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Returning to my first love - part 7. A Landmark opportunity.

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

"To hell with circumstances, I create opportunity." - Bruce Lee.

So there's supposedly a story here, but I don't know if it's true. I'll save it for the end and if you know the characters I'm referring to let me know what you know. It's silly. Weather or not factual, this point of career alteration was an incredible place to learn all kinds of things in and about the sign industry, which outside of government and sales I love everything about. So, this company (Landmark) was much larger than the others I was used to having 40 plus employees at the time I believe. (to that point was used to only single digit range). AND wow, there were different departments for everything, an important sounding older guy that did facts and figures and stuff in a suit, and a conference room! whoa. "So you can actually make a career in this industry without having to own the business - there's several old guys here! - F&#K yeah!!!!", internally celebrating. I was in my early 20's after all...

Here is where I discovered that mid-size sign companies were a great learning 'sweet spot', because they are large enough to experience all kinds of signage - electric or otherwise, graphics technologies, complex high-rise installations, shop operations, estimating, basic books, engineering, and even some statistical and technical analysis skills from the controller (one of those important sounding older guys), with team and leadership too, and at the same time not so dragged down by the legal red tape/compliance/soul sucking admin/drudgery that national sign companies must endure.

"We don't need no stinkin' permits!" was the joke. Most of our work was in the Chicago land area and everyone knows how over-regulated and corrupt that place is. Buy off the alderman... I always thought it was an exaggeration but when I saw it for myself... there must be something in the soil in Illinois.

This was often the poor controller's job, so I always made sure to do anything I could to help him stay alive so I didn't end up with it!

An additional benefit was that there were 2 partners in ownership of the company, and as typical in the sign industry you have one 'operations guy', and one 'sales guy'. A perfect example of the Yin/Yang principle being often quite opposite and yet interdependent to exist. One is reason to live and the other the ability to do so. So here I can learn about both (and watch them fight too - that revealed much about human nature - and taught much about how NOT to approach problems you want to solve.) One big lesson: NEVER go 50/50 partnership - go 51/49. Trust me.

So my thinking was, "here's a place close to home where I could learn everything I needed to easily run my little future shop by comparison, and not have to pass up another opportunity due to uncertainty." It was sound reasoning. Eventually I became a master of understanding the operations part of the business as those skills naturally relate to producing stuff, and the other half the sales/psychological aspect which as time goes on keeps paying off again and again. Both are fascinating forms of art and worthy of observation.

Everything is a double-edged sword.

Well I was right, there was a TON of things I learned but unfortunately often simultaneously which tugged on the stress strings. I began there as a graphic designer (back in the prehistoric days when there were T-squares, triangles, scale rulers, stinky blueprint machine, and drafting tables.). There was one computer in there (a 286 processor...) which had a green on black screen and a digitizing tablet called the Anagraph system'. Laughable by today's standards, but since having a good grasp of computers I was able to excel at that and eventually had the additional job of company 'computer guy'. This was a golden opportunity which I could leverage for the rest of my career. Eventually I computerized the entire Art Department where we could finally produce color drawings and superimpose items onto photos and such... things our grand kids can do in their sleep nowadays.

The owner (Al) was quite driven and the most amazing structural solution engineer I've ever seen. His motto was 'just get it done!'. And boy, we did. As expected, I also ended up in production half the time since they knew I could also make signs. There I met the most superb sign craftsmen that taught me more about sign production than I could have imagined. I was exposed to a wide variety of new equipment, materials and fabrication methods, as well as efficiency with value engineering. Now since our work was always custom, it wasn't assembly line which was great for me as it kept me challenged with each new project. I could never to the same thing day after day and live.

Eventually when CNC router tables came into the mainstream of the sign world I was to help pick out our first one and establish its operation as the first user. What a learning curve that was! Nothing more fun than aluminum and acrylic shavings in your clothes and that wonderful smell and feel of metal coolant. I remember many late nights of 'babysitting' the router on long runs and there was no Internet or social media to keep occupied - just more work ugg)

Now back to the designer desk.

The estimator at the company, Bob Mahoney, was one hell of a character. Highly educated, funny as hell, great storyteller, and a very good teacher. (plus we both smoked a pipe and his office was huge so we could puff it up all day long - the good old days) He was getting ready to retire in a few years. I can't remember exactly what started it all but he came downstairs to the art department one day and asked if I'd be interested in estimating, and of course I said yes! So I began training a few days a week, also while doing shop/art/router stuff. The computer he used was even more prehistoric (pre-prehistoric?) At first I really enjoyed estimating because it was different stuff most of the time and I felt more important as it was a high position in the company. Eventually as the novelty of that wore off and the company grew in volume and salesman the amount of estimating increased and the fun was getting replaced with tedium. The old program Bob Mahoney used was now very cumbersome as the complexity and volume of the work increased. Couple that with 'surprise work in the shop/art/router' days and things began to get very difficult. So in order to keep up, I decided to write my own estimating program. Relational databases were relatively new then and perfect for this task. (as opposed to making separate spreadsheets for each estimate - yeeecccccchhhh) After a year or so developing the program on the fly it became the new tool for the job and was at least twice as efficient, consistent, and measurable for adjustments. Knowing sign design as well as fabrication materials and methods and computers made estimating much easier to understand and create algorithms for. Learning pays off!

Spent 13 years there so I'll continue with part 7b in the next post.


Oh wait! I forgot about the silly story...

So, back when I worked with Chuck at the previous sign company, evidently both he and Al (the owner of Landmark) and a group of other business guys used to hang out at 'the truck stop' for coffee every day. Evidently Chuck was bragging on me about how well I was doing and my other experience and evidently Al decided to steal me. The timing was just right I guess because I was getting to that point where I didn't want to be in the air outside on a wobbly bucket truck anymore (see previous post 6 - It ain't always fun being high).

So I hear of an ad in the paper for a graphic designer but it didn't say where. I suspected it was Landmark because they were the big player in the area. There's always scary stories about the big dog.... So I called and sure enough it was, and got the date to interview. On the day, I drive to Landmark only to find about 20 city artsy Chicago-looking hipsters with their big portfolio boards standing in line out the door. 'Well shit!" I said and was tempted to just go home. But then someone who must have recognized me from somewhere came out and asked 'Do you work for Chuck at RiCo signs?', and I said, "yes". They said, "come in - there's some sign business to do". They gave me a quick tour of the building and then I ended up in the upstairs conference room with Bob K, the controller. (this was all very intimidating at my age then - I had no idea what to expect). After a few questions, Al comes into the room and says "I've heard some good things about you." And began asking me questions on various sign materials and basic signage questions and after a minute or two says "you want the job?"

Uh.... well YES!

When I looked out the window at all the hipsters he said "None of these people know signs, the materials used, or methods of fabrication. They just draw pictures and want to be overpaid. So if anyone reading was around the vicinity at that time, let me know. :-) I don't completely trust my memory on things like this, but if you know Al it's very believable haha

May all things be well with you.

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