In Yellowknife, Signed delivers digital printing to Canada’s far north.
Wherever you travel in the world, digital graphics are part of the landscape – even in outposts as isolated and remote as Yellowknife, the northernmost city in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT).
The countryside is so rocky and barren – scraped clean in the last ice age – that when the Mars rover Curiosity touched down earlier this year, it landed in a quadrant of the red planet named for Yellowknife because of the similarity of the terrain. Still, the city is a thriving community – home to 20,000 who appreciate its unique arctic scenery, seven-month winters, daylight ranging from five hours in winter to 20 hours in June, and the brilliant displays of the Aurora Borealis that grace its night skies.
Many of the signs, banners, and graphics seen around the city, on its buildings, government facilities, and nearby diamond mines are produced locally by Signed (signedyk.com). Owner Janet Pacey and a silent partner purchased and re-launched the six-year-old company earlier this year after she was approached by owners eager to exit the business.
“I knew them, and had been using their company several years for printing my work as a graphic designer,” says Pacey. “This was an opportunity to completely rebuild the business and its client base. For a long time it had been the only sign shop in town, but they had experienced some problems.” Longtime customers who remained loyal to the business were no longer completely happy with the quality of service and products, she explains.
The last stop, literally
These types of issues can be part of the package when any operation changes hands. In Yellowknife, however, everyday business challenges are compounded by market size, the weather, and location.
“We’re really in the middle of nowhere, the last stop at the end of Highway 3,” points out Pacey. “Our nearest big city is Edmonton.” Everything is relative, however, and in this case, “nearest” equates to more than 800 miles away in Alberta province.
So, print media, ink, other consumables, and equipment must all be shipped north to Yellowknife. “Shipping from Edmonton takes about two days, but when it’s a small enough order we’ll fly it up,” she says. “But no matter how we ship, it takes at least two days. There’s no such thing as overnight up here.”
That adds to the cost of doing business, and cost of printed products. “Our prices are probably half to two-thirds higher than what they would be in other places.”
Then there’s the weather. Yellowknife sits on the shores of Great Slave Lake just about 250 miles from the Arctic Circle. The typical winter here would rank among the harshest anywhere else. January’s average dips down to -17 Fahrenheit (F), and temperatures plunging as low as -40F are not uncommon. With this type of chill, the area is a semi-desert; annual precipitation is less than 12 inches. What falls as snow, lingers for months.
During the worst of the winter, freezing of the MacKenzie River forces closure of Highway 3 late January through April. It’s temporarily replaced by a three-lane throughway for transportation over the frozen river once featured on the History Channel’s hit series, “Ice Road Truckers.” The icy passage ensures a flow of essential supplies to the city and mines in NWT, but at considerable cost.
“We have to make sure we pre-order all the print materials we might need before the freeze,” says Pacey. “We have to have enough on hand to get us through the winter months.”
The chill season brings both challenges and opportunities. “Installations can be difficult outside in the winter months, but we’re all used to the cold and equipped to work in it.” If a winter order calls for installing a vehicle wrap or applying vinyl decals, work proceeds inside a heated building.
Once applied, the vinyl adheres when exposed to the cold, but it takes a beating. “We get a lot of repeat customers and re-orders,” Pacey notes. Because of the prolonged sub-zero temperatures, salt can’t be used to melt the ice for better traction. Gravel is the preferred alternative, and that continually chips and tears at the vinyl until it needs to be replaced. “Sometimes I feel bad for my customers, but there’s no way to protect against that,” she notes. “It’s just the way things are here.”
A regional hub of commerce
The Northwest Territories boasts a total population of 40,000. As its capital, Yellowknife is the regional hub and home to government offices, educational institutions, tourism, and the many businesses, services, utilities, and NWT diamond mines driving the local economy. “This is the kind of place where everyone gets to know everyone else,” says Pacey.
Upon acquiring the company last April, Pacey’s first move was a name change to give it a new identity and shed some negative associations. Other than that new name, though, it’s pretty much the same business, with new management, guided by a new sense of commitment and vision.
Signed is located in the 1200-foot downtown storefront where the business launched more than six years ago. “We could do with a lot more room but we keep the shop tidy and people seem to love the new look,” says Pacey. “All we did was clean up a bit. I’ve tried to make it a welcoming place for clients to come. It can be a bit noisy but they seem to enjoy seeing how things are done.”
Fulltime print/production specialists Steve Kruger and Michael Tram both remained with the company through the transition to new ownership. Pacey considers them eager contributors to her efforts to redefine the shop and its brand of services.
“They stayed on and have been great about teaching me more about the sign and print business,” she says. “I am particular about how things look in the end and how people are treated. This is new to the guys, but they’re living up to the challenge.”
