Signs of the Times

A rural sign maker keeps in step with technology while living the simple life

by Rosalyn Graham

Doug Watson took his artistic bent and a background in auto detailing and turned it into a thriving business making signs for some of Vermont's most prominent corporations. He and his wife, Susan, run their East Berkshire enterprise, Watson Sign Co., with the help of their four children. Their 1940 Ford coupe, which they rebuilt, sports a license plate that says, "SIGNBIZ."

Flipping through Doug Watson's portfolio is like a quick trip down every main street and major highway in northwestern Vermont. There is the colorful sign for the convenience store, the bold sign on the side of the transport truck, the eye-catching sign for the jewelry store on Main Street, the distinctive sign that identifies the regional oil company, the cute sign in front of the local restaurant and the sign announcing the next clinic at the hospital.

Watson has hundreds of stories to go with the photographs in his big, black photograph albums (and shoeboxes), stories that chronicle the 21-year history of Watson Sign Co. The stories begin with the first signs, made for business people in Richford and nearby Enosburg. Watson remembers that, after he and his new wife, Susan, decided to try the sign-painting business, he began his first, highly unscientific sales calls.

Walking into a local business, he would say, "Hi, I'm Doug Watson. I notice your sign is getting kind of tired up there. I'd like to make you a new sign. I'm going into the sign business. I've never made a sign before. I don't have a portfolio. I don't have any experience, and I don't have any background and training to guarantee what it will turn out like, but I'll do my best to create something for you."

To his everlasting amazement, lots of local businesses took the chance. One of Watson's first customers was Richard I. Green Trucking of Enosburg. Twenty-one years later, company president Richard Green speaks with pride of the long relationship with Watson Sign Co., beginning with the painting of his first truck in 1982. As Green's business grew, with a contract to carry Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream to California, his fleet grew, reaching 25 trucks with 40 trailers in 1990. Watson designed the logo, a clever use of the company name in the acronym RIG perfect for a transport company and has executed it countless times, first with a paintbrush in hand, then evolving to today's sign production technologies.

Green recalls one of Watson's earliest visits to his shop. "He was painting one of the first trucks he did for us, and my daughter, who was 5, was riding her bike around the shop. 'Come over here,' he said. He painted her name, really fancy, on the bike. She was so tickled."

As Green has expanded his horizons, Watson has made more signs for him. In addition to the trucks and trailers, he has made logos and signs for Green's hardware store and his auto parts store, both in Enosburg; and in the five years that Green has had what he calls his "little hobby" with a race car, Watson has decorated that, too. Green likes the fact that he is spending his money right in town and says, "I'd put the quality up against anyone in the country, and I see trucks all over the country. We get comments all the time." Watson's self-deprecating and humorous claims of lack of experience and talent gloss over the talents and experience he brought to his chosen trade. As a teenager, he worked in his family's large automotive restoration business in New Jersey, honing the hand-eye coordination and color sense that he says run in the family. When his parents decided to move to Vermont, following Watson's older sister who had graduated from Johnson State College and was working as an art teacher, they sold the restoration business in New Jersey. They purchased a piece of property and a small garage in Vermont to pursue what Watson calls "the Norman Rockwell ideal with the white picket fence." Watson, who was 18, stayed behind.

"I had no intention of coming up to Vermont," he says, "It was a nice place to visit. I stayed in New Jersey and helped the new manager run the business. At a very young age I learned about cause and effect between work and having enough to eat," he says with a grin. When his family was ready to open its automotive restoration business in Vermont, it needed Watson's skills to help build a good reputation. He came to Vermont.

Over the years, sign-making has evolved from painting by hand
and eye to employing computers, plotters, large-format printers and a host of new materials. Watson (left) and his wife, Susan, work with Sarah, their 17-year-old daughter, who helps with design, and Josh, their 16-year-old son, whose mechanical ability lends itself

The good news was that, within a couple of years, he met his wife-to-be, Susan Canzani, a Swiss woman, in Sutton, Quebec. The bad news was that, when he arrived in Vermont, it was 1979, when interest rates were skyrocketing at 18 or 20 percent; the dollar was dropping; there were trade wars; the automotive industry was getting thin; and, to top it off, the New Jersey business had a disastrous fire, cutting off income from that earlier sales agreement. It was a bad time to be in the high-end automotive restoration business, and Watson began looking for work outside the family business that could no longer support him.

He began making signs out of his brother-in-law's roofing shop and eventually opened Watson Sign Co. in 1982, the same year he married Susan.

Watson recognizes that his original choice of Richford as a home base for his sign business was less than logical. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he was making his business decision, he says Richford was, per capita, one of poorest towns in Franklin County; Franklin County, with its agriculture-based economy, was one of poorest per capita counties in Vermont; and Vermont was one of poorest states in the United States.

