All signed up for success

Passion drives Bay signage company

Successfully marketing a business with the promise, “The impossible we do at once, miracles take a little longer”, is a clear sign of competence, experience and confidence in the ability to deliver.

And that is exactly how Port Elizabeth’s Express Signs has made it through three generations of owners and almost 50 years of service delivery to many of the Bay’s biggest businesses.

Speaking from his Humphries Street, North End business last week, third-generation owner Stephen Hickson-Mahony revealed interesting insights into his enterprise and how to be successful in the greater, multimillion-rand signage industry.

At 48 years-old, Hickson-Mahony has been at the helm of Express Signs – classified as an SMME but boasting turn-over in the upper hundreds of thousands of rands – since taking over from his late father more than 10 years ago.

“You have to be mad about signage, passionate about it. You can’t just get some machines, set up and think that you are going to be immediately successful. The industry does not work like that. You have to eat, sleep and drink signage to make a good success of it,” enthused the Walmer Heights businessman.

Citing a rich family heritage which extends back to Kenya, Hickson-Mahony said the business was first started by his grandfather who emigrated to Port Elizabeth in the late ’60s and that Express Signs was born out of a vehicle number plate firm, with the plates being delivered to then North End-based car dealerships.

“We used our vacuum-forming machine to make signs and number plates. The company then discovered it could meet another demand – to offer a cheap alternative to headstones for the poor – with the machine.

“From there we moved to basic information signs. In the mid ’70s computers and vinyl cutters changed the way signs were manufactured and the results were only limited by one’s imagination,” he said.

Today, the company has, among other equipment, a large format digital printer, as well as vinyl cutters which allow it to work with spot-colour or full-colour graphics.

“We are capable of producing anything from a small label to a billboard. We are very active in the health and safety aspect of signage and a large portion of our client base is in manufacturing and civil contracting.

“We have, however, not forgotten our roots and still manufacture number plates, as well as offering a service for licensing and renewals,” said Hickson-Mahony who added that the company was in the process of acquiring a new outdoor digital printer.

“Capital investment is of course a large and essential part of the business. One has to keep abreast with the latest technologies in order to remain competitive. The new equipment will enable us to produce an even higher quality signage at a greater speed,” he said, going on to reveal that despite the use of specialised equipment, creating signage was still a very labour-intensive process.

Speaking to the success of the company, Express Signs employs 13 well-trained and highly-skilled staff members, all of whom have been employed there for more than five years, and two who have been there for 20 and 45 years respectively.

“The signage industry is a significant industry with many different facets and includes a number of niche businesses. It is also very competitive with a large number of service providers.

Reputation – which comes from delivering quality work, no mistakes and on schedule and at competitive prices – is everything. In this business your reputation is like your own personal signboard,” he said.

Express Signs, which operates its own logistics fleet, relies on reps, reputation and networking to not only garner new business, but to retain existing clients, many of whom have continued to use the company’s services over a number of years.