Encouraging Signs

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Some of the most creative graphics around come from the folks at SB Signs

Steve BoutinIn 2003, co-owner Steve Boutin took over full proprietorship of SB Signs in Essex Junction when his parents moved their business, The Flag Shop, to Williston.

To hear Steve Boutin tell it, he sort of segued into the sign business. He’s being a bit modest, though. The president and co-owner of SB Signs Inc. in Essex Junction, Boutin appears to have truly found his calling.

A native Vermonter, Boutin was “born right here in Essex Junction,” he says, “and my dad was born in Burlington.” His parents are Steve and Nancy Boutin, the owners of The Flag Shop, a fixture in Essex for many years.

Growing up, Boutin didn’t exactly have plans to own a sign shop. Following graduation from Essex High School, he landed a job as a dialysis technician at Fletcher Allen Health Care, where he worked for several years. When Magic Hat was in its infancy, Boutin was offered what could be called every beer drinker’s dream: a job as one of the first production brewers the company hired — “I think I was the third or fourth production brewer down there, when they were real small and young,” he says. “I’d like to say I had a beer named after me, but I don’t. I just made it and promoted it. We’d brew it during the day and go to bars to do promotions at night.”

Steve and Nancy BoutinEven though the company is small, space needs are large because of the long tables and large equipment the company uses. Since Steve Boutin’s parents, Steve and Nancy Boutin, moved their Flag Shop back to Essex Junction from Williston two years ago, they have been available to help him run the business.

He stayed with Magic Hat for about four years, and then took a couple of years off to travel around the country. “I was just young,” he recalls, “and I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to do it again for a long time.” He landed in Maine, where he took another job as a dialysis technician.

After a year in Maine, Boutin realized that home was where his heart was, and he returned to Vermont in 2001 to join his parents at The Flag Shop, where business was booming following the Sept. 11 tragedy.

His father had considered making signs as a side product to the company’s flags, but had not done much with them. “My dad had a small vinyl-cutter, and he did some pretty primitive stuff with it,” says Boutin, who thought he might like to try sign-making. “I don’t know, it just evolved, I guess, through teaching myself, going a few times a year to conferences at different parts of the country, learning the technologies, things of that nature.” The company makes all kinds of signs, he says, but the larger focus is on the digital computer side of the business.

In 2003, his parents decided to move The Flag Shop to a more visible location in Williston. “When that happened, we separated the companies,” says Boutin.

Fortunately for him, he was able to call on Courtney, his wife of two years. She picked up some of the duties his parents had been helping with and the majority of the design work.

At that time, the company was located at the rear of the former Flanders Lumber Co. building in Essex Junction. Business has experienced a pretty steady growth, says Boutin. A lot of customer connections come from attending shows such as the annual business Expo at the Sheraton, and even the Home Show, where he says he has made positive contacts from walking around and talking with the other vendors.

To keep himself fresh and up with the technology, Boutin has taken design classes, although “nothing real intense,” he says. A lot of his business comes from designers and graphic artists working with commercial clients.

“But we do a lot in-house, too,” he continues. “We work with a lot of small businesses. You get some guy who comes in who builds stone walls and doesn’t know the first thing about files or paperwork. He has a company name, and we come up with his logo. Then we do his business cards, T-shirts, lettering for his trucks and other lettering, magnets, anything — we offer a one-stop shop where we can get everything done for them.”

Boutin seems to have both the curiosity and creative drive that are required to make his mark in the world of signage. Clients apparently agree. His return business includes luminaries of the Vermont scene such as Magic Hat Brewing Co. and its newly established sister corporation, Orlio Organic Beer Co., ECHO at the Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, the University of Vermont and Champlain Chocolates.

Chris PecorAll the signs are designed in-house. Chris Pecor, the graphic designer, was hired in January.

“SB Signs fabricated and installed our giant, lake-themed vinyl graphics on our three-story front windows, and generate all of our interior and exterior banners,” says Steve Leibman, the director of marketing and communications at ECHO. “Steve and his team are consummate professionals. Their product is innovative, high-quality and price-competitive, and they’re fun to work with to boot.”

The “team” refers to Boutin’s parents, who moved The Flag Shop back to Essex Junction a couple of years ago, and Chris Pecor, who joined the company right after the first of the year as the graphic designer.

The return of The Flag Shop to Essex Junction in 2005 offered the perfect opportunity to expand the quarters, which had become tight. The company moved to the other side of the old Flanders building, doubling its square footage.

Pecor was hired because Courtney decided to pursue her master’s degree in education at St. Michael’s College.

Employees have been hard to find, so having his parents back has helped tremendously. Boutin’s father handles the outside part of the business for him, “all the off-site stuff, quotes, measuring, keeping track of orders coming in, making sure we have materials,” he says. His mother does the billing, keeps the books and runs The Flag Shop.

Boutin’s expertise is on the production end, which requires continuously updating his knowledge. “There’s no book out there on how to do this stuff, really,” he says, “so you do what you can, reading industry magazines anywhere you can, searching the Internet, finding out the newest creative thing, and then you just try to use that and introduce new things to your clients, helping them keep up with what’s new and exciting.”

“Keeping up” includes learning how to keep the machines running. “Because we have some pretty big equipment that’s pretty technology-driven,” says Boutin, “and being in small Vermont, they don’t have a technician down the road for this. A person will come up from Boston, but not for a week, so you’ve got to keep working and figure it out on your own.”

Boutin confesses that, after his family — which has grown to four since the arrival of Adeline, age 4, and Lily, age 2 — and the Burlington Rugby Club — for which he plays all over New England — his only other hobby is working. A typical week is five or six days of eight to 10 hours each, he says, then corrects himself: “well, probably more like nine- to 11-hour days. It depends on the season.”

Asked what his biggest challenge has been, Boutin laughs and exclaims without hesitation, “running out of square footage!”

Even though the size was doubled only two years ago, things are again tight, and Boutin is looking to again double the size of the space. “Possibly when our lease is up, we’ll be looking for a building to buy or lease and expand. We’ll buy more equipment, more tables. We have 5-foot-by-16-foot tables here now, and as it is, we’re tripping over everything. When you’re dealing with wide format, you have 5-foot rolls of stock everywhere. We can deal with it right now,” he continues, “but we need to plan for this.”

It becomes clear that Boutin has moved past his segue into the sign business when he describes his peak moments. “Those come from the good clients who compliment you, say they really enjoyed working with you and they hold you in high esteem for being really professional. We really bend over backwards for our clients, and when they appreciate that and tell you that, it’s the best feeling.” •