By Gigi Wood

CEDAR RAPIDS – Nesper Sign Advertising is one example of a company that practices what it preaches.

The company, which produces traditional and electronic signs, as well as vehicle wraps, flags and other promotional products, was selected as the Best Sign Company in the Corridor this year, for the sixth year in a row.

Nesper’s address is technically 4620 J St. SW, but most in the Corridor know it as the company along Interstate 380 with the digital sign that displays jokes each day.

“Truckers will call in after they’ve passed the sign and missed the second part of the joke; they’ll ask what the punch line is,” said Phil Garland, Nesper’s president, who owns the company with his wife, Donna Garland.

The company started a Twitter feed to post its daily jokes for all the people driving by who would call in and ask. The Garlands, a Nesper office manager and receptionist are tasked each day with coming up with new jokes and have been doing so since 1979. Many are recycled, although some become offensive or sensitive material over time. For example, the company stopped posting a popular joke with the name “Monica” in it after the Bill Clinton scandal; suddenly the meaning of the joke changed.

During the past year, Nesper began posting inspirational and religious sayings on Sundays, but stopped after a few people called to complain. The company began posting the sayings once again, after local church groups gathered more than 600 signatures on petition, asking Nesper to resume.

The business, as the jokes, are a family affair. Phil and Donna’s son, Tom Garland, is a stand-up comedian who runs comedy nights at Iowa City bars and often performs in Las Vegas. He recently released a CD of his act.

Jokes aside, Nesper Sign is doing some serious business. The company is the market leader in the industry and has survived 88 years of economic ups and downs and business starts and closes.

Stable during ups and downs
Traditionally in the sign industry, business is good when the economy is down. Businesses invest in marketing when profits decrease and buy more signs. Nesper Sign, however, has remained relatively free from the effects of economic ups and downs.

“Our company is probably an oddity in our industry that we have long-term relationships with clients, which provides a steady flow of work, so it balances out,” Mr. Garland said. “In good times, there’s a lot of building going on, in bad times, people who have existing businesses tend to update their signs and get a little more aggressive in what they’re doing.”

The company has taken over work from sign companies that have closed during the recession.

“What’s happened since we’ve had some competitors that have failed because of the economy, our service business is going up,” he said. “Servicing and maintaining signs has always been a big part of our business. Now we’re servicing signs other people made.”

Nesper also repairs and retrofits old signs, adding new technology to some and reworking the neon on others, for example.

In most market areas, there is one dominant sign company, he said.

“I would like to think this is that company here,” Mr. Garland said. “In Chicago, there’s White Way Sign; they’re very, very dominant. And there might be 80 other sign companies in town. Those other 80 will open and close and open and close over and over and White Way’s been there forever.”

Business expansion, evolution
And Nesper is in expansion mode, adding people and equipment, Mr. Garland said.

“Business is good. Our clients are expanding. When they do well, we do well,” he said. “We’re trying to grow in a controlled way because it takes a while to get our people trained and up to speed.”

Sales volumes are up, he said, as well as a demand for more advanced signs.

“Complexity is up, too,” Mr. Garland said. “We’re doing a lot more electronic signs and that sort of thing.”

Demand for increased technology in signs has created a need for workers with advanced degrees, such as graphic artists with computer training and landscaped architects.

“It’s a really complicated product we sell these days, where it used to be relatively simple,” he said. “(Electronic signs and increased technology) is kind of a megatrend in our industry. The cost is down, the flexibility and capacity of the product itself is consumer-driven. It’s the ease of operation. You’ve got a new generation, too, that’s very used to being computer savvy and they can create an instant ad campaign and put it out in front of their business in minutes. So if it’s a rainy day, they can advertise umbrellas and if it’s a sunny day they can advertise sunscreen and do that in seconds. That quick turnaround makes them extremely flexible.”

Electronic and digital signs were first produced for and marketed to the financial industry; think of the time and temperature signs at local banks.

“Now that has crossed over to churches, we’re doing a lot of schools, a lot of mom-and-pop type applications where before it maybe it wasn’t affordable for them or it’s a new market that’s emerged for whatever reason,” Mr. Garland said. “It’s extremely popular in those areas.”

During the recession, Nesper began marketing its other services, such as flags, banners and vehicle wraps.

“We started that and it’s just exploded,” he said.

Converting from producing traditional signs to making electronic and digital ones has been a big change for the company.

“It’s revolutionized us,” Mr. Garland said. “We used to have guys that all they did was screw in and screw out light bulbs all day long. That has been completely replaced by a very reliable, but very complicated computer system. It’s a completely different skill set, so they’ve been completely retrained.”

The company designs and builds signs for companies across the country, with most clients in the states that surround Iowa. One client is Hy-Vee, which is building new stores and gas stations in several cities and recently expanded to Wisconsin.

“If you’re Hy-Vee and you’re in 300 cities, they don’t need 300 different sign companies,” he said.

Nesper has also designed and built signs for several landmark businesses and locations. For example, the company created the marquee signs for the restored Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, as well as Theatre Cedar Rapids.

Sign ordinances
The city of Cedar Rapids was recently considering adding sign regulations to its code that would have reduced the number of billboard signs in town. Mr. Garland said the city has toned down some of the new regulations, to a manageable level.

“I think they have a better understanding now and took their time and did it right,” he said of the proposed Cedar Rapids ordinance. “I wish we didn’t have to go through that but I think they did it right instead of doing a knee-jerk reaction. And that’s what a lot of towns do when they see a new technology. That’s not unprecedented. When neon first came out, people thought they were lasers. When the light bulb came out, people thought it was going to burn towns down. So they weren’t comfortable with that new technology.”

Each of the thousands of signs Nesper produces each year is custom-made and unique, often to meet local sign ordinances. And Nesper is often learning local ordinances when entering a new market, he said.

“We do have issues with cities, keeping track of (ordinances),” he said. “Code hasn’t caught up with technology and it’s making cities very nervous. So we’re spending a lot of time on legal issues at the moment.”

The sign industry is heavily regulated, with federal, state and local rules, Mr. Garland said.

“There are laws, regulations, electrical and fire codes and you have to be compliant with overlapping jurisdictions,” he said. “It’s important for site selection. We have companies call us before they buy a property and ask us how they can sign it, how visible can they be and if they can’t be, they won’t buy the property. They’ll move on to the next town where they can.”

Nesper Sign Advertising was started in 1925 by Walt Nesper. The Sovern family bought it in the 1940s. From 1990-2000, the Sovern and Garland families co-owned the company, until the Garlands took over sole ownership in 2000. The company employs 22 people.

Best Sign Company
Nesper Sign Advertising
4620 J St. SW, Cedar Rapids
6: Times on list