Posted on Monday, April 10th, 2023
Location: Bellefontaine, Ohio
Shop size: 1000 sq. ft.
Gerber HS15 cutters
Running any sign business has its challenges, and working in a small town adds a few more to the mix. Most shops in small markets don’t specialize so much as they do a little of everything. So it is with Dennis and Carly Schaub who opened FastTrack Signs in Bellefontaine, Ohio, 17 years ago. The town’s population is about 14,000.
Dennis had always done woodworking and went to college for graphic design. After college in 2001, he hit the Yellow Pages and went to every little newspaper, sign shop and print shop around, looking for work. He landed a job with a sign company.
“Like most college graduates,” says Dennis, “I soon realized that most of what you learned in college doesn’t relate to what you do in your job. That’s when the real learning starts. And in a sign shop, there are a lot of different things to learn. I worked with that company until they moved away in 2005. Shortly after that, Carly and I decided to rent their old location and open FastTrack Signs.
“It’s a great location right on Main Street. There’s plenty of traffic and good exposure. But at under 1000 sq. ft., it’s really small. We get our digital prints from a friend, and even working with the prints in here gets challenging.”
Bellefontaine is an hour north of Dayton in an area that is mostly small towns and farmland. There is also a good manufacturing base, though, including a Honda plant. There are several smaller manufacturers who supply Honda, too.
In a small town, you know a lot of your customers. They’re your neighbors and friends, or are often referred to you by those same people.
“People like to do business with people they know—people they are friends with, “Carly says. “That’s really true about small towns. We’ve worked to establish those relationships and to provide great service to our customers. It’s important because those people often refer others to you. Your reputation is especially important when you’re in a small town.
“We’ve honed our focus over the past few years to the more commercial projects. We don’t do many of the birthday banners and other work that doesn’t lead to repeat business. We want to connect with local businesses who we can form partnerships with, like the manufacturing companies.”
Their limited shop space has kept the couple from adding large format printing equipment, so they outsource the printing to a friend who has a shop in Columbus.
“We don’t have the room you need for large format printing equipment,” says Carly. “A printer, laminator and cutter take a lot of space. Plus outsourcing lets us move on to other projects without worrying about the print production. Eventually we want to do it in-house, but we’re going to need more space.”
Carly does the bookkeeping, estimating and quoting, while Dennis handles the design, production and installation. There’s a lot of overlap, though, so both do a little of everything.
Like many shops in small towns, their work is a broad mix, from trade show displays to big murals for the high school and from window graphics to van wraps. They also market small custom signs—Dennis calls them “crafty signs”—on Etsy.com.
“I enjoy it all,” Dennis says, “but I think vehicle graphics are the most rewarding to me. Having someone come in with a plain white pickup and being able to turn it into real advertising is satisfying. Big jobs are sometimes a hassle because they take up a block of time when you have other jobs waiting. But lately we did some big murals for the high school—about 4000 sq. ft. It was a lot of stress but they turned out really well. That was pretty cool.”
Carly started working at the shop about six months after they opened. Their two sons, Alex, 18, and Luke, 15 have grown up around the shop. Homeschooled, both have helped out around the shop and learned the business along the way.
“It’s truly a family business,” she says, “like a lot of small town businesses. It’s been a great experience for both of our sons, and Luke is especially interested in the sign business. We could see Luke eventually becoming the sales manager and eventually carrying on the business.”
Alex and Luke both got their hand in the business early on.
Dennis and Carly handle all types of signs that their small town needs, from monument signs…
…to lettering the fire trucks.
From trade show booth graphics…
…to promo signs for a local restaurant, flower banners and pumpkin patch pitches.
Along with the unusual projects…
…there are plenty of routine jobs like informational signs…
…and the occasional mail truck!