Banner Times for the Sign Industry

The sign business is having a banner season in northern Michigan. Traverse City is home to many creative production companies that provide an array of services from wayfinding signage to experiential exhibits, event banners to pop-up displays, transit bus wrapping to auto painting. The possibilities are as unique as the creative companies leading the field locally. Here’s a round-up of a range of the region’s firms.

Britten, Inc.
2322 Cass Road, Traverse City
Year founded: 1985
Number of employees: 300

History: Paul Britten founded Britten Banners in 1985 in Arlington, Virginia, relocating to his hometown of Traverse City in 1993. The company – in turn known as Britten Media, Britten Studios and today’s Britten, Inc. – has evolved to become a major local employer and an internationally known creative production house “dedicated to delivering innovative signage, displays and event branding solutions.”

Numerous milestones were achieved in the past 34 years, including bringing the first solvent inkjet printer ever sold to the region in 1996, the same year Britten became the leading signage company for NASCAR. Banner Galaxy was introduced in 2000, offering online ordering options. In 2002, Britten was awarded a patent for its unique BannerSaver bracket system, later implemented around the world including displays at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The company was chosen as the official Big 10 signage provider in 2008 and has had contracts with major sporting events and organizations for decades. Other innovations and product lines include Foam3D™ technology, BannerRails and BoxPop customized shipping containers for events and mobile tours. In September 2019, Britten, Inc. launched a new website, logo and complete brand makeover.

Major clients: Major customers include retail developer Simon Property Group, Meijer stores, Daytona International Speedway, Burton and Under Armour. Event agencies are also significant, leading to projects like the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), Major League Baseball & Major League Soccer all-star games, Coachella and the inaugural Side by Side Festival at Rockefeller Center.

Interesting projects in 2019: According to Senior Designer Mike Dudek, many of Britten’s most unique and challenging projects are protected by non-disclosure agreements but notes two – Aerosmith and the Dow LPGA Tournament. The Aerosmith project (pictured left) produced the “Deuces Are Wild” stage wings from design to execution, requiring 3D modeling and hundreds of sheets of 4×8 foam that was scored and bent along a massive wooden half pipe set up in the Britten production facility. The other was the inaugural Dow LPGA Tournament in Midland, Michigan. Planning began in January for branding opportunities that would be highly visible on the course and television coverage. Floating Foam3D™ logos appeared in water hazards, tee box signage, interactive walls for the welcome center and a STEM learning center.

Looking ahead: “We’ve seen an increased focus on temporary event structures and experiential events where brands can interact directly with their intended audience,” Dudek said, noting Britten’s BoxPop® division of customized shipping containers has become a cornerstone of mobile event activations, complemented by Britten’s creative production services.

Parting thoughts: Dudek stresses their mission continues to guide their work. “(Our mission states) … ‘When you want to create a buzz for your brand, trust Britten to get you noticed,’” he said. “From concept to completion, we’re dedicated to building up the brands of our customers with the highest-level of creativity, printing, fabrication, installation and personal service. Britten says yes to projects, no matter how big or small, delivering world-class marketing and promotional material and unforgettable event experiences for your customers.”

1702 Barlow Street, Traverse City
Year founded: 1990 (as Signs Now)
Number of employees: 19

History: Andrew Kohlmann fell in love with the industry shortly after he started working for Signs Now in the production department in 1996. He and his wife, Amy, purchased the business in 2008 from previous owners, Bill and Elise Auxier, renaming it Image360. During the past 11 years, the company has seen an average 20% year-over-year growth leading to expanded staff, facility and equipment. Image 360 was named the 2017 Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business of the Year and a 2017 Michigan Top 50 Company to Watch. Earlier this year, they completed a major expansion which tripled production space and added a new automotive-grade paint booth.

Major clients: Image360 clients primarily include northern Michigan schools, churches, interior design firms, architects, marketing agencies, general contractors, banks and credit unions. Examples include 4Front Credit Union, Hagerty, Grand Traverse Resort & Casinos and Interlochen Center for the Arts.

Notable projects in 2019: Kohlmann said the past year marked an influx of large interior and exterior signage for many local schools including Grand Traverse Academy, Immaculate Conception Elementary School, Suttons Bay Schools, Northport Public Schools, Lake City Schools and Charlevoix Area Public Schools.
“We’re proud to design and manufacturer everything right here in Traverse City, including ADA-compliant Braille signs,” Kohlmann said.

“Another unique project was the production and installation of the (Traverse City Arts Commission’s) Native American art panels in the Clinch Park Tunnel,” he said, noting the project encompassed over 150’ lineal feet of printed panels and custom LED perimeter lighting, completed within a short time frame. “Our team really came together to make it happen.”

Looking ahead: “We’re continuing to differentiate by focusing on unique, memorable projects while actively expanding our products and services line,” Kohlmann said. “We’ve been expanding into experiential graphic design (XGD) over the last few years but are making it a focus in 2020, (because it) is all about creating spaces that communicate. The XGD mindset really pushes the envelope of creativity, manufacturing techniques and installation.”

Parting thoughts:
We’re a UL-licensed sign manufacturer, which allows us to manufacturer lighted signs and components right here in northern Michigan. We employ 18 full-time team members, four of which are graphic designers. We work closely together to bring ideas to fruition. Overall, Image360 is a total solutions provider for nearly everything related to a company’s or organization’s image: printed collateral, vehicle wraps, wayfinding signage, donor recognition walls, custom displays and trade show booths to name a few.

