(Above and below) One of The Sign Group’s flagship products is Neon Plus, which utilises a unique manufacturing system and cutting-edge LED technology to produce the effect of neon, but in a medium which is less delicate and can get around the restrictions placed on neon in certain spaces
As I set out very early on a wet and windy Thursday morning in the dark and cold of winter for my four-hour drive to Leeds, it was nevertheless with energy and anticipation, as I contemplated a day in the shoes of an apprentice at The Sign Group.
The idea had first come up when chatting to the company’s director and production manager Graeme Hoole, explaining that in all my years at SignLink I had never actually spent an entire day at a sign-maker’s really learning what it takes to produce the stock and trade of our sector.
It’s just a friendly company to work for, even on the busy days when you can get quite stressed and there is a lot of work to do”
So, fast-forward through a few hours of Britain’s finest motorways and congestion, a tour around The Sign Group from Hoole, and I was ready to start my day. My first overseer for the day was Lydia Wrightson, vinyl room manager and marketing co-ordinator. She set out what it is like to work at The Sign Group, and later in the day would give me hands on training in how to clean up built-up acrylic letters and apply block out vinyl to them.
“We are still relatively a small company, and so when I started here you get trained across a lot of different areas, as you often need to help out one department or another when there is a rush of work,” she explains.
Watch the documentary charting how SignLink's editor, Brendan Perring, became an apprentice for the day
Wrightson continues: “Now I oversee everything in the vinyl print department, so that includes printing, plotting, art work, laser cutting, and all the finishing of our Neon Plus product. I have worked at The Sign Group now for five years, and when I started it was as an apprentice.
“You could say it has been quite successful for me, because I am now the head of a department where I started as an apprentice. It’s a great company to work for, they have given me every opportunity to progress and they have given me all the support that I have needed to become the specialist I am now. It’s just a friendly company to work for, even on the busy days when you can get quite stressed and there is a lot of work to do, it is quite easy to step out of that and relax because everyone is just so friendly. You can step from one room to another and you have gone from being stressed to feeling relieved.”
So, if I had been a real apprentice, these words of reassurance would certainly have made me feel right at home. Wrightson also went on to explain the management information system that oils the cogs of The Sign Group, with a highly efficient system of detailed job sheets, and a digital signage board keeping everyone up to date with the status of live jobs. This information system then feeds back to management and accounts to ensure each job is done right first time, and goes out on time.
The pursuit of perfection
So, after my induction I was handed over to Francis Dove, workshop foreman at The Sign Group. He trained me on how to clean up, fit, and test wiring systems for their LED-illuminated built-up letters—a major batch of which were being sent out to a sign-maker carrying out a national signage re-branding project for a major restaurant chain. One of the key things that stood out for me was the forensic attention to detail that Dove has for his work, making sure that every last detail was perfect before allowing it to move on to the next department.
(Above and below) The Sign Group’s mix of experienced heads like Francis Dove, workshop foreman, and its array of manufacturing technology gives it a competitive edge
It is this approach that Hoole says has allowed The Sign Group to build momentum in a heavily competitive sector and find the success it enjoys today. He explains: “We just have a really great bunch of people working here, they really enjoy what they do, or perhaps I should say the outcome—as sometimes it’s difficult getting there. It’s a nice eclectic bunch of people and they take great pride in what they do and it seems to run off on everybody who starts working here.” He adds with a smile: “And of course they have a wonderful boss.”
During my day as an apprentice sign-maker at The Sign Group I was also introduced to business mascot and guard dog Boris, an amazing beast who is fiercely protective of his master and keeps out those cold calling salesmen.
After my time with Dove I moved on to being given training by LED specialist, Ryan Gomersal, who was doing a major installation of modules into built-up lettering. His advice was that there is simply a right way and a wrong way to do this job. The right way saw him doing painstaking measurements and marking out based on the specific LED module we were working with, meaning that the finished result will be a perfectly even light. “Too many modules in one space and you are going to be wasting power consumption and possibly causing hot spots, too few and with the wrong spacing’s and there will be black spots,” says Gomersal, adding: “There is no short-cut, and no ‘easy-way’.”
My next stop for the day took me to the CNC machining room, where two heavy-duty industrial Tekcel routers were churning away on both cutting out slots on a sign tray and also machining out letters from acrylic. John McEntee, CNC and workshop tech, was given the job of helping me understand how to set up a job. But of course, before that I had the job every apprentice needs to do, sweeping up the floors of all the swarf created by the whirring routers. Speaking to McEntee, he explained how working at The Sign Group has helped to massively increase his skill-base and really made him feel part of something important.
Made in Yorkshire
So, after some time finally spent talking to the hard-working accounts and finance department at The Sign Group I sat down to a tea with Hoole. Asked if he is able to sit back and feel proud of what he has created, in amongst all the business and stress of running a trade supply business, he comments: “When me and Anthony sit back at the end of the day when the doors are closed we often talk about how far we have come. Yes, we are immensely proud and we are excited about the things to come.”
As Hoole says, Anthony Lowe is the co-owner of the business and heads up the sales and purchasing arm of the business. Together they really have built a diversified and impressively efficient operation. A key strength though is that the two directors are backed up not only by great staff, but by Graeme’s family, which share their passion for ‘always doing right’ by the customer and producing excellent prod-ucts. His father Ian looks after LED sales and the company’s finances, while mum Gillian is similarly focused on the We Love LEDs side of the business and is also a vinyl specialist.
So, after a day out as a sign-making apprentice I certainly learnt a thing or two about all the hard graft that goes into creating a beautifully finished built-up sign. But more than that I left with a genuine glow of affection for a business which is a perfect expression of its cultural legacy. A heart of British industry and ingenuity for centuries, it seems Yorkshire is still producing businesses run with the best interest of the customer at its heart, a wry and eccentric sensor of humour, a creative flare, and the capability of producing real innovation.
Neon Plus shines bright at The Sign Group
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