Baring His Signmaking Soul
Christopher Wicks is the owner of Global Sign & Awning (Clearwater, FL).
Is it true that you lived in your car when you first started this company?
It is. I had nothing to really lose. My father was doing prints at the time and he said, ‘Why don’t you try this out? You’ve got nothing going on.’ I went door-to-door in shopping malls trying to sell vinyl. When I would get a job, I would take a roll of vinyl to him in Orlando, and he would charge me every time I’d bring vinyl over there. Even if I was just cutting address numbers. He’d say, ‘That’s wear and tear on the machine; you’ve got to pay me per square foot.’ I would drive to Orlando in the middle of the night to his house where he had the printer. I’d print my vinyl, drive back to Clearwater where my girlfriend – now my wife – had a small, one-bedroom apartment. And she would let me transfer the vinyl on the kitchen table. Then I would go and install it.
Did you harbor doubts about yourself when you were driving to Orlando or cutting vinyl on your girlfriend’s kitchen table?
I never really had any doubts, because I was just having fun. Back then for me, making $100 in a day was great. I was like, ‘Holy crap!’ What attracted me to signs was desperation. What made me fall in love with signs was the fact that people were now hiring me to create artwork for them, and I [got] to put it on the side of a building for everyone to see. That was enchanting for me. But in 2017, that was the hardest year for me. I thought we were going to go out of business. I had to make a lot of hard decisions.
What saved you in 2017?
I had a big customer who hired me to do a job, and I was running behind because I didn’t have the money to finish it. I remember him calling me and saying very sternly to me, ‘I’m leaving on vacation. I expect my monument sign to be up by the time I get back.’ I was standing in the bathroom in our business, and I’m crying in front of this mirror. I felt so much pressure. In that moment, I broke down.
I remember looking up in the mirror and it all became very clear. I’m in charge of my destiny. Crying isn’t going to fix this. When [Global Sign] was about to die, I had to stand up in front of the team and tell them I couldn’t afford to make payroll. We had to make it past that transition of being just a vinyl shop with one or two guys, to being a full-service sign and awnings manufacturing company. One of the things that happened was I closed a big deal and that deposit check gave us breathing room. We were able to catch up on some of our payments. We were tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And I paid it back. Now, we don’t owe anyone money.
Well, I appreciate the honesty there.
Yeah, I want to do this interview and say, ‘Yeah, it was always good. I’m a hell of a salesman and I’ve sold all these signs’… but that’s not the truth. Was there a time I doubted myself? Yeah, standing in the bathroom of my business crying was the lowest point of my career, because I thought we were done. I thought we were finished.
What made you want to get into solar signage?
The No. 1 reason was sustainability. My goal by the end of 2020 is that every sign we manufacture will be powered by solar energy. The thing we do that’s different than most of the companies using solar panels is when we put a solar panel on a sign, you won’t see it. Our secret is that we’re using a solar panel that’s approximately 1/8 of an inch thick and it’s completely flexible. So depending on the shape of the sign, we wrap it.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business?
Our production team is in the office and our installation team is on the road. We’ve asked everyone else to work from home. The signage industry is the construction industry. We are a manufacturing construction trade. We’ve been able to sell some projects through medical and construction clients. We’re asking everyone in the shop to play by the rules and play it safe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.