Pro Image Design
331 South Airport Road, Traverse City
12386 Cherry Avenue, Rapid City
Year founded: 2000
Number of employees: 16

History: Pro Image Design operates from locations in Traverse City and Rapid City. Owner Alan Hubbard officially began the company in Torch River in 2000 but did not hire staff until 2003. He opened the 331 South Airport Rd. location in 2009 with subsequent facility expansions in 2016, increasing the size to 12,000 square feet. Pro Image purchased 40-year old Sign and Design of Petoskey in 2014, expanding capacity with five veteran employees, additional skills and greater geographical coverage. The latest expansion came after Pro Image Design was selected by SeaDek of Florida to manufacture and fabricate SeaDek Marine Flooring for the Great Lakes region in 2018. This led to the addition of Coastal Marine Customs inside Pro Image Design.

Major clients: Transit is a key sector that Pro Image Design serves. The company began wrapping buses for BATA in 2014 and continues to wrap their expanding fleet as well as many other transit authorities throughout northern Michigan. Municipalities like the City of East Jordan and City of Charlevoix are using Pro Image Design to design, fabricate and install new wayfinding sign systems. Others include EJ Americas, which used Pro Image Design to fabricate facility signs and ship internationally. A project for EJ Americas led to an October 2019 spotlight in an industry publication, which profiled Pro Image Design’s work with EJ Americas and the largest sign the company had ever built, measuring 24-feet tall and 41-feet long, and installed in 36 sections at a 110-foot height on the new EJ Americas foundry in Elmira, Michigan.

Notable projects in 2019: Hubbell says the addition of Coastal Marine and the SeaDek product was notable and a natural fit since the company did a significant amount of work in the marine industry. Other highlights included creating a new market into design and fabrication of architectural exterior metal panels and canopies on buildings as well as design, fabrication and installation of all the exterior signage at the new McLaren Health Care hospital in West Branch.

Looking ahead: “We are optimistic going into 2020 and will continue to try new things … just because it is not a sign, doesn’t mean we cannot do it,” Hubbard said. “We find ourselves working on a lot of different types of projects because of our knowledge, skills, talent and equipment. This keeps things exciting, ever-changing and feeds the creative minds we have on staff.”

Parting thoughts: “We are often mistaken as a franchise. We actually started here in northern Michigan to serve small businesses,” Hubbard said. “Nothing energizes us more than partnering with small businesses and helping them to carve out their brand and success.”

1555 M-37, Traverse City
Year founded: 2002
Number of employees: 12

History: Owner Simon Wolf started Signplicity in the basement of his Traverse City home in 2002 before moving to his first facility a few years later. In 2010, Wolf purchased his current building on M-37, expanding capacity from 1,500 to 25,000 square feet. Key milestones included adding a flatbed printer in 2010, a bucket truck and installation division in 2017 and doubling staff from six to twelve during the past two years. Wolf noted that both 2018 and 2019 were record-breaking years for the company.

Major clients: Signplicity provides services to many higher education institutions including University of Colorado, Lake Superior State University and Ferris State University. Other key clients include American Waste, Interlochen Center for the Arts and national sign companies that ship signage for installation for clients like T-Mobile, Starbucks and Hobby Lobby.

Notable projects in 2019: Signplicity implemented a large wayfinding project in the City of Harbor Springs during much of the past year. Corbin Design designed a system of exterior pedestrian and vehicular signage throughout the city, which Signplicity then led through permitting, production and installation.

Looking ahead: Wolf is looking forward to expanded growth in 2020. He notes capacity is increased thanks to newly installed equipment like an automotive paint booth, a CNC router for aluminum and custom shapes,and UL listing which allows Signplicity to do all electric signs in shop. The company is also launching a new equipment and market line for Helix wholesale electric signs. Signplicity will serve as a wholesale distributor to other sign companies for electric signs. The new division just launched in Michigan in late December. Wolf hopes to expand to move into national distribution during the upcoming year.

Parting thoughts: Wolf credits Signplicity’s success to the people on his team and the creative design talents they bring to each project. “At the end of the day, it’s making customers more attractive and building strong relationships,” Simon said, noting Signplicity’s family-oriented culture, building long-lasting employee and client relationships.

Traverse City Sign Shop
891 Industrial Circle, Suite C, Traverse City
Year founded: 2019
Number of employees: 3

History: Paul Reid opened Traverse City Sign Shop in early 2019 after working in the sign business for more than 30 years.

Major clients: Traverse City Sign Shop works with many local businesses and fire departments including: 4 Seasons Storage, Bendon Heating & Propane, Pro Maintenance 4 Seasons, BVC Construction, Leland Fire, Glen Arbor Fire and Northern Latitudes Distillery.

Notable projects in 2019: Reid noted working on a Glen Lake Fire vehicle that required wrapping the vehicle by changing the original black color to match the red of other trucks. Another project required recreating and applying a design on a Mini Cooper vehicle after an owner purchased an online kit that didn’t work.

Looking ahead: Traverse City Sign Shop is building new markets through recently acquired equipment: an embroidery machine and a direct to garment machine that will print full color on fabrics, shirts and bags. Reid said he is excited to have the new equipment and is looking forward to continue growing the business further in the year ahead.

Parting thoughts: Reid stressed the need to keep up with industry changes and be attentive to customers and jobs of all sizes. “Don’t ever turn down the smallest job,” he said, “because it may lead to something bigger.”