Selling the business
In 2016, after running the business for 30 years, Whan decided it was time to retire and put the shop up for sale, including the added apartment. At the beginning of December, he reduced his asking price due to a diagnosis of illness and announced he would close the doors for good if he did not receive an offer by the end of the year.
As it happened, entrepreneur Kelso Brennan came across the listing on Dec. 5. With a background in software development, Brennan had joined the sign industry in 2012, launching 310-SIGN, based in Bonnyville, Alta., to sell regulatory and compliance signage online. By developing a number of customer-specific e-commerce platforms—e.g. www.trafficsupply.ca—and shipping orders from coast to coast, the business topped $1 million in sales in its first year and attracted thousands of online users.
When Brennan happened to see Whan’s sale notice, he was in the process of selling 310-SIGN to Hi Signs/The Fath Group in Edmonton and, hence, was keeping an eye out for other ventures.
“Larry was an amazing craftsman, but pinched nerves were making it difficult for him to keep working,” he says. “I knew I could take some of my profits from my previous success to keep this business alive. I told my wife, Ashley, and my best friend and first employee, Brendon Rayner, this was something we needed to do together.”
They agreed and the Brennans purchased the Banff Sign Company in February 2017, paying Whan’s asking price. Rayner became chief creative officer (CCO) and general manager (GM), augmenting his 16 years of sign industry experience with one-on-one learning from Whan, who remained on-board as senior production advisor. Allyson Pehlemann, who had joined the business in 2014, continued to serve as its graphic designer.
Brennan took on the responsibility of business development, focusing his efforts on finding ways to improve in-house processes, and his wife Ashley became CEO and creative lead, providing advice and leadership from their offices in Edmonton.
A dream come true
Rayner moved from Prince Albert, Sask., to Banff immediately after the purchase was finalized, staying in a short-term Airbnb rental until he could take over the apartment from Whan. The opportunity to run the shop was a dream come true.
“I received CorelDraw 4 as a Christmas gift when I was in junior high school and that got me into design,” he says. “I also did woodworking in my Grade 7 shop class. My earliest job experience in a Bonnyville sign shop, when I was in Grade 10, was with die-cut vinyl, no digital equipment. Now, after the high-volume, fast-paced digital print production of oilfield and traffic signs for Kelso’s dotcoms, this opportunity is a chance to again focus more on design, which has always been my number one passion, and traditional methods.”
He spent the next few months working with Whan, learning how to clearcoat, chisel, prime and paint cedar signs. Surrounded by hand tools, drill presses, saws and paintbrushes, he says it made him feel like a kid again.
“The floor here was smooth when Larry and Gord first moved in, but now it is very rough and bumpy from the 30-year buildup of drips of paint splattered all over the place,” Rayner says. “I really appreciate how much time and effort is required for each sign that comes through this shop. A new sign, from design to installation, takes 40 to 60 hours of labour, including a paint process over several days, but we are young, eager and not afraid to get our hands dirty!”