I often drive through anonymous suburban office parks wondering what kind of businesses lie behind those brick fronts.
This is where small, unglamorous companies live. They quietly go about their work, making good returns providing services or materials essential to modern day life. That’s what my image is, at least.
And that’s where I found myself last week, in an 8,800-square-foot office in a low-slung industrial strip center under the thundering flight path leading to Washington Dulles International Airport.
The name on the front is Brandvizion. It’s a sign company, founded and owned by John McManus, an unassuming 57-year-old Arlington native and graduate of Yorktown High School, where Katie Couric was a classmate.
The sexy part of Brandvizion is its “car wraps.” Those are the mobile advertisements that look like they’ve been tattooed top to bottom on a vehicle.
Depending on the size and complexity of a wrap, McManus bills from $1,500 to $5,000, on which he makes about a 10 percent profit margin, not a lot in his line of work.
“We do them because they are creative, and the staff likes to do them,” McManus said.
The real money is in simple signs, nearly all of which are made from vinyl. You have seen Brandvizion’s work throughout the Washington area. It includes those giant banners hanging (actually nailed) into the facades of apartment buildings announcing rental units or co-ops for sale.
Brandvizion will put a customized logo on your interior wall or on the fence running around a construction site, like it does for Clark Construction projects. It might make the sign listing the rules governing your local swimming pool. Or the tee signs listing the companies and good citizens behind Bozzuto’s annual charity golf event. It might be the reminder next to the elevator at an INOVA hospital, instructing you on the verities of clean hands.
Brandvizion isn’t a financial juggernaut, but it’s certainly an NLO, a business acronym I like. NLO stands for Nice Living for the Owner. I never get tired of hearing and writing about people like McManus, who aren’t born with any resources to speak of, yet they grind out a life for themselves in business, little by little, day by day.
McManus expects Brandvizion to gross about $1.8 million this year, which easily covers his nine employees and his six-figure salary, leaving a profit in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000.
His biggest cost, by far, is the vinyl he uses for the thousands of signs the company produces every year. It eats more than two-thirds of his revenue. He pays just shy of $8,000 a month in rent and has three vehicles that need fueling and servicing. Total debt — almost all of which is on his two, state-of-the-art printing machines that do the work of several employees — is less than half a million.
“The company does pretty well,” he said.
It wasn’t always that way.
McManus’s relaxed demeanor belies a scrappy resourcefulness. He didn’t go to college. He went the salesman route instead, starting in appliance sales, first at George’s, a former Washington area retail chain. He later sold stereos and televisions at Errol’s, at one point earning $35,000 a year on gross annual sales of nearly $1 million. He sold Ford trucks at an auto dealership before being promoted into management — and after six years with his pay peaking around $90,000 a year, he was unceremoniously fired, which happens a lot in the auto-sales business.
“I was crushed,” he said. “It was terrible.”
Single, 30ish and out of work, McManus and a buddy got the idea for a local sign franchise and flew to Dallas to investigate. The next thing he knew, he was on the hook for a franchise in Northern Virginia with dreams of opening 50 more.
“I got ‘closed,’ ” he laughs, using the term that salesmen like him use when they seal a deal on a customer.
His franchise parent taught him the basics, but he figured most of it out himself.
“I didn’t even know what a sign was,” he said. “I was a car salesman. I knew how to sell.”
The first customer was an employee for a car-repair shop who just happened to be passing by.
The first few years were dicey. He borrowed $40,000 from friends. He maxed out his credit cards, cashed in his 401(k), borrowed from a leasing company. He sold his Harley-Davidson to make payroll. He didn’t keep up with sales tax and Social Security, requiring an accountant to rescue him. He fired his partner. He sued his franchise parent to get out of the contract.
“Everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong,” he said. “People don’t understand what being in small business is like. It was touch and go for the first 10 years.”
His store got burglarized in the first year, with everything but the telephones being stolen. Then an employee ripped him off for $40,000, writing false checks.
“It’s a miracle we got this far.”
McManus has a long client list, which mostly comes through word of mouth. One key move was hiring an outside sales representative, who connected McManus with advertising agencies that order signs for clients. Last week, he had a bunch of banners sprawling across the floor, representing $10,000 in revenue, thanks to the ad agency.
Another smart move has been investing in technology, allowing him to pare the staff to half the size it was a decade ago. By spending on machines, he stays abreast, if not ahead, of competitors.
He points to a German-made “cutter,” which efficiently and automatically cuts his signs to the exact specifications ordered by clients. “This machine doesn’t call in sick. Doesn’t require health insurance. Doesn’t take vacation. Doesn’t require” Social Security payments.
Another machine, which was made in New Hampshire and cost nearly half a million, prints directly on any surface, from wood to acrylic to metal, up to two inches thick. In three minutes, it can produce a four-by-eight foot plywood sign. That used to take more than two hours when McManus started the company nearly 25 years ago.
Thanks to the machines, he can handle up to $2 million in work without hiring another employee.
Since leaving his franchising parent, the company has moved and gone through two name changes. McManus in 2009 paid for some research and settled on Brandvizion because he was looking for something that projected the sense of signs as being visual.
McManus said he has stashed money in his 401(k) like mad. He has most of his home paid off. A North Carolina real-estate investment is under water, but he laughs that off.
“It’s been a lot of hard work,” he said, but he is where he wants to be. “The only person I worry about firing me now is my customers. And I work really hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Think of that the next time you drive through an industrial park.