September 1, 2017
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.”
An education, by association
Over its first 10 years in business, Mattatall Signs became something of a victim of its own success, with a need for better control over its growth.
“My own focus had been heavily on the trade, but only lightly on administration,” says Mattatall. “I needed to understand more of the facets of running the company. So, I took a series of university and community college business courses, which enabled me to take a more informed approach to our business plans.”
His studies also helped expose him to a vast number of networking opportunities with local business mentors, chambers of commerce and, perhaps most importantly, industry associations, including SAC and the National Electric Sign Association (NESA), the precursors to today’s ISA.
“I spent lots of time at their shows, which helped increase the number of people I could call with my questions,” he explains. “The more you get to know someone, the faster the barriers that exist between you as competitors drop away.”
Inspired by this experience, he sought to break down barriers for other sign companies, too, with the goal of opening up the industry.
“There was a clear opportunity for the sign industry to become much more professional,” he says.
Another of his first tasks was to establish a local presence for SAC, which at the time represented a membership of companies almost wholly located in Southern Ontario. Through inquiries with the association, he found its bylaws would permit the establishment of regional chapters. So, he became instrumental in forming the first of these, representing the Atlantic Provinces.
“Before, we simply didn’t have that kind of industry support here on the East Coast,” he says.
Mattatall served as founding chair of the Atlantic Provinces chapter and held a board seat with SAC from 1990 to 1994. During this stint, he helped develop an ‘umbrella’ organization called the Canadian Sign Council, which combined SAC, the Atlantic Provinces chapter and the previously independent sign associations for British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec, creating a truly national organization for the first time. The primary goal was to share information and programming, with senior executives from all of the different regions meeting throughout the year.
Mattatall was president of the Canadian Sign Council from 1992 to 1999 and president of SAC from 1999 to 2003 and from 2006 to 2007. He was also elected to ISA’s board of directors in 2004, where he would ultimately rise to chair in 2016. His involvement with both SAC and ISA helped bring the two organizations closer together.
“SAC had been a regional association within the ISA framework, but member companies had to pay dues to both organizations,” he explains. “In 2010, ISA restructured its membership much as SAC had done in 2000. Today, all of SAC’s Class 1 members enjoy full status within ISA as part of their dues. And both ISA and SAC create programs that are of benefit to the industry.”
Finding tomorrow’s employees
One such program is Sign Manufacturing Day, a byproduct of ISA’s work with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), which had already established National Manufacturing Day in the U.S. The idea is to invite students to tour manufacturing facilities and get them interested in pursuing related careers.
“Lori Anderson and Allison Kent, ISA’s president/CEO and director of workforce development, respectively, brought NAM’s program over to the sign industry,” Mattatall says. “They helped sign companies see the benefit of it and they continue to offer a great deal of assistance to firms that wish to participate.”
For the first two years of ISA’s program, 2013 and 2014, Mattatall Signs was the only Canadian company to participate. Since then, however, others have joined in across the country, including Colortec Creative Print Solutions in Burnaby, B.C., Advantage Signs in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., Sleek Advertising in Regina, Pride Signs in Cambridge, Ont., Twilight Signs and Neon in Caledon, Ont., Les Enseignes Amtech in Joliette, Que., Enseignes Plus in Châteauguay, Que., and Hansen Signs in Moncton, N.B.
“It’s a chance to show kids all of the cool tools we get to use,” says Mattatall. “Within the sign industry, everything’s custom-made, not mass-manufactured. We get to pull a lot of very different trades together. In this sense, making a sign is a bit like building a house.”
He hopes the trend that has been started with Sign Manufacturing Day will continue to spread across the industry, as the fostering of tomorrow’s signmakers has become a major challenge.
“There has been phenomenal growth in education at the annual ISA Expo,” he says. “ISA also has skills assessment and validation badge programs that help give employers confidence in competently trained employees. People today are looking for these smaller snippets of training, not a four-year college degree in signmaking.”
Mattatall Signs, for its part, has long engaged with local high schools and community colleges, offering tours for students throughout the year, not just on Sign Manufacturing Day.
