March 22, 2017
By Peter Saunders
Founded in 1999, Saskatoon-based Kota Graphics has grown alongside the local economy, expanding from semi-truck fleet decals to retail graphics, interior decor transformations, resurfacing films and many other applications. Paul Vass, owner (pictured), explains the company’s evolution has been gradual and organic, meeting the needs of customers drawn to it through word of mouth.
Working from home
Vass studied visual arts when he was in high school in Medicine Hat, Alta. Halfway through Grade 12, he decided he wanted to work in creative advertising, so he began applying for jobs—but then a friend who was working at a sign shop in Saskatoon asked him for help.
“They needed someone to cut wood for signs in the summer,” Vass says. “After I joined, I also learned how to run plotters, design and produce stickers and install signs, so they kept me on.”
He spent the next seven years working for several local sign shops before he saw an opportunity in 1999, when he was 25, to get his own business off the ground. He started off catering to the trucking industry, producing and installing fleet graphics from a home-based office, and named his business after the shortened nickname for his dog, Dakota.
“It happened quickly, after I realized all of the other names I could think of were already taken,” he says. “I started the company in January and spent those cold first few months grinding out work for whatever new clients I could find. Every room was filled with weeding tables and boxes of premask. Whenever we wanted to eat, we had to move everything around in the kitchen.”
The situation quickly proved unsustainable—not just for the house, but for the entire neighbourhood.
“Our customers were driving their semi-trucks down our tiny street,” says Vass. “Within about six months, we received notice from the city we weren’t in compliance with the zoning rules!”
So, he sold the house that summer and moved the business to an approximately 93-m2 (1,000-sf) office, with a garage for wrapping. To help save money, Vass set up his own apartment in the same premises.
“I didn’t want any unnecessary financial burden on myself or the company,” he says. “I’ve always taken cautious steps along the way. Of course, back then, my ambitions were pretty humble. If I made $100 in a given day, I would just stop working and go sit in a pool!”
In 2002, facing the need for a larger installation bay, Kota moved to a 372-m2 (4,000-sf) L-shaped facility. The number of staff increased to seven.
“We never really advertised ourselves or made cold calls for sales, but word of mouth helped us transition to a larger scale,” Vass explains. “Whenever we came across a new opportunity, we really attached ourselves to it. After an ambulance company approached us for new fleet graphic designs, for example, we ended up making decals for them for about 10 years.”
Vinyl weeding gave way to digital inkjet printing, starting in 2005 with a Gerber Jetster and a Mimaki JV3, enabling Kota to provide full-colour wraps. Retailers began to commission point-of-purchase (POP) displays, along with window and wall graphics. Vass credits the attention to a focus on in-house design.
“We’ve always believed in that,” he says. “Our tagline was ‘revolutionizing the sign industry,’ which we set out to do simply by making signs look nice. Our philosophy has always been that it’s just as easy and takes the same amount of time to make an appealing sign as a boring one. That’s why we’ve always had designers on staff, making it possible for our customers to deal with one shop from start to finish.”
Serving new businesses
The next relocation coincided in 2009 with Saskatoon’s economic boom. Kota became one of the first companies to move into the city’s newly developed north end.
“That year, the city had a less than one per cent vacancy rate for commercial properties,” says Vass. “This is why the north end made sense for us. As new businesses moved in, we got a lot of attention from them, since they all needed signage and fleet graphics.”
At 418 m2 (4,500 sf), the new space not only was larger than the previous one, but also offered a better layout for a staff of nine and an installation bay that can accommodate a 16-m (53-ft) long trailer if needed. Efficiency increased by 35 per cent.
That was an important improvement, as with the vibrant economy, the pressure on sign companies to meet deadlines became much stronger. Rather than become a mass producer of ‘commodity’ graphics, however, Kota took on a broader variety of creative projects, including trade show booths and enormous wall murals, such as a bathroom stall wrapped to resemble the inside of a Ford truck.
To support such undertakings, the production department added more Mimaki printers, along with an HP durable aqueous ‘latex’ printer.
“The latex inks are great for indoor wall graphics,” says Vass. “We used to see our solvent-based graphics pushing themselves off of the walls in certain places, depending on the type of paint that was beneath them. It even happened once with graphics we had allowed to outgas for a full year! The latex graphics stick with zero problems.”
Another, related new endeavour has been expanding into architectural films for projects like door wraps and feature wall upgrades. As Kota has gained experience in this area, it has become one of only a few shops in Western Canada certified to use 3M security films.
“It was a steep learning curve, as these products behave very differently and require advanced techniques for proper application,” says Vass, “but they have proven popular with contractors.”
Given the continued growth of the local economy, Kota’s shop space may be increased again within the next five years, with a focus on expanding into flatbed printing.
“I’ve seen some very impressive printers and can tell where the industry is heading,” says Vass. “The types of projects and creative uses you can offer with a flatbed are very appealing.”
Building industry connections
In 2010, Kota joined the Sign Association of Canada (SAC), which Vass credits for making his business more sustainable, particularly in terms of establishing industry connections.
“I knew about SAC because one of my former employers, Gerry Weninger, used to be president of the Saskatchewan chapter,” he explains. “Within a year of joining, we had built great relationships with other sign shops in Saskatoon and Regina. We can tackle jobs together to make sure deadlines are met. It’s a great group and everyone’s really, really helpful when it comes to teamwork.”
For Vass, this arrangement has also helped highlight the need to add further capacity to his own shop.
“We recently hired a new designer and new installers and our current crew is the best we’ve ever had,” he says, “but we’ve been at capacity for a number of years and there have been times we’ve had to turn down a lot of business. We desperately need a source of new employees in this province.”
With that in mind, he has been involved in developing a new educational curriculum, which SAC is now rolling out, starting in British Columbia.
“I want to see that expand into trade schools in Regina and Saskatoon,” he says. “The sign industry is such a cool, creative place to work. The projects are so different day in, day out. We need to get that message across to students.”
Inspired by his experiences with SAC, Vass is now president of the Saskatchewan Sign Association (SSA). As such, he has set his sights on increasing membership across the province.
“Last year, we had SAC’s highest-attended Road Show event, which was an incredible time with friends from other sign shops,” he says. “It really showed me we could build a much larger chapter and benefit from each other in many new ways.”
Temporarily Tagging a Porsche
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