The Sign Mine

Bob and Paula Diaco make just about any kind of sign imaginable in their Williston Road shop

by Bill Simmon

Tired of the corporate rat race, in 1994, Bob Diaco, a molecular biologist, and his wife, Paula, a microbiologist with a knack for writing, moved to Vermont to raise their family and open a Sign-A-Rama franchise in South Burlington.

They are all around us. Driving down the road, walking through the mall, sitting in a restaurant even in our homes it is difficult to avoid them. They permeate every aspect of our society and yet we barely notice them until we need to find the bathroom.

Signs are the stock and trade of Robert (Bob) and Paula Diaco, owners of Sign-A-Rama in South Burlington. "Signs" is not a big enough word to describe the products the Diacos make. They don't specialize in name plates or vinyl banners or wood-carved signs; they do all of those and many more. It's hard to imagine a type of sign they don't make in their Williston Road workshop.

"It's the rare customer that really fully embraces the breadth of what we do," says Bob. "We can make promotional items like pins and coffee cups all the way through banners, vehicle graphics, lighted signs and granite monuments."

The reason Sign-A-Rama can be so versatile is technology. Using sophisticated, computer-controlled machines, the Diacos and their staff can take a crudely designed, hand-drawn logo and turn it into a fully realized, three-dimensional sign of almost any type. One machine, a computer-controlled router, can cut complex shapes out of wood, plastic or metal. Once a design is in the computer, the router can cut out specific shapes; another machine can print a full-color graphic; another machine cuts vinyl letters; and all three can be married into one final product. "In the past, this would require three or four craftsmen, each skilled in a very specific type of area," says Bob. "We can take anything a customer can visualize and turn it into a reality."

To Bob and Paula, the question of whether sign making is an art or a science is particularly relevant. Both started their professional lives as scientists. Bob has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Iowa State University and Paula has a degree in microbiology. Iowa State is where they met. They were married in 1983, and then Bob took an industrial job at Dupont in Delaware. He was hired as a bench scientist, but within a year, he was promoted to a management-level job. He spent five years there.

Paula also landed a job with Dupont, working in the technical publications department. "They hired me specifically because I knew what centrifuges were and they needed user manuals for them," she says. Paula had always had a knack for writing, and given her lab experience, the job was a natural fit for her.

Five years later, Dupont was selling off the diagnostics division where Bob worked, so the Diacos moved up to New Jersey where Bob was employed as a manager by the pharmaceutical company Hoffman-Laroche.

Paula continued her writing in New Jersey, doing free-lance jobs for business clients and magazines. Her writing career slowed a bit when the couple had the first of their two children, Joe, in 1990. Jacob came three years later.

In the five and a half years the Diacos were in New Jersey, Bob's position at Hoffman-Laroche had begun to take its toll. "I went from having a small team," he says, "to having 110 people reporting to me." Bob also spent much of his time traveling, either out of the country or to the West Coast. "Here we had these two small children, and I didn't get to spend a lot of time with them," he says, "so we decided to change our lifestyle and move to Vermont so we could be closer to our family."

Paula had grown up in Underhill Center, and most of her family was still in Vermont. Bob's family was in New Hampshire, so Vermont seemed like a good place for the couple to raise their family. Unfortunately, Vermont did not offer a lot of job opportunities in Bob's field, and the Diacos were forced to consider a different plan.

Initially, they thought about starting a printing business. Bob had spent his college years working in lithography, and with Paula's communications skills and the business experience they had both gleaned, it seemed like a natural field for them. However, on a visit to the area, they realized that Vermont was fairly saturated with printers.

While attending a franchise trade show in New Jersey, the Diacos met representatives of Sign-A-Rama, which they saw as just printing on a larger scale. "We said, 'Yeah, this is a good fit,'" says Bob, "because it's a clean, relatively easy operation, it's technology-driven, and my work in the industry was all geared towards automation."

In 1994, the Diaco family made the move up to Vermont and opened their Sign-A-Rama franchise.

The Diacos had recognized a winner. Sign-A-Rama was started in 1986 by Ray Titus and his father, Roy Titus, who had launched the international Minuteman Press franchise. Their first Sign-A-Rama store was in Farmingdale, N.Y., and within two years, the company was 50 stores strong. Today, there are more than 600 Sign-A-Rama franchises throughout the world. In 2000, the company was named the number one sign franchise in the world by Entrepreneur Magazine.

Sign-A-Rama production workers Adam Chamberlain (foreground) and Stephen Clem Jr. work with production manager Mike Smith (background) to put finishing touches on a South Burlington Police Department car.

When the Diacos opened their franchise, business was slow at first. It was just Paula and Bob then, and few people in the area had ever heard of Sign-A-Rama, despite the fact that, at the time, the company had more than 200 stores nationwide.