Assisting on a less formal basis is her husband Martin, who fills in when and as needed. “He’s an expert on the ladder and he’s great at figuring out how to mount signs to buildings,” she says. “Right now, he’s a bit of a grunt – he weeds vinyl, he mounts to sign boards and sandwich board, Dibond, etc. He’s loving the hands-on part of the job and leaves the art to me.”
With her team in place, she’s now hoping to make Signed the go-to place for graphics and marketing services in Yellowknife and the NWT. This despite that the company is no longer the region’s sole source for digitally printed signs and graphics: The local newspaper has now brought in digital equipment, while a local artist has added a large-format press; in addition, 100-plus miles to the south another company has a flatbed and a fleet of digital printers.
But Pacey is not threatened by the competition. “We have a customer base that’s been coming to the company for years, and I also brought some small business clients,” she explains. As a certified graphic designer (CGD) with the Designers Guild of Canada, Pacey had done work for many consumers and companies in the territory since she first moved to Yellowknife in the mid 1990s.
“We’re trying to position ourselves as somewhere people can come to and get great service, great graphic design by a CGD, and a one-stop shop for marketing their business,” she explains. In addition to design and sign printing services, marketing programs have included branded items like USB drives and pens, sourced from distant wholesalers. “We’re filling a niche so clients not only come to us for signs, they can have all their needs taken care of.”
Signed’s equipment lineup is modest but it’s also versatile enough to realize the corporate goals. Some of the major tools include: a 64-inch HP Designjet 8000, a 12-color Designjet Z3200 (44-inch) used primarily for printing posters, Konica Minolta color copier for color copies and brochures, and a pair of older vinyl cutters. The Postershop 7 RIP from Onyx drives the workflow to both HP printers. Signed uses HP inks exclusively but will source media from several vendors – including a range of 3M media and laminates, Oracal vinyl, and various substrates from Sabic Polymershapes.
“The HP Designjet 8000 is our workhorse,” Pacey reports. “We do pretty much anything: banners, election signs, Dibond site signs for construction companies, tiny vinyl lettering for government name slats.” Daily customers range from “government departments to construction companies to the diamond mines the NWT is famous for, and even people walking in off the street looking for a decal so they can name their boat.”
Projects are as varied as the client base. When Pacey spoke with The Big Picture in late August, she and her crew were in the process of wrapping an 8 x 16-foot mobile food trailer with vinyl for a local Thai restaurant. And for a new clothing store, Signed’s full-service solutions included not only producing the graphics for the store’s mall windows, but also designing the store logo, printing business cards, and creating the ads to promote the store in the local newspaper.
One of the shop’s largest recent orders called for production of a series of 156 reflective vinyl-on-Dibond signs for the De Beers diamond mine; about half of these measured 8-foot x 10 inches, while the rest measured 10-foot x 10-inches. And When Stantec Engineering acquired a local architectural and engineering firm earlier in the year, Signed printed and installed the graphics, backlit signage and channel letters to convey the name change.
“I never turn anything away,” she says. “We even still print a ton of vehicle magnets, although I try to encourage people to move away from them – because they’re constantly being stolen. The cab companies use them for their logos and numbers and they're constantly coming in to replace them. While I want to increase our sales, I also want clients to have the best look they can. I think vinyl looks more professional.
“We also do a lot of banners for local business, all kinds of signs for the airport, local charity events and golf tournaments.”
Building on initial success
Sales this first year, Pacey estimates, should tally around $250,000, with signs and graphics accounting for 70 percent of the business, design services another 10 percent, and the rest in varied print projects. As she looks to build on that base, she’s planning to invest in some new equipment.
“We got a good deal on the business and we knew the equipment would have to be replaced,” she says. “We’re shopping around for a Mutoh 64-inch printer and a Summa cutter.”
Even purchasing equipment from Yellowknife entails some special considerations. “I’m learning a ton about what we need, what will work best for our environment and who’s going to be able to service the business from afar.” Because the area gets so little rainfall, her team has to work to maintain adequate humidity in the shop. Pacey must make sure static electricity won’t pose any significant problems for any equipment she’s considering.
“If we need something fixed, it means flying someone up here, putting them up in a hotel, providing their per-diem allowance,” she continues. Even if her company assumes those costs, few vendors have the staff to dispatch. “I’m trying to find out who’s willing to do that for us.” It all adds to the price of the equipment.
Comparable fees can apply to vendor-provided training: “Thank God for the Internet, we’re able to learn a lot online,” she says. “Major suppliers out of Edmonton have also been very good about talking to us over the phone, or answering our email when we need help.”
When you enjoy where you live, have a friendly rapport with the people you work for and with, you learn to adapt, and accept such day-to-day challenges as mere costs of doing business. In Yellowknife, as anywhere else on the planet, success is built with the same few ingredients: the quality of printed products, responsive services, and the positive perceptions they generate.
“Word of mouth is key to getting new business in a place like this,” Pacey concludes. “Your reputation is everything.”
Freelancer writer Mike Antoniak is a frequent contributor to The Big Picture magazine.