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Sign company grows in high-profile, high-risk industry

Jeff Petersen, CEO and president of American Signcrafters,

Jeff Petersen, CEO and president of American Signcrafters, which is based in Islip, stands inside the production facility where they design and install signs on Monday, June 22, 2015. Credit: Steve Pfost

Islip-based American Signcrafters has built and installed some of the highest-profile signs in the New York City skyline, including those atop the newly renamed Comcast Building at 30 Rockefeller Center and the Hotel Novotel in Times Square, while remaining almost invisible to the public.

The sign designer, builder, installer and servicer works with clients nationally in the banking, entertainment, shopping center, retail and restaurant industries. It is involved from the initial concept and fabrication to the installation of signs.

Projects can range from a single, customized sign to a national rollout installing hundreds of signs. The 36-year-old company, which does its manufacturing on Long Island, in New Jersey and in Florida, is on path to gross $30 million in revenue this year, up from $25 million last year.

It's a risky business that sometimes requires workers to install signs dozens of stories up, even in freezing temperatures and battling powerful winds. Just getting the signs up to the top of a building can require ingenuity and weeks of work at odd hours.

"People ask me, 'You're in the sign business?' " said Jeff Petersen, 61, president and owner of American Signcrafters, who got his start when he was 16 working for Kal Signs, owned by Jerry Seinfeld's father, Kal. "People take it for granted. They don't realize how the sign got there. It took a lot of work to get it up there."

Among the companies that have turned to American Signcrafters for their signs is developer Forest City Ratner Companies, for Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where American Signcrafters installed all of the signs, inside and out.

Earlier this month, American Signcrafters' work was on display when two new Comcast signs debuted along with three NBC Peacock logos, replacing General Electric's initials atop 30 Rockefeller Center. The company also recently installed a new entrance and marquee to promote "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

Effective advertising

Businesses are willing to invest thousands and even millions of dollars in signs because they can be a highly effective form of advertising that conveys a business image and packs a marketing punch. Signs can attract up to 50 percent of a retail establishment's customers, according to the International Sign Association.

"Signs create awareness," said Nanda Viswanathan, assistant dean at Farmingdale State College's School of Business. "Sometimes you want the signs to be very loud and out there just to make sure people see it. The other side is on the branding side: the instinctive, emotional and cognitive response to the sign."

Using computer-driven and manual manufacturing processes, American Signcrafters specializes in manifold types of eye-catching signs, including those with graphics, exposed neon signs, and gateway and monument signs, as well as refurbishing existing signs. It employs more than 100 people, including union workers.

"Often, the design part of it is already written in stone and hashed over by a dozen architects and three or four designers, and unfortunately we then still have to redesign it and make it buildable," said Petersen, of East Islip. "Versus a one-shot job for a custom specialty situation where we may design in its entirety, including a logo at times."

About 60 percent of American Signcrafters' revenue comes from financial institutions such as Capital One, Citibank, Santander, TD Bank and Wells Fargo. Other past clients include Party City, Tanger Outlets in Deer Park and upscale Tellers restaurant on Main Street in Islip.

"We had dozens of retail stores that we worked for, but we kind of gravitated away from them," Petersen said. "The banks pay a premium . . . Some spend $50,000 a sign for a branch." That compares to $8,000 to $12,000 for a retail sign in a mall, he said.

Well-established niche companies like American Signcrafters can thrive in the highly fragmented, $35 billion U.S. sign industry, particularly if they keep up with changing technology, said International Sign Association president Lori Anderson.

On Long Island, one of the challenges is the sheer number of sign businesses, which can specialize in anything from lawn signs for campaigns to building signs and parking lot signs, said Dan Simon, president of Signwave, a custom signs and display company based in Islandia.

"Signage businesses ideally want to get repeat business," said Simon, a member of the Hauppauge Industrial Association of Long Island. "The real competition is negotiating those contracts."

NBCUniversal hired American Signcrafters when its parent company, Comcast, renamed the iconic, 70-story 30 Rock in midtown Manhattan. The original name in 1937 was the RCA Building.

