Profile: Banff Sign Co.

by all | 26 March 2018 2:31 pm

By Peter Saunders


Brendon Rayner (left) and Kelso Brennan (right) have taken over operations.
Photos courtesy Banff Sign Co.

The Banff Sign Co., which was co-founded in 1986 by Larry Whan, recently changed ownership. As the only sign shop within Alberta’s Banff or Jasper National Parks, the company continues to keep busy serving a very specific niche.

Bylaws in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, Alta., mandate dimensional wooden signs with no internal illumination, which are the artisan shop’s specialty. It sources kiln-dried Western red cedar from British Columbia, clearcoats it for long-term durability and custom-fabricates signs for dozens of hotels and hundreds of restaurants and other businesses in the parks, in many cases creatively exploiting the sunlight reflectivity of 23-karat gold leaf to make up for the absence of electrical illumination.

Schooled in sign arts
Whan moved to Banff as a self-described hippie with little more than a guitar. After a friend paid him to paint a banner, he decided he could make a business out of it. He teamed up with Gord Fisher to found the Banff Sign Co.

After Fisher passed away in 1993, Whan took over the entire business and continued to build its profile by diligently perfecting his craft of carving and finishing wooden signs for stores, restaurants, hotels, resorts and other local attractions. As his reputation grew, he also shared this craft with others, hosting workshops at the Banff School of Sign Arts and educating students from around the world in specialized skills like hand-carving and glass-gilding.

Indeed, Banff’s booming tourism industry brought global attention to Whan’s work, which played a major role in defining the look of the town. While his unique style was particular to the local market, some visitors from away who appreciated the esthetic ended up ordering their own wooden signs from him after they returned home, thus extending his artistic influence.

At the same time, Whan kept up with changesin the broader sign and graphics industry. He added computers, a 1.4-m (4.5-ft) wide inkjet printer and a 1.2 x 2.4-m (4 x 8-ft) computer  numerical control (CNC) router to his 209-m2 (2,250-sf) shop—comprising three sections of the industrial compound, dedicated to woodworking, painting and digital design and printing—to expand his production capabilities. This allowed him to create everything from storefront window graphics to trade show booths.

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Eventually, Whan sold his house in Canmore, Alta., 20 minutes away from his shop, to move right into town. After months of looking for rental accommodations, however, he became frustrated with the zero vacancy rate of Banff’s housing market and he began to look into alternative options.

In 2014, the town’s municipal planning commission granted him permission to break with precedent, construct a 74-m2 (800-sf) one-bedroom apartment above his shop and thus become the first person ever to convert commercial space in Banff to residential space and live legally within its industrial park.


Larry Whan co-founded the shop in 1986 and ran it by himself from 1993 to 2017.

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.[3]—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.”

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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.


The shop sources Western red cedar from British Columbia and clearcoats it for long-term durability.

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!”


A stroll down Banff Avenue passes many of the shop’s signs.

The path to future success
In May 2017, Whan stepped further away from the business. He moved into an angler’s lodge in Crowsnest Pass so he could spend most of his time fishing.

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The new owners did not miss a beat, growing the business by 15 per cent in their first year and hiring Brett Foskett to oversee local business development and Dean Keller for woodworking and installations.

“Banff is always changing, with businesses moving in and moving out, providing us with local clientele,” says Brennan. “We are now setting our sights on nearly doubling our sales by expanding in the Bow Valley and selling to other sign companies.”

Also, this summer, Brennan and Rayner plan to revive the Banff School of Sign Arts with a new curriculum, combining traditional signmaking skills with lessons about how to run a successful, profitable shop. Whan intends to return to teach some of the courses as a guest.

“Who wouldn’t like to travel to Banff to learn?” says Brennan. “We will tailor the material for smaller sign companies. Some of it will be taught at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the rest at the shop.”

“Walking down Banff Avenue is like looking at a portfolio of this company’s heritage and the direction it will take in the future,” says Rayner. “It’s exciting to be part of this and to continue the craft out here.”

Customizing a famous brand for Banff


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