By Peter Saunders
These days, it’s rare to hear the word ‘neon’ come up in the news. Yet, that’s what happened in March when Toronto’s Ryerson University announced it had selected Hamilton-based Sunset Neon to restore the iconic Sam the Record Man sign.
“We are very pleased to announce the spinning neon discs will once again illuminate downtown Toronto,” said Mohamed Lachemi, Ryerson’s president and vice-chancellor. “We are all looking forward to the signs lighting up later this year.”
Ryerson’s new Student Learning Centre sits on Yonge Street on the former site of the flagship Sam’s store, which closed in 2007 and was demolished in 2008. Gregory Signs & Engraving of Concord, Ont., carefully dismantled the signage, catalogued the components and placed them in long-term storage.
In 2014, Toronto’s city council supported a proposal to reinstall the giant records on top of a public building at 277 Victoria Street, near the former store site and the bustling Yonge-Dundas Square. Ryerson would cover all restoration, installation and ongoing maintenance costs under its agreement with the city regarding the heritage-certified signage.
In early 2016, Ryerson issued a request for proposals (RFP), seeking qualified sign installation companies. After a lengthy review process, Sunset Neon was commissioned to handle the project.
From night patrols to manufacturing
Sunset’s owner and president, David Carley, started the business in 1982 after losing his job in a recession.
“It started out with fixing signs to pay my bills,” he explains. “I did ‘night patrols,’ driving around town to check if any of the local mom-and-pop businesses’ signs had gone out. Then I would follow up in the morning by visiting them and offering free quotes for replacing the bulbs.”
The following year, he moved the business from his home base in Hamilton to a dedicated 93-m2 (1,000-sf) facility in Mississauga, Ont., and started
to service regional retail chain accounts on a continual basis.
“There was a lot of neon that needed to be serviced in the mid-’80s, but we could also see room for controlled growth by switching our focus
to manufacturing, while still keeping servicing and installation work in-house,” says Carley, emphasizing it was important to proceed conservatively when assuming debt to add equipment and hire staff.
“We started in 1985 with manufacturing for the companies whose signs we were already servicing, then expanded from there to build for new clients. We specialized in neon-illuminated channel letters, which there were a lot of at the time, especially with the shopping mall building boom through 1988.
We never needed to make box signs or other types.”
By the end of the ’80s, business was so strong, Sunset had expanded to a 409-m2 (4,400-sf) facility, more than four times the size of its previous home.