By Peter Saunders
Phil Aquin’s career in the sign industry spans almost his entire lifetime, as he began helping his father weed, mask and install vinyl graphics at the tender age of 13. Today, he runs Adhere Graphics, a small and well-regarded vehicle wrap shop in Elie, Man., a 20-minute drive from Winnipeg.
An early start
Both Aquin’s father and uncle started out in the sign industry by cutting names out of wood using a band saw and sandblasting monuments, respectively. His dad then bought a thermal printer and plotter and founded Country Signs to produce decals and 1.2 x 2.4-m (4 x 8-ft) signs for local trucks and semi-trailers.
“We lived along a highway,” Aquin explains. “We didn’t have a computer at home before then, so signmaking is how I learned how to use one. I would help my dad during my lunch hour and after school. I still remember creating a graphic of Garfield the cat by cutting and layering films, so the orange was on top of the black.”
On one occasion, Country Signs received a 100,000-piece order for 12.7-mm (0.5-in.) letters. Aquin and his aunts all helped out, weeding vinyl for hours and hours.
“It was a long, tedious process,” he recalls.
Going all in
After Aquin finished school, he went full-time with Country Signs. In addition to producing vinyl signs in their garage, he and his dad sanded, primed, painted and installed exterior-grade plywood signs.
“As my career went on, I did work for other sign companies too,” he says. “At one point, when I was getting tired of the graphics industry, I built a house with a couple of friends, which got me thinking about getting into carpentry—but my skills weren’t as strong in that field.”
A call from another local company, Signmeister, got Aquin back into the business in 2000, with a focus on installing large-format graphics for Sobeys grocery stores throughout Western Canada.
“That brought me back to where I should be,” he says. “The graphics were supplied by Eastern Sign Print in Stellarton, N.S., near where Sobeys’ headquarters (HQ) were based, and I took over installing them on the store walls.”
After that major rollout, Aquin went back to work for Country Signs and continued to help Signmeister on the side. He started to notice the growing popularity of vehicle wraps in 2002.
“I was working with Ken Grenkow, who asked me in 2003 to help him wrap a vehicle,” Aquin says. “It took a while, but I realized this was what I wanted to specialize in.”
Driven to wrap
Among Aquin’s first jobs were a couple of Humvees that had already been wrapped, but unsuccessfully, by a lower bidder.
“I started by removing some of the vehicles’ parts, which made it easier to make the wraps look good,” he explains. “No one else in Winnipeg was doing that at the time!”
He says he felt drawn to the field by the potential to change the entire appearance of vehicles with vinyl.
“It was amazing what you could do,” he says. “Everyone was buying inkjet printers, but if I specialized in wrap installation, I could stand out from the crowd and make more money.”
By this point, Aquin was married and had a young daughter, so he was no longer earning enough by working for his dad. Instead, he focused his efforts on installing graphics printed by other sign companies, including but not limited to Country Signs.
“I was doing bus graphics all by myself and getting more and more jobs,” he says. “I was getting really fast at wrapping.”
In this way, he cornered the local market. In 2010, he got accredited by 3M as a preferred installer and established Adhere Graphics.