Advance Signs, run by the McKenzie family, is celebrating 20 years in business this year. Jim, his wife Mary and their daughter Gail have seen the business grow from a home-based start-up operation, to a small office unit, to their current premises in The Trade Centre, off Clackmannan Road.
With a wide customer base from both the private and public sectors numbering over 400, Advance Signs can count Highland Spring, Alloa Athletic, Clacksfirst, Stewart Brewing, The NHS and Ceteris as clients. Their offer of the highest possible quality at the best value price ensures their workshop is kept busy.
However, Jim’s initial career was as far removed for the sign industry as possible. He spent almost 20 years in Managerial positions in the meat trade selling to supermarkets. Following a downturn in the industry he moved into the industrial cleaning sector for a short period, quickly deciding after six months that it wasn’t for him!
At a crossroads, he decided to launch a print business, but first he wanted to develop his skills. He attended a number of Business Gateway Clackmannanshire workshops on topics such as “Starting a business”, “VAT” and “Bookkeeping”
It may now be known for the high standard of external signage and vehicle livery its supplies however, initially; Advance Signs developed its reputation as a supplier of branded workwear to local companies. The business grew quickly and almost every year saw a major development. In 2002 Jim rented his first business premises in the Ceteris owned Alloa Business Centre, wife Mary joined in 2003 leaving behind a career in retail and, then, in 2004 a number of momentous events changed the business.
Firstly, a friend of Jim and Mary who owned a small shop was looking for some external signage and turned to Jim for help. Despite “knowing nothing” about it, Jim decided to help and took on the job, with successful results.
He then enrolled in a Graphic Design NVQ at Edinburgh’s Telford College. Jim explains, “The initial Business Gateway workshops and then the Telford College NVQ were the two main reasons that the business developed and grew throughout those early years. The NVQ gave me the practical skills of design and working with, and applying, vinyl, whilst the Business Gateway workshops taught me the financial skills required to run a small business.
“I bought some machinery that was able to cut vinyl and added this new service to the business. Indeed I am very proud that despite starting out as a novice, not one of my signs has ever blown down”
“With my NVQ and a better understanding of the procedures, the signage business went through the roof and we quickly outgrew the office at the Alloa Business Centre. We knew Ceteris had other locations and so asked what was available. When we were shown the unit at the Trade Centre, we knew it was exactly what we needed. We have a great relationship with Ceteris and over the last 15 years we’ve had an additional office incorporated, a mezzanine floor put in, new roof and a roller shutter door installed.”
Angela Ogilvie, Operations Director at Ceteris said, “I would like to congratulate Jim, Mary and everyone at Advance Signs on reaching the milestone of 20 years. They are a wonderful local business whom Ceteris has been proud to support every step of the way. I believe that they offer the highest quality design and signage at the best value price and that is why we regularly use them for our van, business centre and road side signage.”
In the 15 years since their move to the Trade Centre facilitated additional growth, Advance Signs have been able to provide graphics and signage for clients not only in Scotland but across the UK including Heineken, Crystal Palace FC, Headingley Cricket Club, Edinburgh International Conference Centre and the Edinburgh Festival.
They’ve even supplied a banner to be flown on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico!
There are now two clear parts to the business. Jim takes care of the outdoor signage, vehicles and finances of the business whilst Mary and Gail continue with the branded clothing . Although there are overlaps, there are two very distinct client lists, each with its own needs and wants.
Jim and Mary have been together for over 40 years and also have a son, Steven. They appreciate that running a small family business means less time off than most however they do make sure that they make the best use of that precious time together . They love to cruise and this September will explore the Greek Islands and Adriatic Sea whilst Gail takes care of the business. Their two young grandchildren may even pitch in too!
When musing on the last 20 years, Jim and Mary have noticed some clear changes, both positive and negative. Technology has changed so much. The introduction of instant digital printing instead of building colour upon colour upon colour has increased productivity and given small firms like Advance Signs the opportunity to compete with bigger firms.
However, Jim is concerned about the skills of the next generation of the workforce, “It’s questionable if the available training is correct at the moment. There is no sign making qualification available similar to the one I did all those years ago. It means that youngsters now need on the job training, that knowledge is passed directly from mentor to mentee. Unfortunately it’s not always possible in a small business when you have to juggle finance, sales, marketing and IT all by yourself. I’m not sure what the future holds for the young sign makers coming through.”
Speaking of the future, Advance Signs have plans to launch social media accounts to increase the visibility of the business. Jim explains, “Although not yet on social media, we are aware of the importance of it. We’ve been researching the most popular platforms and keeping an eye out for similar businesses who do it well. We’ve usually relied on referral work and word of mouth enquiries but have noticed more and more business coming from our website recently. Watch this space for developments!”
There is one thing that Advance Signs will never waiver on and that is customer service.
Jim takes up the story, “We once had a gentleman come in ask for a simple Beware of the Dog sign to be made for his property. There wasn’t much money in the job however we gave it as much attention as any larger order. He was really pleased with the end result and, as it turned out, he was Managing Director of a fairly large business which was looking for a new signage supplier. That initial £20 job resulted in £6,000 of revenue for us!
“So a tip to all small business, never turn any enquiry down, you never know where it may lead”