"From the point of commerce, if you were to pick one of the worst towns in the worst counties in the worst state in the worst time frame to start a commercial sign business, if you were to look at it on a chart, it would be ludicrous."

Watson's "just do it" philosophy, tempered by what he describes as his wife's more conservative, more European approach, created a balance and strength in the Watson Sign business. In those early days, he says, "Key people honored the fact that "here's a kid out knocking on doors to try to generate work, and they supported me. They did it out of community spirit, no guarantees. It was probably cost effective. One sign went up and another went up."

The support launched the sign business and, with customers like Green, Deringer, Northwest Medical Center, The Abbey and stores on the Main Streets of Richford and Enosburg, proved the rightness of the Watsons' choice of being in business in the Franklin County community. "What really gave us the opportunity to start Watson Sign Co. wasn't my smart marketing abilities or my ability to communicate or twist people's arms; it was other people's decision to support us."

As Watson Signs grew, so did the Watson family, and with two children and a third on the way, the Watsons decided to move out of downtown Richford. They moved to a house on a 10-acre lot in East Berkshire with a view of the Missisquoi River Valley where they have the studio and workshop for Watson Signs; they home-school their four children; Susan creates gourmet meals with ingredients from their garden; they raise lambs and honey for their table; and windmills in the backyard and solar panels provide virtually all their power.

The growing list of large and steady customers for Watson Signs points to a growth and expansion that might have prompted some entrepreneurs to hire staff and move to larger facilities in a bigger town.

"Logistically, from a business perspective, it would make a lot more sense for us to live in Shelburne or Charlotte or Essex or Winooski or Malletts Bay," says Watson. "The good percentage of our customer business in the last 15 to 20 years has been an hour south of us." Such a move would avoid the long drives to customers, the challenge for customers trying to find Watson Signs "off of Route 118 off of Route 105" and the difficulty Watson hears all too often when he gets the call: "Can you letter a truck tomorrow afternoon?"

But, Watson says, "The decision has been to limit the physical growth of the business so we can enjoy living in Vermont and so we can enjoy the very things that allowed us to get into the business, the continued connection with early business customers who use us because they like us."

Family participation has been another reason for staying small and staying in East Berkshire. Like their mother, the four Watson children are actively involved in the family business, contributing their own talents to design, production and installation of signage. Watson laughs, saying he has "exploited the kids from an early age," showing early ads in the St. Albans Messenger that featured the children clustered around the latest sign project. When the children were only 3 or 4, they were helping out with cutting vinyl letters for application to signs. Now Sarah, 17, Josh, 16, Tim, 14, and Adam, 13, combine schoolwork, music lessons, sports activities and helping around the house with applying their special talents for the business. All are artistic, Watson says. He recalls Sarah's contributions as much as five or six years ago, making suggestions on a design that delighted the customer who had come to approve a project. Josh is mechanical and has made his mark on many of the recent products that involve wood carving, a technique that has added beauty and a new dimension to many Watson signs.

The Watsons live, work, study and play as a family: They home-school their children; eat produce from their garden; raise lambs and honey for their table; and generate their own power with windmills and solar panels. Pictured is the entire family: from left, Sarah, Tim, Adam, Susan, Doug and Josh. In the foreground is Haley, their rottweiler.

Technology continues to change and evolve, creating the potential for signs never dreamed of when Watson started with his pieces of wood and paint brush. Now computers; plotters; large-format printers; new materials such as vinyl, Lexan, aluminum and foam; layering and sandwiching techniques; the digital transmission of images; not to mention the convenience of e-mail and faxing have made drastic changes to the sign business. While he uses all of those technologies, Watson does see a problem resulting from the ease of production for practitioners without a solid base in good design.

"If you have a good design, a good concept, interesting, with great balance, minimal dead space, readibility in 2.8 seconds at 62 miles per hour, that design could be flat-painted; it could be cut-out letters; it could be dimensional; it could be hand-carved any one of a number of styles of execution and still be effective." If it's a bad design, the sophisticated execution won't make it a good sign, he says.

A new addition to the signage Watson has offered its customers in the past year has excited Watson a lot. Impressed by the stained-glass work of Karen Scheffler, who has a stained-glass studio in Montgomery, Watson and Susan asked her to make stained-glass elements for a sign they were creating for Sweet Nothings, an ice cream shop on Main Street in St. Albans.

"Doug is quite an encourager," Scheffler says of the new relationship. The stained glass lends a new lightness to the signs, she says, an interesting new look that is catching lots of attention. Now stained glass adorns signs for a medical supply company in St. Albans, a fire house in St. Albans and the sign for First Baptist Church on Main Street in Richford. "There is a lot of beauty in Richford," Scheffler says. "The sign seems to give encouragement for the whole town, and that is the kind of thing Doug does."

Originally published in June 2003 Business People-Vermont