“New employees could come from anywhere,” says Mattatall. “Ensuring you’re well-staffed for the future requires multi-year investments in training and hiring. In this part of the country, for example, we lost a lot of young, talented and well-trained people to the oil industry boom in Alberta. Some of them are starting to return home now, as jobs are shifting back east.”
To avoid becoming too dependent on the ebbs and tides of the local labour pool, Mattatall Signs focuses on both external and internal training programs. In particular, cross-training—where production employees are taught how to perform more than one job function—has helped lead to better use of resources and boosted the employees’ enthusiasm and morale, which pays off in terms of retaining them for a longer tenure.
“Our average production or service employee has been in our employ for well over 10 years,” says Matatall.
Focusing on local clients
The company’s client base, too, has remained relatively stable over the long term.
“We’ve been able to retain some of the same customers I started with 38 years ago,” says Mattatall. “Mechanization has helped us meet their needs while they’ve grown from small to much larger organizations themselves.”
At the same time, the company has set up a special division called Signworld that focuses on smaller, everyday sign jobs, allowing it to cater to new clients that do not yet have large budgets.
“We tend to get attention for the bigger projects we do, but we’re not really a big company by sign industry standards,” says Mattatall, “and while we’ve handled national accounts, most of our focus remains local.”
His own role is now primarily as an advisor to the company’s senior executive team with regard to day-to-day operational and management issues. He also administers a few of the firm’s key accounts.
“My term with ISA ends this year and I’m looking forward to being more involved with my business again,” he says. “With my association involvement, it feels like I’ve been spending more time with people from across Canada, the U.S. and Europe than from my own local area, which has been both good and bad. I’m certainly looking forward to less travel!”
His legacy will continue this year as his son-in-law Justin Boudreau, director of finance and administration for Mattatall Signs, takes on the role of SAC president.
“He and my son Rob—who is one of our account executives and in charge of our membership within the World Sign Associates (WSA)—have been involved in the associations for a while and are well-positioned to bring actionable items back here,” says Mattatall.
Looking to the future
After growing rapidly in its early years, Mattatall Signs relies more today on partnerships with other local firms, rather than seeking to own all of the resources needed to complete its projects.
“Sign companies used to put everything under one roof, but were less profitable as a result,” says Mattatall. “We tried that, too, before realizing it was better to focus on our areas of specialization. We even hung onto our neon department for as long as we could. Now, though, we’ve become more efficient, faster and more profitable. I’ve realized our marketplace does not demand I grow my business much more than where it already is.”
He credits his active involvement with SAC and ISA, which he says have advocated for partnerships between knowledgeable professionals, for showing him this path to business success.
“The associations introduced us to other companies and helped build our ongoing relationships with them,” he says. “We’ve embraced some opportunities and not others. It’s a question of where can best spend our efforts. It’s certainly a challenge—and it’s why we continue to attend trade shows, read industry publications and work with the associations.”
Another challenge is keeping up with ongoing technological developments.
“There haven’t been as many changes at a grand scale in the last few years,” Mattatall says, “but the definition of a sign is constantly changing and it’s still a very exciting industry to be in.”
The growing emphasis on digitization and automation has been a double-edged sword, however, as it has made signmaking easier to accomplish with fewer hands.
“Signmakers have embraced what technology can do for them, but it has also allowed them to become lax at hiring, so now we have a greying workforce,” Mattatall says. “Younger people are much more comfortable with computerization and other technological changes, but they lack the skill sets in terms of craftsmanship.”
The solution he proposes—and implements at his company—is for young hires to ‘shadow’ experienced signmakers, much like how he began his own career in an apprenticeship.
“We’ve make a major effort in the past two years to find young, eager employees and train them under the watchful eye of our older staff, to ensure we keep a knowledge base in our facility as time passes,” Mattatall explains. “The young and the old work well together. Mentoring has to take place, so valuable experience can be transferred on to the next generation.”
With files from Mattatall Signs. For more information, visit www.mattatall.com.
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