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Sign-Making Firms Profit From Woes of Texas Banks

From United Press International

The financial landscape of today’s Texas, littered with unoccupied office towers, fire-sale condos and cratered shopping centers, has at least one bright side.

Sign-making. The business is booming.

It seems that when each ailing bank and thrift goes under, only to be merged or restructured or acquired, it needs a new sign. Signs are important to the image of staid financial institutions and those images have been changing like flip cards in a carnival nickelodeon.

“Bank signs are definitely a growth part of our business,” exalts Gordon Townsend, Dallas sales manager for Heath & Co., a national sign company. “We’ve seen the business shoot from maybe 2% to 20% of our total in the past year.

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“We now have a separate financial division. That means banks and (savings and loans). It’s definitely helped employment.”

When Texas giant Republic Bank took over Texas giant First Interstate and the combination wobbled and fell--one analyst compared the merger to two drunks trying to prop each other up--only to be gobbled up by another giant, NCNB, sign companies had a field day.

“One company had just finished putting up one set of signs when we had to step in and tear them down again and put up new ones,” Townsend said. “It was glorious.”

Signs on a tiny bank in the Dallas suburb of Garland were changed four times in as many months.

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“We debated putting a zipper on the sign,” joked Richard Brown, vice president of Signgraphics, another booming national sign company.

The makers of signs have gotten more aggressive because of the convulsing financial industry.

“We read stories in the newspaper that a failing bank is about to be bought by a holding company, so we call up the company the next day and offer our services,” Brown said. “We’ve learned to be more aggressive.”

There’s good reason. The emblems of finance, from the design to installation stage, are high-dollar items. The average cost of a sign ranges anywhere from $2,500 to $30,000 or more, depending on the size, quality and number.

“The process can be complex,” Townsend said. “You have to do surveys, check codes and permits, then fabricate and install. It normally takes 6 to 8 weeks per location.”

Sometimes locations are multiple. When California’s First Interstate Bancorp renamed or snatched up 946 bank branches last year, the bankers asked that the sign change be made to appear as an overnight transformation.

“We had to go to each location, fabricate the sign, get it installed and hide it behind a cover,” Townsend said. “Then on the day the banking change was announced, we dropped the covers and showed the new signs. Presto.”

The market has escalated rapidly since the government-engineered bailouts began to accumulate.

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“Each week (business) picks up a bit more,” said Joe Evans, owner of Son Glo signs.


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