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The full package

Perhaps one of the most surprising pre-Christmas announcements was the news that Astley, a leading provider of signs, imaging and maintenance has formed a partnership with the multi-award winning,Kettering-based signmaker, Sign of the Times. Val Hirst investigates.

You would have thought that after producing the kind of eye-catching high calibre work that scoops awards by the sack load, in addition to providing the full gamut of signs, displays and vehicle graphics for clients nationwide, Darren Roughton, the founder and Managing Director of Sign of the Times, would have reached the acme of his ambition and aspiration.

But, you’d be wrong! As with most creative people, Darren is always itching to tackle the next big challenge, and to equal or even surpass past triumphs, which include scooping The Sign of the Year Award at the BSGA British Sign Awards in 2014 for the Heinz 57 feature wall,and the stunning Timeless installationthat enlivens the atrium at Senator House in London, in 2015.  For last year’s awards, Sign of the Times submitted a plethora of entries, including such custom display pieces as the murmuration of paper planes currently gracing Dublin Airport’s brand new terminal and the stunning double wall feature that is providing such a talking point at Pokerstar’s head office on the Isle of Man, both of which were achieved in collaboration with design agency Acrylicize, plus the incredibly detailed brass map installed at Legal & General’s Birmingham offices.  Unsurprisingly, all were duly honoured.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” he says firmly, a journey that will now be significantly eased following Sign of the Times’ new partnership arrangement with Astley.

This may be a development that elicited surprise in the wider industry, but it’s something that a pragmatic Darren has been considering for some time.  He realised that despite the strong relationships Sign of the Times enjoys with clients such as Nationwide, Barclays Bank, Carlsberg, together with its equally enduring collaborations with top design consultancies, such as Acrylicize, the company needed to step up a gear or two, if it was to be in the running when the larger and more prestigious projects were being commissioned.

Darren admits: “We had reached the stage where we needed to think about finding an investor in order to fund further growth and expansion, but I knew it would be difficult to find one that properly understood both the vagaries of the sign and display sector and the need to be realistic as to the level of profitability they could reasonably expect.”

He goes on to concede that, in common with many owners of small to medium sized businesses, he was also starting to be troubled by the S-word – succession, saying: “As time passes, you begin to think about the company’s future after you’ve gone. I’ve seen lots of really good sign companies just shut up shop when the owner decides to retire and I was determined that wasn’t going to be our fate, especially as so many of our staff have worked so hard and for so long too – we have a really good retention rate.”

Happily though, whilst Darren was still puzzling over these tricky conundrums, a chance meeting at an industry event lead to his ultimately fruitful discussions with Astley Signs.

Established over 90 years ago and based in Gateshead, Astley is one of the UK’s premier sign companies and provides signs, imaging and maintenance solutions for clients throughout the UK and mainland Europe. With a turnover of £13 million and a staff of 130, it is well equipped to deliver the large-scale signage programmes required by clients, such as Sainsburys, Waitrose, Jet Conocco, Sky, Hilton Hotels and Barclays.  But although it also boasts satellite offices and warehousing facilities in Milton Keynes, Leeds and Glasgow, it was eager to establish a proper southern manufacturing base too.

 

Darren continues: “During our talks it very quickly became clear what we each had to gain from a partnership with the other, as we offer complementary services. For example, whereas we are ideally placed to service customers in the south and have cultivated useful contacts within London’s design community, Astley has the credentials and capacity that larger customers demand.  And while we have specialised in providing a lot of internal signage, displays and graphics, as well as the sort of projects that double as art installations, Astley has concentrated on external signage and mega roll-outs, so between us, we can offer the full package!”

He adds that perhaps even more importantly, both companies also share the same ethos, which could be interpreted as a desire to push the boundaries of signmaking excellence, to out deliver customer expectations and to provide their respective workforces with a level of stability that will extend far into the future.

In order to underline this, Darren confirms that Astley and Sign of the Times will continue to run autonomously and manage their own clients as previously, but with each company using the other’s facilities and specialist skill sets, as and when individual projects demand.  He explains: “We have a good set-up here as far as digital printing and cutting equipment are concerned, and in fact, have just invested in a new Zund G.3 cutter, but Astley outstrips us by far with a stable of really productive grand format machines and has even got a water-jet cutter!”

Furthermore, Darren will be also be able to make use of Astley’s superior financial, administrative and HR facilities, a convenience that will enable him to spend more time on doing what he does best – devising the innovative solutions that enable his clients to achieve the realisation of their creative concepts, no matter how weird and wacky they may initially appear.

 

Currently, Sign of the Times is rearranging its premises and restructuring its production processes to mirror the regime in place at Astley. Darren enthuses: “When we’ve finished each project will have its own project management team working together in the same office, which will really help us to further streamline the whole production process.”

So far, everything about the new partnership sounds very positive and encouraging, but good or bad, change always provokes strong feelings.  How has the Sign of the Times workforce reacted?

Darren observes that there was, quite naturally, some anxiety when the tie up with Astley was first announced, but it seems that everyone is now fully on board.

He muses: “I think everyone now appreciates the advantages that come with being part of bigger company. For a start there’s a greater degree of security, plus a lot more opportunity for everyone to achieve their own personal goals. Right now, everyone is very excited and keen to push ahead!”

At the time of my visit, Darren had just returned from France where he had met with Enersys, the manufacturer of batteries for use in the automotive, aerospace and defence sectors, which is planning to re-sign its European sites. In anticipation of this and other new work that is coming his way, Darren has increased the Sign of the Times team to 35, having recently recruited seven new staff members, four of which are time-served signmakers who were formerly employed by Hawes Signs – “It’s an ill-wind!” he comments cheerfully.

And as I take my leave, Darren is quickly back in the thick of things, happily planning his next creative coup, secure in the knowledge that Sign of the Times has an even brighter future!

For more information visit: signofthetimes.co.uk

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