At Gelberg, their signs point to growth

At Gelberg Signs' production facility, Elaine Hart, left, glues letters onto a new sign for Capital One Bank.
At Gelberg Signs' production facility, Elaine Hart, left, glues letters onto a new sign for Capital One Bank. (Jeffrey Macmillan For The Washington Post)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 6:49 PM

Gelberg Signs is a company dying to get bigger.

Luc, Neil and Guy Brami, the three brothers who own the District-based manufacturer, are looking for an investor who will provide the $5 million they need to go national.

"We would like to find an equity partner to give us a cash infusion," Guy said. The five-year plan is to take revenue from $7 million to $24 million a year.

Part of the plan is to find some big national companies looking to roll out hundreds of new stores or locations (think Wal-Mart or the latest fast-food fad). Another part is to win every sign contract on a construction project in the District, where the Bramis keep a close eye on future development, following zoning meetings, D.C. Council hearings and anything else that will give them an edge on a job.

Luc is 54, Neil is 49 and Guy is 43.

Gelberg Signs was founded in 1941 and makes signs that direct you to everything from a restaurant to a restroom. Their prices can range from $30,000 for a custom-made lighted sign for a downtown Washington restaurant to $10 for one of the hundreds of restroom signs hanging inside a big office building.

Been to a Roy Rogers lately? It's a Gelberg sign that beckoned you. They are on the outside, and almost everywhere inside, of baseball's Nationals Park in Southwest D.C. Gelberg made the signs on every California Tortilla, the Children's National Medical Center and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Cuba Libre, the new restaurant in Penn Quarter, has a Gelberg sign. If you drive the New Jersey Turnpike, a Gelberg sign tells you which restaurant is at the next travel plaza. Gelberg will put your brand on coffee mugs, keychains, pens and pencils. The brothers are politically agnostic; they will make signs for any political party and candidate.

Gelberg grossed $7.2 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 and expects to gross more than $10 million in the year ending next June. The company has operated out of its Northwest Washington location since 1966, where it occupies 50,000 square feet in an industrial area.

Gelberg's net profit margin before taxes ranges from 3 to 5 percent, depending on how many orders for high-margin, custom signs they get in one year. The brothers pay themselves a salary and some bonus from the profits.

The Brami brothers are ambitious and politically savvy businessmen who are active in business organizations. Luc sits on the board of the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership, and the brothers stay in touch with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Their father was an impressionist painter who arrived from Tunisia in 1956 with a few bucks in his pocket. Unable to find work as a painter, Georges Brami hooked up with Bill Gelberg, who had a little sign company in D.C.

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