Signs Of Progress

Kemsigns Group

That is the view of Daryl Mills, Chief Executive of Victoria-based Kemsigns Group, who would like the company to be regarded as more than ‘just’ a sign-maker. He told us that even for big corporate clients who have their in-house design manual, Kemsigns’ design team can have a considerable amount of input. “We have to provide what’s known as ‘local store layout,’” he says. In the case of Subway, for instance, one of Kemsigns’ most prestigious clients, the team has to send an image of how each store will look to the US headquarters for approval. “But we have other clients who come to us when they want to revamp their image or even who don’t have anything yet, and want us to create a brand for them and we are happy to work on that basis as well.” Kemsigns can, if needed, develop the entire brand for roll-out across a client’s entire business.

“It’s brand management really, not just signage.” This expertise and service is something the company has relatively recently started to promote, and Daryl would like to see it better known as the demand is considerable in the marketplace. Most customers, Daryl explains, would naturally go to a graphic designer and, “graphic designers do not necessarily understand how you actually get the brand to work right across the client’s real estate, vehicles and so on. But we can take all that into account. Many graphic designers come up with very good concepts that in reality don’t work, and then you have to make compromises. We avoid that issue by having a full understanding of how we put it all together.”

Originally established in 1980 as KEM Stripes, the group has since grown and transformed from the traditional role of a vehicle presentation service for car dealerships to a complete supply and installation signage company supported via a national installation network. Much of the business today is corporate, ranging from construction companies building new projects, state or federal government, or companies throughout the country. These latter clients usually work on a set pattern of regeneration (every five years in the case of most shopping centres, for example) so there is consistent ongoing work. In addition, “we have picked up three or four additional new clients during 2012 and this has really put the icing on the top for us,” says Daryl.

One of those new names is Subway, for whom the company is putting up signs at around three stores per month; Clark Rubber and Godfrey’s vacuum cleaners are also recent signings, if you’ll pardon the pun. Longer term clients include PPG (coatings), the Victorian State Emergency Services, Mazda, ABC broadcasting, the Varley Group and Bendigo Bank.

Daryl puts such conspicuous success down to “our personal approach to our clients. Our account managers basically run the project from start to finish so if there are any issues to be dealt with, we get involved with them and help them instead of leaving them to figure it out for themselves.” Kemsigns will liaise with client, shop-fitter, landlord, and council as required to drive the project to conclusion. “We work closely with clients on their brand specification, which is key for them; they don’t want it compromised in any way.”

Subway, for example, tells its new franchisees to talk to Kemsigns who will produce the complete signage package. This is always useful for the store or franchisee; especially at start-up time or revamp, they do not want to be bothered about the details of ensuring that signage is precisely correct and completed on time, and can safely leave it to the approved expert. As Daryl points out, signage is usually just about the last thing that goes in before opening so there can be no chance of delay. “Because there are certain set styles and sizes, we pre-manufacture a lot of product and often there are only a few items that need to be made specially to complete a particular shop or brand. So we turn up on the day and make sure it happens.” Weather, in the case of extensive outdoor projects, can sometimes interfere, “especially in Melbourne where we do get the odd adverse day that can set us back,” says Daryl with commendable understatement.

There are 12 staff at the company’s manufacturing base in Melbourne, who will travel anywhere across Australia to complete projects on site, but Kemsigns also maintains a network of accredited installers that it can call on in many locations. These installers have been certified by 3M, the overwhelmingly largest supplier of materials to this industry; Kemsigns has a direct 3M account and so purchases direct, and there is a training programme attended by all installers and applicators. Explains Daryl, “We utilise the 3M training network to get qualified installers in other states if we are not able to do the work ourselves.”

Daryl says 3M supplies the company with around two-thirds of its materials and points out the extreme importance of the quality of materials. Yes, it can be done cheaper and “some clients do not understand the difference in materials. But 3M gives us a guarantee of up to eight years so we know it is going to work. There are other brands in the marketplace that range from no guarantee at all to perhaps three years, and much of it is of low-end quality. At the end of the day, the client will pay far more for having to re-do that signage in a three-year timeframe than by taking the product that lasts longer. We do stress very much the importance of the 3M product and the warranty that comes with it.” Kemsigns also uses aluminium composite panels as a substrate for rigid jobs, to which the 3M vinyl can then be mounted, and also carries out a lot of illuminated work.

Another key element of the Kemsigns service is its tier-2 activities for leading car brands, as manufacturers of badging, signage and other OEM aftermarket spares for car restoration and repair. The company has agreements with the State Emergency and Ambulance Services in Victoria and Tasmania and there is a move afoot to adopt a uniform design for emergency vehicles around the country (which would be based on what is used in Victoria). “We do every vehicle and every building for the SES in Victoria, which is one of the largest such organisations in Australia, and if that comes off we will produce a lot more of that product.”

In terms of scale, Kemsigns is ambitious. “We have come a long way, from being something of an also-ran to a preferred supplier now with many companies. We are out of the shallow end, in the middle and heading toward the deep end.” Hitherto housed in two separate facilities in the Victorian capital, the company is about to relocate (just a couple of kilometres away) and consolidate under one roof, “which will give us all facilities together, a breathing space and the ability to bring in extra work,” because at the present location there is no possibility to expand.

Daryl has four Business Development Managers constantly bringing in a stream of new work. “Even though people say the economy is in a downturn, we certainly have a considerable amount of work on our order books.” Partly this is a function of the depressed business atmosphere; companies are aware of the need to make their brand, their shop, stand out from the crowd to a greater degree and branding and signage can accomplish this quite quickly and very effectively. “If your shop or your business looks shabby, it’s time to freshen it up; ask yourself: ‘does my business look inviting, my brand appealing?’”

Almost everything on a project is completed in-house, including light boxes, LED lighting, digital printing and fabrication. The results are then crated and shipped to the site for the installation team to work on. This helps to reassure corporate clients that the brand integrity is unassailable. “Brand integrity is extremely important to this sort of client. They don’t want one shop looking different from another. We do it all here and we know it’s correct before we ship it.”

Kemsigns has “the capacity to service any kind of client, be it the size of Woolworths or a local newsagent who wants his shop signed.” For example, the company is licensed with the authorities to apply signage to aircraft, and also licensed to work for fuel companies. “We can and do serve a vast range of clients. We are a very diverse branding company, not just a sign company and none of it can happen without the support of our talented and dedicated team working for the end result.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:30 PM AEDT