Initially, customers were confused by the advent of vinyl signage. According to Paula, they often had to explain to customers just what it was. "People thought it was paint," she says. "We explained to them how it was in large part better than a painted sign."

Over the years, their clientele has become more educated about modern sign technology. One early essential piece of gear has become less important to the operation. "We used to scan images all the time," says Paula. "All day long people would come in with photos and scan them, and everyone is getting so smart now and we're getting stuff on disk, via email, on CDs, DVDs, it's really interesting."

Paula says that in the early years they had to replace their scanner a few times to upgrade its capability. "Now it's almost becoming a bit of a dinosaur," she says, chuckling. They do keep the scanner around, though, for those rare times it's needed. "We had a gentleman this morning who had a hand drawing," says Paula, "and he was almost embarrassed to ask if we could reproduce it."

Bob and Paula divide their duties according to their strengths. Paula oversees the office and marketing end of the business while Bob is more hands-on. He handles customers who call or walk in the door and he's involved with the design, production, and installation of the signs. The Diacos also have a staff of three full-time employees and one part-timer. "We have more computers in our shop than we have people," says Bob.

Being part of a large franchise has its benefits. "They provide us with marketing help technical support," says Paula; "they provide us with discounts and special pricing with large vendors for wholesale supply." The powers that be at Sign-A-Rama don't interfere with how the Diacos do business, however, which Paula likes. "They don't even peek over our shoulder," she says. "They're very, very good that way."

Bob says the Sign-A-Rama people also keep their eyes open for what's new technologically. As a result, the Diacos are exposed to cutting-edge technologies before their competitors are.

Sign-A-Rama's versatility is another advantage the Diacos praise. Because of the wide array of signage available at their store, they say, customers can think of them as a one-stop-shopping destination, meeting all of their signage needs under one roof.

"Some people buy banners from us and think we're only the banner people," says Paula. "Then we'll send them a postcard that tells them we do vehicle graphics, and they'll call up and they'll be like, 'Wow, that's great! You have my logo and my artwork; I'll come to you for the vehicle as well.'"

Adam Chamberlain (left) and Stephen Clem Jr. apply paint to a set of carved wooden signs bound for Berlin.

Bob describes the business as the largest full-service sign company in Vermont. "Full service means we do every imaginable type of sign," he says. Most of Sign-A-Rama's competitors are niche-oriented sign shops, he says, specializing in one type of sign.

Along with providing signage to meet diverse needs, the Sign-A-Rama production team can finish a sign job, from soup to nuts, very quickly. Some of the jobs are short-term, going from start to finish in one day. Some are more complicated and take a bit longer. "A complicated, dimensional sign," says Bob, "something that's carved, gold-leafed, painted those take a longer period of time than, let's say, a simple vinyl banner." On average, he says, the time frame between order and delivery is a week or less.

One of the biggest challenges the Diacos face in their trade doesn't come from sign-making or the clientele, but from local government. "A lot of cities are somewhat anti-sign," says Bob. "There's a lot of emotion involved with signs, especially when it involves regulatory people." Bob says he spends a lot of time helping customers navigate their way through the rough seas of regulation and providing them with what they need to comply with local ordinances as much as possible. "We try to push the envelope as to what an ordinance might allow," he says.

Each partner's handling separate aspects of the business has helped the couple avoid some of the challenges experienced by spouses who work together. "Having to work together can either kill a marriage or bring it closer," says Paula. "I think it actually helped us. We learned a whole new set of rules to deal with your spouse. You have to learn way more patience, and that's one of the things we continue to learn, but it's been good overall. We're pretty focused on what we need to do," she says, "and actually, it would be nice to spend more time to talk, but there's always something that needs to be done."

Customers seem to like what the Diacos do for them. Ron Lewis, owner of Computer Care in Colchester, bought magnetic signs for his company vehicle from them. "They did my name tags, rubber stamps; they did my business cards as well," he says. In terms of promoting my business, they are a one-stop shop. They have an ability to come up with creative solutions for the customers' needs," he says.

The Diacos smile as they recall a particularly pleasing encounter. "There's a fellow who owns Kevin's Wicked Hotdogs," says Bob. "We made signs for him that are hanging over in Patrick Gymnasium on the scoreboard." This customer called the shop one day and asked to speak to one of the owners.

Paula says she took the call. "I said, 'Hi, this is Paula,' and he said, 'You guys made the signs for me that are hanging up in Patrick Gym.'" From the caller's tone of voice, Paula assumed there was some sort of problem. "I said, 'Yes we did,' and he goes, 'They're beautiful!' and then he went on for five minutes."

Originally published in November 2003 Business People-Vermont