The Brand Shepherds
Harbinger Sign takes a custom approach to inspiring people, processes and solutions
For some, a sign is just a sign. For the employees of Harbinger Sign, it’s a chance to create, connect and turn the seemingly ordinary into something extraordinary.
The company has designed, fabricated and installed sign solutions that range from professional sports stadium scoreboards to brick-based monuments and dumpster enclosures for regional and national brands. Their success, they say, is largely because they look beyond a customer’s specification.
CEO Steve Williams, the third-generation head of Harbinger Sign, explains, “Because a sign is often a brand, we put considerable effort into understanding our customers’ businesses, their needs, business strategies, etc. We think that provides the insight we need to design and deliver the best possible solution for owners and contractors.”
It’s a considerable amount of work to spend time building those collaborative relationships, but Steve and his leadership team believe it’s that effort that drives satisfied customers—and the company’s creative genius.
Mike Lev, Vice President of Industry Relations and Innovation, adds, “The fruits of our labors are readily visible down a street, at a gas station or at an entertainment venue. We get excited about the process of creating and making signs. It’s energizing, challenging and inspiring. That’s what makes this company really unique.”
Steve and Mike have built an entire team—a group of now 70—with a contagious enthusiasm for problem-solving, partnerships and, well, signs.
Building a Brand
Since its earliest days, Harbinger Sign has been family- owned and -operated. It was originally established by George Massey in 1962 as Quality Neon Sign, a custom fabricator of commercial sign systems. By 1973, Roger Williams, George Massey’s son-in-law, took the reins. Under his leadership, the company expanded both in capabilities and service area.
Steve, Roger’s son, jokes that he’s been with the company all of his life. “My grandfather bought it in 1962 from another sign company. Then my dad took over when I was 5 years old. For me, it has always been a place of imagination and inspiration,” he says.
He would officially join the company in 1991 at the age of 24 after getting an education in graphic design. Two years later, Mike joined the company as an installer. He was 26 and just finishing his service in the Navy.
Mike recalls, “A friend worked here as an installer and recommended that I apply for an opening. I’ll never forget my first day—with my toolbox and bag lunch, I jumped into a crane truck to learn how to install signs. I’ve been loving it ever since. It’s an industry that is so unique and dynamic in that it requires so many skills. One day I might need to work electrical, the next on a roof and the next digging a hole.”
Together, Mike and Steve, with guidance from Roger, set out to grow the business into a brand all their own, by building on ideas, fostering creativity and strengthening their people.
Taking the LED Lead
Art, design, estimating, manufacturing/fabrication and installation are all integral pieces of Harbinger Sign’s larger portfolio of services.
Mike says, “The bones have always been here in the way of processes, tools and software, as has been an emphasis on research and development, all elements that have kept us in the lead in our industry. That foundation is what has allowed us to mature and stay ahead of our competition.”
This innovative mindset has taken the company through sign advancements such as the move from neon and fluorescent lights to LED (light-emitting diode) technology around 2010. Steve recalls, “GE Lighting sent us these long LED-light tubes that were designed to be more efficient and longer lasting. Mike and my dad were trying to make them work on signs.”
The solution they developed went into over 8,000 signs on 1,500 different sites for 7-Eleven convenience stores across the country—with a 99% success rate—far outpacing the competition’s 49% success rate. The company’s annual gross revenue grew fivefold as a result, in part due to the LED program for 7-Eleven that lasted six years, combined with a focused rebranding effort.
Steve confirms, “We decided that we needed to strategically tell our story as a national provider. Prior to us approaching 7-Eleven, they didn’t know that we made signs.”
The company has also worked on signs for TIAA Bank Field, home of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars since 1995, beginning with the scoreboard. Then Harbinger Sign moved to handling the interior signage, ID signage and other signage needs for the NFL team.
That creative touch is what won them the Northbank Riverwalk wayfinding project in Jacksonville, Florida. Harbinger Sign partnered with design firm ArchitecturePlus International, or api(+), to create an easily identifiable directional wayfinding brand that gives people better direction to Jacksonville parks. For the project, Harbinger manufactured and installed new wayfinding signage, including pedestrian directionals, directories, pedestrian kiosks and water taxi identifiers for the network of multi-use trails. The signs were constructed of custom post and panel assemblies with tamperproof and interchangeable panels, fabricated cabinets with custom base covers and digitally printed graphics.
