Build Your Business:

Shop Talk: Positive Signs

October 12, 2016

Glenn Robbins’ vision has always been to help people find their way. Working in construction more than 38 years ago, he recognized a need for wayfinding — how people orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place — and labeling products. He ascertained that these tools were key to a job site’s efficiency.

As such, he launched Kirkwood, N.Y.-based Robbins Signs Co., offering services such as engraving lamacoid labels for wayfinding, and labeling for electrical panel boxes and other items.

“We had pantograph machines knocking out 40,000 tags an order for large [telecommunications] companies,” says Kelly-Jo Hunink, Robbins’ daughter, who also is manager and graphic designer for the company. “We soon upgraded to computerized machines. We were the first to add CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) vinyl plotters and cutters in our area.”

As it steadily grew, the company began producing more custom-printed vinyl, evolving into a full-service sign-manufacturing company with cranes and bucket trucks. Servicing local companies and national corporations, Robbins Signs eventually purchased and renovated an old dairy bar building that originally offered 1,650 square feet of production and office space.  After a high bay addition, the building now has about 5,000 square feet for production, manufacturing and warehousing for large signs, awnings and cabinets.

“We now have wide-format printers, cutters, laminators, lasers and bucket trucks,” Hunink says. “We still have engraving machines, and we do in-house ADA braille. We are a licensed electric sign manufacturer, and we also offer vehicle wraps, [screen printing], apparel, decals, interiors, architectural signage, business cards, brochures, wayfinding and braille signage.”

Adding Apparel Decorating
Robbins Signs currently offers heat-transfer decorating and screen printing, but that wasn’t always the case. Hunink says the company offered screen printing in the early 1980s when ink had an undesirable odor and was hazardous to inhale. But the staff thought better of using those inks and, later, decided on transfers.

The team came to this decision after a few years of turning away clients who wanted decorated apparel, conculding that it was in the company’s best interest to jump back into that market. The decision has paid off with the ability to now meet all clients’ needs.

“In about 2006, we got into the heat transfers on garments,” Hunink says. “We recently have had a big push of the reflective heat-press lettering for our police and fire clientele.”

Robbins Signs Co. currently employs five people in its sign department and does apparel decoration on a Riley Hopkins four-station/four-color manual press, purchased two years ago, and a Geo Knight heat press, equipped with a full platen and hat platen. The company recently hired a designer who is familiar with screen printing, and the decorating process has been popular with both larger and smaller contractors.

Currently, apparel decoration comprises less than 5% of Robbins Signs’ business, but that percentage is increasing.

“I am sure [the apparel decoration portion of the business] will continue to increase when we get a chance to advertise it more,” Hunink says. “We look forward to offering the newer styles of heat transfers that are available, like the reflective and sparkle material. We have had very good luck with [screen printing on the] fronts of tees and jerseys, and using the heat transfers for the back name and numbers.”

Adding screen printing has been both challenging and rewarding. Educating customers about capabilities and price can be a hurdle. To simplify things, Hunink says the shop offers only one- and two-color designs.

“It allows us to keep our costs down for our clients and speeds [up] turnaround time,” she says. “Even one color can be extremely nice, if designed correctly. Design is something that I think any sign shop has a hard time charging for and making money [on]. It can sometimes be quite time-consuming.”

Catering to Customers
By offering multiple services, Robbins Signs has become a “one-stop shop” for clients. “Building signs, vehicle lettering and wraps, lawn signs, business cards and brochures, shirts and hats — all together in one place,” Hunink says.

Using water-based inks for printing on marble and slate coasters has allowed the company to tap special-occasion markets, such as wedding receptions. The banner and trade-show product arena also has been good for the company.

Customer service is a No. 1 priority, and for good reason. “We are a family-owned company that has been in business for almost 38 years,” Hunink says. “My father, Glenn, is slowly stepping away, even though he is at the shop every day, running our land-clearing business. He no longer has the interaction with clients he used to, so it’s kind of neat to deal with his clients’ children, who now own their own businesses or are stepping up in the business as I am.”

Robbins has a website that will be updated in the future, and an active Facebook page. The company mostly markets to both local and national existing clients, but Hunink sees the need to do more marketing, in general. She also would like to add new equipment, primarily a larger roller dryer, followed by another bucket truck and an additional printer.

“Everything seems to be growing, and we’d like to grow with it,” Hunink says.

Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at