March 23, 2016
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.
Travelling the world
Another major milestone came in 2011, when Aquin was put in touch with Garry VanDenBerghe, founder of Knifeless Tech Systems in Vernon, B.C.
VanDenBerghe had invented Knifeless tape, which involved a patented method for trimming vehicle wrapping vinyl films using a filament instead of a knife. He hired Aquin to help develop and promote the product further by demonstrating its use on car wraps, so people could see how it would help them with installation.
“I had met his brother at a curling bonspiel,” Aquin says. “It was completely coincidental and felt like it was meant to be.”
Indeed, as Aquin puts it, this opportunity changed his life. He got to travel the world, demonstrating the tape at events in Australia, China, Denmark, Germany, Japan and, most frequently, the U.S.
“When I started to work with Knifeless, they had signed on Fellers as their distributor in the U.S.,” he explains. “I made a video to help the team at Fellers understand how to fold the tape to get it started. Ever since then, I’ve continued to work with them.”
He also got to hone his skills by working with many of the best vehicle wrappers around, such as Justin Pate and Canada’s own Brandon Blancher, gaining from their own specialized expertise. And Aquin was the only Canadian in late 2015 to pass a test designed and administered by Pate to become an Avery Dennison Certified Wrap Installer (CWI).
“The certification exam is rigorous,” says Pate. “It is meant to ensure those who pass are the best of the best.”
“No one else in Winnipeg has those skills,” says Aquin.
Taking part in wrap competitions also brought him international recognition and built his credibility further. In 2014, for example, Aquin joined Jim Miller from the U.S. to compete in the World Wrap Masters event at the largest-ever Federation of European Screen Printers Associations (FESPA) Mexico trade show. They came in first place out of 16 teams after wrapping not just cars, but also mannequins, toilet seats and speakers.
“With the international events, I’m known more as the face of Knifeless than I am for Adhere Graphics,” he says. “A lot of people are shocked when they find out I’m not the owner of Knifeless!”
That connection continues to be strong. In 2015, Aquin served as head trainer for a Knifeless accreditation course for 3M’s own staff in St. Paul, Minn.
Working from home
Today, Aquin’s dad and brother continue to run Country Signs. When Adhere Graphics gets a job, he pays his dad to print the graphics before he installs them.
“I also do colour-change wraps, so in those cases, I buy the films myself,” he says.
Two years ago, he bought a house with a garage on the property large enough to accommodate his car-wrapping business.
“It’s a big two-door garage with a lift for the cars,” he says. “I’m really happy to have my own shop, although I still also work in other people’s shops a lot.”
After a few stints with staff, Adhere Graphics is back to being a one-man operation.
“I had a hard time training new employees,” Aquin says. “Trailer wraps would be a good way to get people started, for example, but we don’t get a lot of those in the Winnipeg area. Over the past year, I worked pretty much on my own and earned better profits that way. I would like to oversee employees so I could work a bit less, but I don’t want to stop wrapping either, so I’m still trying to figure out the perfect scenario.”
When he does need assistance for a difficult job, Aquin often turns to GBLK Enterprises, another installation company based in Winnipeg. He also sometimes turns to Masters of Branding (MOB), a large-format graphic installer community of which he is a member.
“They’re based in the U.S. and some of them have come up to help me, such as with chrome wraps,” he says. “My brother is also a 3M-preferred installer and I sometimes bring him on as my employee.”
As he faces the future, Aquin says he continues to look forward to further changes in the wrap industry.
“I need to get more into paint-protection films,” he says. “I want to be at the front of this industry, keeping ahead of the curve.”
Tuning a Dodge Viper
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