May 16, 2017
By Peter Saunders
Keith Graham (pictured), founder and director of Marcom Signs & Graphics in Chilliwack, B.C., has built his business steadily by keeping its areas of expertise highly specialized, focusing on local clients and investing regularly in staff training and time-saving equipment. Now, he is planning to expand both the shop’s local footprint and its outward marketing reach.
A background in design
Graham was born, raised and educated in Scotland. After earning a degree in graphic design, he worked for himself, freelancing as a commercial jewellery photographer and running a printing company in Edinburgh.
“I was always more interested in design,” he explains, “but after outsourcing printing to other companies, I realized we could make more money by doing it on our own.”
He met his wife April, who was born in Richmond, B.C., while they were playing baseball—he for Scotland and she for Great Britain.
“She was a physiotherapist, but couldn’t get a permanent contract in the U.K,” he explains. “A few years after we visited Chilliwack, where her sister lives, we decided to move there ourselves.”
Launching the business
So, they moved to Chilliwack in 2008, where Graham was able to continue his career both as a jewellery photographer, doing work for clients like Birks and Spence, and in the print industry by helping to manage an existing local shop, Signal Signs & Graphics.
“The staff at Signal wanted to augment their traditional sign business with digital printing,” he explains. “I helped them set up their proofing and production systems and then I managed the business for two years.”
He considered buying the company himself, but instead left to launch his own new one, Marcom, in 2014 (the same year, as it turned out, as his wife opened her own physiotherapy clinic). Then, when Signal was going out of business, he bought its client list.
“I started Marcom modestly, as I had to buy or lease printing equipment in my own name,” he says, “but once I bought that list, I had access to a range of growing businesses as my clients, including high-profile car dealerships across the region.”
Investing in staff
As such, Marcom hit the ground running, leaving Graham too busy at first to fill his own staffing needs. He hired one designer who had worked for Signal, but otherwise, he ended up finding people outside the sign industry.
“I found as long as I got reliable, honest people, I could invest in training for them,” he says.
Out of his current staff of five, for example, he has sent two installers, Cam and Daniel, to graphic wrapping courses with 3M Canada and Avery Dennison. Even Nina, who answers the phone and uses Cyrious sign estimating and business software to help manage the shop, is now learning about vinyl in a technical context from ND Graphics.
“That leaves me to do sales,” says Graham. “I’m the one out quoting on jobs.”
Many applications for vinyl
The business vision for Marcom has always been to specialize in vinyl and digital printing, but for a wide range of potential applications, including vehicle wraps, storefront displays, perforated window films and decals.
“Having photographed jewellery for billboards, that’s the side of the sign industry I understand best,” Graham says. “I didn’t want to get into the electrical side of the business. Instead, we outsource that type of work to another shop in Surrey, B.C.”
The applications vary by client. For the car dealerships, for example, Marcom prints ‘courtesy vehicle’ wraps, floor graphics and retail displays. The company is contracted to produce decal kits for BC Hydro’s electric boxes and generators, with new orders coming in weekly. And existing monument signs are ‘reskinned’ with vinyl graphics when a given facility’s tenants change or rebrand.
One of the company’s biggest jobs to date is a 500-sign order for the rebranding of an entire corrections institute nearby, for which the design work has now started following a successful quote. Another area of growth has been subcontracted work for sign shops throughout Canada—they ship their finished graphics to Marcom, which in turn handles local site surveys and installations.
Standing out in the market
While Signal is defunct, Chilliwack is also home to other sign companies that pose local competition for Marcom. Given the risk of ‘commoditization’ in wide-format printing, Graham understands the need to differentiate his offerings from others.
“We don’t want to compete on price, so instead we do it by helping our community,” he says.
Indeed, Marcom has donated signs, graphics and other customized items to a broad range of organizations and events, including the Chilliwack Fair, the 4H Club, the Rotary Club of Chilliwack Fraser, the Wanted Children Foundation, the Fraser Valley Healthcare Foundation, the Salvation Army’s Santa Shuffle and the Chilliwack Chamber Business Excellence Awards. The company also helps its clients with their charitable efforts, such as Murray Honda’s ongoing collection of toys, backpacks, winter coats and boots for kids in need.
“Through these programs, our branding and marketing assistance helps ensure more than 1,000 local children do not go without,” says Graham.
How to keep up
To support growing demand with his five-person team, Graham starts each morning with a staff meeting in front of a job board. Together, they use cards on the board to define project timelines both in terms of days and through different types of production.
“Reliability can be an issue in the sign industry, but we promise to get our work to our clients on time,” says Graham. “This means keeping tight reins on things. Before printing on vinyl, for example, we look at how we can avoid wasting consumables and labour. We also work with suppliers like ND, All Graphic Supplies, Laird Plastics and Grimco that can get stuff to us the next day, so we don’t need to tie up our inventory.”
Similarly, the shop’s roster of equipment has been expanded with efficiency in mind. Having started out by picking up the lease for a Roland VersaCamm VS-540i large-format inkjet printer from Signal, Graham went on to add a Graphtec cutter, a Gerber Edge thermal printer for industrial labels on foil and a Ricoh printer for small-format work like business cards and booklets.
Most recently, the installation of a Rollover flatbed crease-free lamination applicator from ND has enabled one person to do work that used to take two or three. And next, an HP Scitex FB550 flatbed printer will speed up production and add the ability to print directly onto corrugated plastic substrates.
“We’ve already ordered it from ND, but will bring it in once we have more space,” Graham explains. “Right now, at 186 m2 (2,000 sf), space is very tight, but we’re planning to double that soon to 372 m2 (4,000 sf). We look forward to being able to do work faster and print on different substrates. We want to keep doing what we already do best, but better.”
And after expanding its current facility, Marcom’s next step may be to serve a wider territory.
“My intention in the next few years is to open ‘satellite’ shops,” Graham explains. “These would serve to take more orders, which we would still fulfil here from our base in Chilliwack.”
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