June 14, 2017
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.
Following a dip with the 1990-91 recession, the next phase of expansion came in 1992, when Sunset moved into a 464.5-m2 (5,000-sf) facility in Burlington, Ont., closer to its Hamilton roots, and was officially incorporated.
“We’ve tended to move every eight years as we outgrow each building,” says Carley. “We’ve tried to continue with the same business plan for organic growth by keeping our existing clients and dedicating a few key staff members to prospecting new ones. The prospecting can be a struggle, as we all get busy, but growth will not come without new blood.”
With this strategy, Sunset was able to add new national accounts every year or two, becoming a long-term supplier for The Body Shop, Moore’s Clothing for Men, Michael Hill and other retail chains across Canada. In addition to supplying signs when new stores opened and existing ones were refurbished, Sunset gained trust by ensuring local sign bylaws were followed from city to city.
“Our national accounts come back to us year after year,” Carley says. “All of the Dairy Queen (DQ) franchisees, for instance, like to deal with us because they know we will provide a solid product and we won’t miss a grand opening.”
In addition to serving regular customers across Canada, Sunset began to manufacture signs for shipping to locations in the U.S. and further abroad, including a video arcade in Japan.
“We shipped the components and sent our installers over there to handle them,” says Carley.
Continued organic growth
The initial move to Burlington was followed by two relocations within the same city, first to a 929-m2 (10,000-sf) facility in 1999 and then to a 1,858-m2 (20,000-sf) facility in 2007, doubling the size of the company’s footprint each time.
Each move set the stage for major investments in new machinery, as well as research and development (R&D) efforts in emerging areas like light-emitting diode (LED) illumination and computer numerical control (CNC) routing.
“The sign industry continues to make improvements very quickly,” Carley says. “You walk through a mall today and the signs all look fantastic and are high-quality. Even a sign from just two years ago looks very clunky by comparison.”
At the end of 2016, Sunset moved back to its hometown, Hamilton, with a 4,645-m2 (50,000-sf) manufacturing facility providing more room for a staff that had doubled over the previous three years, to more than 50.
“This location has the best and most advanced equipment available in our industry,” says Carley. “It’s very exciting to be part of this experience, where a mature company is still growing organically. Sales were up 37 per cent in the first quarter (Q1) of 2017 versus last year.”
Sunset now focuses more strictly on sign fabrication and installation, outsourcing servicing to a local Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) franchise. The Sam’s signage, however, will be installed by Media Resources International (MRI) of Oakville, Ont. (see Sign Media Canada, July 2016, page 24).
A reputation for project management
Carley credits winning the Sam’s job to Sunset’s well-established reputation, not only in terms of in-house engineering and glass bending for large signs, but also for dedicated project management.
“Our level of project management is what our clients love most about us,” he says. “It’s also important we now have a facility that can handle the magnitude of the project. This sign is huge!”
Tony Bianchi, account manager, is overseeing the project. He had 26 years’ experience in the sign industry when he joined Sunset in 2002 as a project manager. And as it happened, he would go on to do work for Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre just a few years later.
“That’s why they called me up with regard to the Sam’s sign about three-and-a-half years ago,” he explains. “I wrote up a feasibility report for them.”
The two neon discs of the Sam’s sign were originally wall-mounted in 1977 and 1987 and had deteriorated significantly by the time they were taken down
in 2008. The challenge for both Ryerson and the city of Toronto was to choose a new installation site that would provide a high level of visibility for
the historic artifact, comply with local bylaws and, from a structural engineering point of view, withstand the wind load.
“I got engineers involved and we came up with the idea for a louvered system that would allow the wind to pass right through the rebuilt sign,” says Bianchi. “The way this works, the background of the sign will look like a solid panel, but it isn’t. It’s a bit like a set of Venetian window blinds.”
Ryerson has asked Sunset to preserve as much of the original sign as possible. Once Bianchi’s team checks the condition of all of the components now in storage, they will be able to determine more specifically which of them can be reused and which will need to be replicated.
Another reason Sunset is well-suited for the job is, unlike many other sign shops, it still has a neon department with a glass blower on staff. The family of Sam Sniderman—the Record Man himself—has insisted on maintaining neon illumination for the spinning discs, rather than switching to LEDs or another technology.
“There used to be lots of unique neon signs along Yonge Street,” says Bianchi, “but these days, we’ve had a hard time finding new neon components. Our supplier has had to source them from the U.S. for this project.”
Indeed, given this dearth of neon suppliers, Sunset will not only restore the Sam’s sign, but also blow glass for replacement parts for use 10 or 20 years in the future.
“We’ll create quite a few spare parts—including the transformers, neon and electrical components—and house them on-site,” Carley explains, “so when the time comes for servicing, they can all be easily accessed.”
At press time, Sunset’s team is meeting with city council to determine further logistics—such as the potential need to shut down a lane of Dundas Street during the work—and to acquire the necessary permits based on engineering drawings, with the installation tentatively scheduled for the fall.
“This project is a big highlight for us,” says Carley. “Tony was very persistent in pursuing it and did a great job.”
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