Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 16:35 GMT


Sophie Jones talks to Mark Ford, co-founder and chief executive officer of Signwaves, about humble origins, rough seas, and exciting futures in the sign-making trade supply sector

Surfing the crest

When father Ashley, 59, and son, Mark, 29, both found themselves suddenly unemployed in the late 80s, disaster could have struck for the Ford family. As it was, they decided to take the opportunity that the elder Ford had long dreamed of; to start their own business. They had worked previously in graphics signage, and, using their expertise, effectively filled a gaping hole in the market in the field of A-boards and pavement signs.

This month, Signwaves celebrates 25 years in business. With a 50,000sq ft workspace, 100 employees, and customers as big as Walls Ice Cream, Camelot, BP, and Tesco jostling for their products, they certainly have a lot to celebrate.

The staff at Signwaves are celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary in their 50,000sq ft premises in Great Yarmouth

However, things were not always this cushy for founder Mark Ford, who describes the first days of the business as “hairy stuff.” It is company legend that the business started out a humbly as can be, in the Fords’ front room, one that Mark confirms with some amazement: “We started off with a homemade screen printing bench and that’s no exaggeration. It was literally in the garage. We used a hoover as a vacuum and a bucket with sand in it to provide a counter weight at the back. It’s laugh-able now but that’s what it was like.”

We started off with a homemade screen printing bench and that’s no exaggeration. It was literally in the garage

This homemade style initially ran throughout the business, as Ford recalls, out of pure necessity. To say that they started from nothing is a fairly accurate description. “The sales office was in the front room of my house,” remembers Ford, “and the buying and accounts department was on my father’s landing at home. We were high risk at the time. A lot of businesses were failing due to the recession, which was kicking in by the early 90s, so it was a tough time to start up. We even had our houses on the line as security against a loan from the bank.”

 Ritz Videos was the first job Signwaves landed, turning up to their sales pitch with simply a hand-painted mock-up of an external A-board

However, with a handful of contacts from their previous work in sign graphics, the business began growing wings almost immediately. Their big break came suddenly in their first month, in the form of the UK’s, then, biggest video rental stores, Ritz Video Film Hire.

Ford says: “This was our first order and we literally had nothing: no brochure, no marketing material, nothing. My stepmother who was an old school graphic designer, prepared a felt tip pen and pencil artist’s impression of a Ritz Video A-board. I took that in with me and somehow or other secured an order for 50 units. That was our first order in April 1989 and it grew from there.”

With no factory premises in the first two months, they used garden sheds to cut panels and used subcontractors for metal work. Eventually they hired a production facility, but it was little more than a glorified shed, says Ford. “We muddled through somehow,” he muses, with typical humility.

Yet, there was something about this small team run from a shed which clearly sparked something with buyers, as Signwaves managed to secure a number of well-known brands—Michelin Tyres, Lang Construction and the AA—in the following six months.

There was a point, recalls Ford, they were not sure they would get away with what he felt was a complete stroke of luck: “A month or so later when preparing to run some print proofs for Michelin Tyres, in hindsight an extraordinary business win, they rang up and said they’d like to come in and see the facilities.” Ford’s reaction was one of horror. “We were still printing, can you believe it, on the handmade screen bench! Thankfully they said they didn’t really care how our production happened; just that if we showed them a quality product at a fair price, and could deliver on time, we would have their business. It was a successful relationship for many years.”

Changing lanes

Today, the company focuses less on bespoke design and has moved more into the trade supply sector. Some, 50 percent of their sales are now to resellers, the majority of which are small sign companies. Ford, however, is confident that a significant factor in the success of the business today is down to the unique patents the company came up with in the early years. In the early 90s, they were one of only two companies in the UK producing snap frames, however, the biggest success Signwaves can coin is the design of a familiar sight recognisable even today outside newsagents across the country: the pavement swing sign.

Ford says: “In 1996, we designed and patented what became the market-leading pavement sign in the UK, a product we call the Swinger. The early design was for Camelot. They loved its simplicity and fixing free assembly and bought it for several years, literally in the thousands. A year after that we landed the Walls Ice Cream pavement sign business with an updated version. We were already producing flat screen print for their kiosks but didn’t have this key bit of their business. That’s when the tide changed.

Signwaves hooked Camelot as a key customer with their patented design for pavement signage

“In a sense, we were on a roll from there. Walls was the biggest user of pavement signs in the UK, and probably have been ever since. We’ve retained Walls as a customer for over 20 years. I think that in itself is quite special.”

If it isn’t broke...

Evolution was key for Signwaves, as it struggled—as so many did—to keep above water during the recession of 2008. Yet for Ford, as difficult as it was, the recession was almost the wake-up call the company needed to assess its true position in the market.

“We had a rough time about six years ago,” recalls Ford, adding: “A lot of tough decisions had to be made. We had a business model that was geared towards bespoke designs, and there was a slump in that market during the last recession. If we weren’t careful I could see the business going down the pan.

“The bespoke POP display business that a significant part of the company had evolved into by this point was horrible to manage, full of peaks and troughs. We decided six years ago to pull out of that and focus on standard products with generic appeal. Now, we are channelling virtually all our efforts into products with universal appeal rather than customer specific designs.”

Yet, constant reinvention and modernisation is not something that seriously concerns Ford: “Reinventing yourself under those kinds of circumstances is not difficult because everything is at stake, everything is in danger. I think you only need to re-invent yourself if there’s a need to do so.

“If you think you’ve got a good recipe going, then do it and continue to do it better than anyone else out there. Because that’s ultimately what it’s about.”

Finding a ‘good recipe’ and sticking with it is something that Signwaves can boast about. Their particular mixture of experience, passion, and the personal touch has served them well for the last 25 years. Ford’s biggest secret is something which does not necessarily occur naturally in all businesses: “In the end it comes down to customer service, and we extend customer service beyond just an external service: it’s an internal thing too with how we work and interact with each other. Things aren’t just chucked over our shoulder with the next person down
the line expected to sort out your problems.”

We extend customer service beyond just an external service: it’s an internal attitude to do with how we work and interact with each other

As to Ford’s thoughts about his last 25 years in the industry, he does not believe that the central ethos of the company has effectively changed since its origins in the front room of his family home.

“There’s been a bit of luck involved,” he says, “but fundamentally it’s down to basics: relationships, quality and doing what you say you’re going to do. Good old fashioned stuff.”

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