Flashback to the May / June Issue of Breaking Ground Magazine where Graphics 22 Signs was spotlighted
read the article below
Graphics 22 Signs manufactures and installs commercial and architectural signage in Western PA. The Hazelwoodbased company was incorporated in 2000, when Jennifer Panian, president of Graphics 22 Signs, decided to take the chance that her entrepreneurial drive, and a growing demand, would lead to success.
Panian started her career in the signage business, working for Bunting Graphics, but left to work in a corporate setting. She married her husband Jeff, a former co-worker at Bunting, and left the workforce to start a family. During those years, Jeff Panian started his own graphics business. By 2000, Jennifer says she started believing that she could be her own boss too and founded Graphics 22 Signs.
Initially, Graphics 22 Signs was doing retail and small business signs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had rolled out completely and was driving business. Panian says the company was getting more inquiries about commercial sign opportunities and investigated that sector of the market. “We were doing retail and started getting more heavily into commercial around 2004,” she recalls. “We were being approached to do those kinds of jobs and declined them for a while. We saw it as a niche that was not being served. We decided to try a couple project and were lucky we didn’t get sued or killed! As we learned what that side of the business was like, we started working for contractors rather than the building owner who just needs a new sign for his pizza shop.” Panian’s joking aside, the transition to commercial signage was more about process than capacity. Graphics 22 had the human and equipment resources to make the signs and Jennifer notes that the complexity of commercial signage is often less than retail or small business signage. Much of it is way-finding and identification plaques that do not require creative input. Graphics 22 already possessed the computer-aided design and manufacturing capacity and the cutting technology to do the manufacturing. The evolution was one of project management, something that Jennifer found out she had more aptitude for than she knew. “It wasn’t that it was a different manufacturing process. It’s more project management where you need to be right on,” notes Panian. “You need to babysit the project. You need to make sure all your t’s are crossed and your i’s are dotted, and your paperwork is exact. You need to make sure your insurance is up-to-date. Now you have 70 pages of LEED documents. It’s a matter of organization and follow up.”
“Signs are always at the end and everybody forgets us. That’s why I have to be a really good babysitter,” Panian says. “I’m the call that reminds you that you’re beginning to do close out and you haven’t ordered the signs yet. Every month I lay out who I need to contact to remind that there are still things to be approved before we can start making signs.” The signage package is a relatively small part of a construction project and, because it is a last-minute item, signage is often overlooked as part of the critical path. But without the appropriate signage, the project won’t receive a certificate of occupancy. That is more than a minor oversight. Panian vows that won’t happen on her watch. Graphics 22 Signs has grown to employ 12 to 14 people. Like most employers, Panian says that hiring qualified people is her biggest challenge. Managing the younger generation of workers is right behind that, she jokes. Graphics 22 adds a handful of college students for the summer push. Panian says she’s lucky to have husband Geoff as vice president and creative force, while she sells most of the work.
Graphics 22’s estimator is an architect who is not only strong at figuring costs but also keeps their customers in compliance with ADA regulations, even if the plans and specs don’t reflect the codes. Its recent work includes the new residence halls at Penn State and the federal courthouse in Harrisburg. Most of Graphics 22 Signs’ work is closer to its Hazelwood shop, however. Among its recently completed projects are the Skyview in Oakland, and the award-winning Central Catholic STEM building and East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
After almost 20 years in business, Panian says Graphics 22 Signs is fortunate to have many repeat customers who call them for bids. The company’s hit rate is almost one in three, so the focus on project management and performance has paid dividends. Like most construction business owners, she has her share of headaches too. “Probably the toughest part about the construction business is getting paid. I sometimes work with these jobs for more than two years and it takes forever to get paid,” Panian says. “The other thing is people assuming that we have signs sitting on a shelf in the storage room. A lot of contractors drag their feet because I think they believe we can make signs in a couple of days. Yes, maybe we can make them in three days, but I have other jobs lined up and they have to get in line. We don’t just make those lead times up to make a contractor unhappy.”
Panian doesn’t see her business expanding but believes that the changes in technology will have a bigger impact on her business. “We could be bigger right now, but we choose to be the size operation that we are to keep our sanity,” she laughs. “What I do think has changed is how technology has been helping us in a lot of different ways in the past two or three years. All of our installations are now automated on tablets. All the drawings are there; all the signs are placed. Our installers just click on the screen and they know what sign to install where. I see the technology changing even more rapidly.” Installers using tablets can verify proper installations by photographing finished work. Documents can be updated in real time to show when signs are delivered to customers who choose to install themselves. Panian says the use of smart devices in the field has made dispute resolution much easier.
Graphics 22 Signs has embraced some of the new methods and technologies in manufacturing. They invested in a new 3-D printing technology in December that Jennifer says is a significant enhancement to their capabilities. Graphics 22 now produces 3-D printed signs using ink that is plastic and can produce colors and textures that are taken from images that the printer can reproduce. The printers are also capable of producing the more generic identification and wayfinding signs. The print media is UV ink so that exposure to the sun enhances the curing process and extends the life of the signs. While the 3-D printing technology may wow you with its creative capabilities, Panian says that it offers as much potential for meeting the demand of their day-to-day customers. She points out that the processes are on board so that it makes it very easy to do one-off sign requests like changing the name on a college professor’s office plaque.
Regardless of the technologies employed, Panian expects that the success of Graphics 22 Signs will hinge upon the attention to detail the company shows to its customers. “I found that I am very good at project management. I’m very organized and I like things to be done a certain way, and that works for project management,” Panian concludes. “You have to keep your eye on all the balls in the air at the same time. And I enjoy the relationships we have with the contractors. At the end of the day I can look at a building and see that we accomplished something.”