"Visually it is probably the biggest-profile sign" American Signcrafters has done, said Petersen, adding the sign is made to withstand hurricane-force winds and other extreme conditions. "It is not only the highest sign in the skyline of New York City and one of the largest, but it is also going to be viewed on every NBC newscast and 'Saturday Night Live.' "

The sign uses custom energy-efficient LED lights that mimic the exposed neon look of previous 30 Rock rooftop signs. On the north and south sides the Comcast letters are 12 feet tall crowned by an 11-foot-high NBC peacock. The western facing NBC peacock is 18 feet tall atop the network's historic broadcast headquarters.

"It was great to work with a company that manufactured locally and understood the unique challenges of fabricating signage for a landmark property," John Wallace, NBC Universal's president of operations and technical services, said in a statement.

Not an easy taskGetting the signs to the top of the building, just below the Top of the Rock Observation Deck, was not an easy task considering all the work had to be done at night, Petersen said. Over the course of a year the sign components were carried piece by piece and hoisted up.

"We had to disappear like we were never there when the observation deck opened in the morning," Petersen said. "Most of this work was done in the dead of winter. It was challenging."

In 2011, American Signcrafters won a $2 million sign contract for Barclays Center, the home to the Brooklyn Nets, from Brooklyn-based developer Forest City Ratner. It installed more than 3,200 signs in the sports and entertainment arena that opened in 2012, including signs for food establishments and retailers. On the exterior, it made and installed a 12-foot-high Barclays PLC eagle logo and the venue's name in 8-foot-high teal-blue letters.

"The signage aspect of it was very complex and very important, which had to be integrated into the architecture of the building," said Rebecca D'Eloia, vice president for development with Forest City Ratner.

When the material supplier for the arena's weathering steel fell behind schedule, Petersen came up with a solution that was beyond the scope of his initial contract. The key was making the material in the building's interior have the same rusty look as the exterior facade.

"I saw an opportunity, and I built an entire column and I had it power-coated in a rust material that was a dead match to what they wanted, and I brought it in," Petersen said. "It was the solution that provided another $4 million of architectural metal work."

Petersen said he's working on finalizing a design contract for signs at the planned renovation of the Nassau Coliseum, which Ratner is spearheading. D'Eloia declined to comment, saying the company has not finished the contracting process.

Millions for signs

For American Signcrafters, the biggest sign the company has manufactured was a sign 14 feet wide by 242 feet tall for Hotel Novotel in 2012 for $2.2 million. The biggest single revenue generator was a $20 million contract in 2008 when North Fork Bank changed over to Capital One Bank, which required changing signs at 350 branches in the tri-state area.

"When we do these large conversions for these banks that make acquisitions, the most important thing is that those signs are delivered on time," Petersen said. "Over the course of a weekend, the banners have to come off, the switches have to be flipped and from Friday evening to Monday morning, three or four hundred branches have to change."

Petersen worked as a sheet-metal union worker before opening up his own company in 1979, initially named T.J. Signs.

It grew from its first location in a bay of an auto body shop in Amityville into American Signcrafters with three manufacturing facilities, including 40,000 square feet in Islip, 20,000 square feet in Little Falls, New Jersey, and 40,000 square feet in Boynton Beach, Florida, the latter run by Petersen's daughter, Lisa Johnson.

The company's headquarters moved at least six times over the years before landing at the Islip location almost eight years ago. About 40 employees work there, mostly salespeople, project managers and senior management, including Petersen's son, Jeff Jr.

"Each time I moved, it was typically because of a project that was upcoming and I needed more space," said Petersen, adding he owns all of the company's facilities.

Although Petersen has many people working for him now, he still gets his hands dirty. He said he lost the tip of his pinkie in a work-related accident, but he declined to elaborate.

"I personally am out there, not so much these days, but occasionally," said Petersen, who holds a master sign erector's license from the New York City Department of Buildings. "I still like to get in the middle of it."

As for the risks, "In all the years that I have been doing this, I am still here to talk about it," Petersen said. "People that take their life into their own hands like that are typically pretty capable and pretty sure of what they are doing. It is a calculated risk, but it is also an adrenaline rush, I have to admit."

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