By Peter Saunders
Mattatall Signs, based in Dartmouth, N.S., has manufactured and installed thousands of signs over nearly 40 years. The influence of its founder, president and CEO, Robert E. Mattatall (pictured), on the sign industry has been even more expansive, however, as he has held senior positions with both the Sign Association of Canada (SAC) and the International Sign Association (ISA) and has served on many industry-specific task forces and steering committees.
“I’ve always had a passion for associations and how they can contribute to an individual’s career and to a company’s overall success,” he says.
An early career change
Mattatall began his career in an apprenticeship to become an electrician. While working for a local hotel, he was asked to assist a representative of Claude Neon with the installation of replacement cold-cathode lighting in a set of large illuminated sign letters.
“I found the experience very interesting,” he says. “My dad happened to know the manager of Day Nite Neon Signs and arranged an interview for me. That meeting and my subsequent hiring changed my career path.”
Between 1976 and 1979, he worked for Day Nite and another local company, Young Signs, before deciding to go into business for himself. He opened the doors to Mattatall Signs in February 1979 and immersed himself in every facet of the business.
“Initially, we were a company of just two full-time professionals,” he says, “so all we could do was focus on smaller hand-painted signs, truck lettering, sign servicing and the occasional installation. Only later could we expand into the more creative design and fabrication work associated with the illuminated sign market.”
Seizing opportunities for growth
The early years of the business were during a time of change for the sign industry as a whole. The first vinyl plotters were being brought out by Gerber Scientific Products (GSP) and the extrusion market was just starting to develop.
“Although we started out as a small shop doing hand-painted signs, technology provided so many new capabilities for building signs,” says Mattatall. “It was a great time to expand.”
Indeed, the company doubled in size in its second year and moved to a new location in its third—where it promptly ran out of space again, just two-and-a-half years later.
“We expanded six times and moved to three different sites within our first 15 years,” says Mattatall, “but our growth had to be smart and methodical, as capital was hard to come by at the time. It’s easy to forget now how the chartered banks’ interest rates were almost 20 per cent back then!”
With those issues in mind, even while the company continued to grow organically and through acquisitions, Mattatall strove to keep the number of clients at a reasonable level. And within the Halifax market, many of these clients were family acquaintances running local businesses, providing an opportunity to establish a high level of trust.
“We could always stand behind the product we built,” says Mattatall.
As an early adopter of computerized signmaking technologies, including a Gerber Sabre router and a 9.1-m (30-ft) Esab router-plotter, the shop took advantage of opportunities to increase the speed of fabrication through mechanization, with its employees trained accordingly.
“In this industry, you have to train your staff well and invigorate their passion for the work,” says Mattatall. “As so much of what we do is specific to our industry, there is no particular trade school or ready-made labour pool we can look to. Instead, we have had to provide most of the particular training in-house.”