Signs by Van
Phil and Jeremy Vanderkraats
Posted on Monday, April 26th, 2021
Phil Vanderkraats discovered the Monterey Peninsula while stationed at Fort Ord. He fell in love with the area and decided to make it his home. That led him to the sign business, and in 1981 he opened Signs by Van in Marina, CA. When Phil was first featured in the January/February 2010 issue of SignCraft, his son Jeremy was helping out part-time and using social media to help market the shop’s work in the face of the recession. Eleven years later, Jeremy now co-owns the business, but Phil is still there, helping out with design and production. Here’s what the two of them told us about the changing face of the business:
Phil, 68 and Jeremy, 39
4000 sq. ft.
SCM 5 x 12 five-axis router
Vectric Aspire and Fusion 360 for CNC design
Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator for design
SignLab for large format layout
Tik Tok: @signsbyvan
After college, I sold real estate in the Bay Area for several years until the recession hit in 2008. I came back to Salinas and became a firefighter while helping out part-time at the shop. After a few years I joined my father full-time.
It was a difficult time because the recession had dragged on and really hurt the business. The first thing I did was to start aggressively marketing our work via social media. Instagram was fairly new and it was really catching on. That turned out to be a huge help! We’ve worked very hard at showcasing our capabilities to the masses.
The economy began improving and before long we had doubled our gross sales. Now we have doubled that number again. Over the past few years we have expanded into three new counties. We’ve consolidated all production here at our shop and opened a sales office in Hollister and we expect to open another location soon.
This has helped us pull in a lot more clients from the surrounding areas. We’ve always focused on dimensional signs, so we send printed work and wraps to other shops in our area whom we partner with. This has worked really well for us and for our new and upcoming shops in the local area. We get a small finder’s fee, and they handle the project. Spreading the wealth is a good thing.
Dimensional signs have always been our niche. In 2010, we didn’t have our own CNC router, so we leased time on another shop’s equipment. We had been doing a lot of work the old-school way, by hand, but we wanted to get our own router.
We ended up partnering with SCM, an Italian company that produces equipment for the woodworking industry. We were one of the first companies to approach them about using it for sign making. We have a 5×12 five-axis router with a 16 hp motor. It’s a SCM Morbidelli M100.
It’s a little over-the-top for most sign work, but we really like having a machine that is so versatile. Adding the router was probably the biggest thing we’ve ever done to increase our profitability. Just being able to experiment with and develop new effects has been priceless. A five-axis unit can handle lots of additional applications, because the router head will rotate 90 degrees.
We get ourselves into a lot of custom projects because people come to us with ideas and want us to make them happen. We’ve done signs where we’ve made huge rocks using concrete over wire lath. We fabricated a monument that looks like a tail section of an aircraft for another project. At the same time we’re doing custom 3D storefront signs, monuments for wineries and murals. It’s all interesting work.
As a result, we have a lot of cool signs out there. That brings in a lot of referrals. We also aggressively market online through our marketing teams, Google and social media. Instagram brings us customers and also inspires people to think a little more out-of-the-box because there are a lot of unusual projects for them to see there. Jeremy also posts a lot of videos on YouTube so that people can see how we make our signs.
We do a lot of interior art. If a sign company has a CNC router, they need to look into expanding their capability to handle a larger diversity of projects which will increase their overall take every year. It really fits with what a custom sign shop does. You need to connect with some interior architects and interior designers. They appreciate that you can make their ideas a reality.
We just bought a 73-ft. Wilkie lift truck with a 5000-pound crane on it. It’s been a huge change for us as far as installations. Once you have a truck like this you don’t know how you did installations without it. It makes installs safer, faster and more professional.
We now have our electrical sign contractor’s license, and we’re starting to do more electrical sign projects. We handle the sales, outsource the fabrication, then do the installation ourselves. We just formed a partner company called SBV Electric that will focus on this work.
Having inhouse electricians enables us to deliver projects much faster than companies that have to outsource labor. We’re looking forward to seeing where this takes us.