it out.
Dividing the responsibilities
Rose handles a lot of sales and production. She stays ahead of the emails, deals with customers and does a little design work. Her sister Lynn is our office manager. She takes care of the billing and gets involved in some of the production, too.
I do a lot of the design and a lot of the production. I love doing stuff that challenges me artistically. It’s cool that there is more interest in hand lettering lately. I’m getting to do more of it these days and I like that.
Working with your wife is interesting. We each have a different perspective on the business. I tend to focus on the signs, and she tends to focus on how we are going to make a living here. A lot of people are surprised to hear that we have worked together so long. We step on each other’s toes every once in a while, but we get along great.
Pricing and sales
Rose also does much of the routine pricing, and we usually work together on larger projects. I’m usually saying that I doubt the customer will pay that price, and Rose is usually reminding me that we have to pay the bills. [Laughing.]
We like SignCraft’s SignQuote Pro app. We set up our pricing in it based on our overhead, then just about anyone can do the pricing of the everyday work from that. It’s great.
Like most sign people, we often deal with people who have no idea what a sign costs or what they want to spend on a sign. But people seem to be a little more interested in a sign that looks nice. I explain that their signs are an investment in their business and ask what their budget is. What can they afford to do?
I show some examples and throw out a few price ranges for that type of work. After that, they can usually come up with a number they’re comfortable with spending. Often it’s just enough to cover a basic version, but I know they will benefit more from something with a little more appeal. I might say, “Well, if you can stretch another $200 or $300, I could do a nice cutout or something to make it look a little more dimensional…” That often works, and I’m able to do something nicer for them.
I’ve never been really comfortable with promoting myself and my skills, but you have to learn to do that. You need to gain their confidence by showing and explaining what you can do for their business. They have to realize that you know what you’re doing—you’re not just typing something in the computer and sticking it on.
Small town sign making
One of the detriments to being in a small town is that everyone is your friend. You want to be fair with them all, and you want to keep their costs down. At the same time you need to charge prices that make sure you can stay in business.
We’ve had a few shops in the area come and go that were based on making signs on the computer at low prices. That just doesn’t work in a small town. You have to be able to do more than just print cheap banners. They need other types of signs, and they want quality work.
Unfortunately, the customer can’t tell the difference between three-year vinyl and nine-year vinyl. It all looks the same to them—until it starts failing on their sign. It can be hard to explain to customers that you’re trying to give them the best value by using quality materials. We don’t cut any corners, though. We live here, see our customers on the street, and go to church with them. We want their signs to last.
Dealing with customer-provided art
For a while I was getting really frustrated with people showing up with homemade computer designs and bad clipart that they got off the Internet then wanting me to make their sign. I was afraid to say no and would take the job. Then I’d be sitting here frustrated because I knew it was an ineffective layout, and I was wasting time trying to digitize some terrible logo.
Eventually I changed my approach. Now I’m upfront with them. I explain that I appreciate that they want me to do the job, but that I need to use my artwork so that they will get the best value from the sign. With 37 years behind me it’s easier to explain that I know they will benefit from something more professional. I’m not mean about it, but I’m very clear and direct.
We sometimes talk about bringing a younger person on board who would want to learn the business with the thought of eventually taking it over. The sign business requires a lot of different skills, and it takes time to learn them. You have to be interested in learning and enthusiastic about making signs that work. I don’t think there are a lot of young people who are going in that direction. But who knows?
Right now we’re pretty happy with our business, and we enjoy working together. I’m really enjoying some of the projects that I get to do—3D signs, pinstriping, vehicles, flat signs, wall signs and murals. It’s all still fun.
–From an interview with Tom McIltrot
“The gentleman who inherited this old pickup,” says Ray, “remembered that I had done some hand lettering for him years ago. He had a snapshot of the truck when it was in use and wanted that same look. I used that layout as a guide and dry-brushed the lettering to get the weathered look.”
“Racecar work has changed a lot over the years,” Ray says. “Fifteen years ago I did 12 or 15 cars each year. They’re fun to do because they have to be knocked out in an evening in the owner’s garage. At 60, that part isn’t as appealing as it used to be, though, plus a lot of the owners have gone to using a wrap. I know that’s because the big-name racers use wraps, but I still understand it. Wraps are costly, and I don’t think they look as good as a hand-lettered stock car. I still do a few.”