“Custom is the new standard in our industry,” Mike confirms. “Essentially, we are a custom fabrication facility that just happens to make signs.”
He and Steve point out that their company’s evolution over the last decade has created some growing pains. Steve says, “When you expand as fast as we did, it can be challenging. Mike and I were here when there were 25 people. But we added people, new processes, new sign fabrication tools, etc.—it got more complicated, and we tried to keep up. We’ve learned a lot of lessons about building a culture of family.”
“Because a sign is often a brand, we put considerable effort into understanding our customers’ businesses, their needs, business strategies, etc.” Steve Williams, CEO, Harbinger Sign
Into the Minds
The Harbinger Sign leadership believes that the way to keep its people happy, excited and energized is to ensure the work environment is inspiring. That philosophy extends from production room equipment all the way to vehicles and tools in the field.
“Keeping workers satisfied begins with good tools,” Steve says. “My family has always felt that it is important to reinvest money back into the company. So every year, we add something new. From modern trucks and equipment on the road to machines that shape boxes, raceways and channels with ease, we focus on providing the necessary equipment to drive creative, quality solutions.”
The two have also found a way to help individuals in their company adapt. When asked to explain, Mike adds, “Every individual wears many hats. If there’s not a clearly defined path to a particular skill set or task, Steve creates one to help us navigate what is needed to achieve our goals. He also makes sure everyone understands what is expected, which helps to bolster buy-in and excitement.”
That flexibility has resulted in a lot of tenured people. In fact, of the 70 people at the company today, more than half have been there for more than a decade. This includes Mike’s wife, Kitty Lev, a Project Manager and Service Coordinator who has been with Harbinger for 32 years, as well as Sherry Bishop, Vice President of Finance for 36 years, and Allen Parish, Vice President of Engineering and Quality for 20 years, to name a few.
The company’s leadership team has also sought other ways to ensure its people are getting job satisfaction. Recently, the company subscribed to Predictive Index Behavioral Assessment, a personality test that helps employers put employees in the best possible place for success.
“We want our people to stay with us for their entire career,” Steve says. “So this assessment is a way for us to better understand them and put them in the place they can be most successful. We believe it’s working.”
The numbers agree. The company had its best revenue year ever in 2020. “That’s a tribute to the whole team,” Steve says.
Mike believes that people stay because the roles have evolved. He adds, “We’re not cookie cutter. We try to look at the heart and head of every individual, which is why this company has sustained and continued.”
When asked about finding talent, Steve says, “There’s no college program for how to design, fabricate and install signs. So, we do a considerable amount of on-the-job training as well as offer classes to learn computer programs or machine operation.”
Mike agrees and adds, “The culture here is contagious and positive. We get one person excited about an idea or a project, and that spreads. I firmly believe that’s why our employees stay here. We believe the quality work we do and the visibility of our work in the community have helped to create a unified family group. When there’s an issue, we rally together and pick each other up;. It’s an open dynamic that is heartwarming.”
A Creative Spark
In the spirit of maintaining its inspirational vibe, Harbinger Sign founded the Florida Mining Gallery in 2010.
This museum-style gallery shows artwork from local and regional community artists. “This was my dad’s idea,” Steve says. “He knew I loved art and wanted there to be a place for local creativity to shine. It’s also become an inspiring environment for employees of Harbinger Sign.”
The company is also involved in many different professional organizations, including World Sign Associates, Southern States Sign Association and Mid-South Sign Association (of which Mike is past President), to name a few. Steve continues, “Involvement in the industry is one of our core values established in the ‘70s. I learned that through my dad, who helped establish the National Electric Sign Association,” now known as the International Sign Association.
Mike says, “It’s part of our culture. We don’t work in a bubble. We want our people out and about absorbing and sharing new ideas. It’s also one of the best ways to find top talent.”
That partnering connection continues well past the sign installation. Service after the sale is also important. Mike says, “If a customer calls and says a light is out, or something is funny with paint, or their sign was hit by a car—we’re there to help. That goes back to relationships. Service after sale is a legacy mantra, a stake in the ground established by our founders that we hold to tightly.”
Fostering new skills and opening new doors of opportunity for employees has had a corresponding effect on customer relationships. Steve concludes, “We’re problem solvers and partners. It’s us looking for a solution—that’s who we are. And just like with our employees, we want that longevity. We can talk quality, timeliness and cost, but what you get from us is a partnership.”