How do you marry two businesses?
The process of passing a business from one generation to the next is a perplexing one. The experts say it takes planning. But what if the plans don’t work out? It’s almost like not having a plan at all. But, there’s this thing called serendipity and if you are lucky maybe it will kick in. That’s what happened for the Bachmans in selling their business – Permaletter Sign Company.
For a number of years the Bachmans thought they had a plan. An employee was interested in buying the business, eventually, and they all engaged in a process of training and mentoring for when the day came. But, then he came to the Bachmans to say, that one thing he had learned was that he was not cut out to be a business owner.
They were back to square one, and time was ticking away.
It’s true, many people are not cut out to be business owners, that’s why those who are, are such a value to the community.
Many businesses require more than just capital and unlocking the door each morning. They require heart and soul and a true love and talent for what they do. Permaletter is like that. It is what Ron brought to the business and he knew anyone successfully taking it over would also have to have that kind of spirit. The months passed as the Bachmans explored the possibilities, and then one day the answer walked in the door. They should have thought of it before.
Mike Marshall, a friend and business associate of many years, as well as a former employee, came in to do some business. Having the same creative bent as Ron and having started his own successful business, Mike fit the bill. After a few minutes of conversation, Ron casually asked, “Hey, why don’t you buy this business?”
The idea struck a chord for Mike, too. He talked to his wife and partner of Zee Creative, Sabrina, and they concluded that it was time for them to make a growth move and that Permaletter added a logical dimension to their business. What brought both Ron and Mike to the businesses they own was a passion for art and graphics and an understanding of the potential those things can play in advertising and marketing. Marrying the two enterprises poses even greater potential.
A deal was struck and today the Marshalls are in the process of bringing the businesses together under one roof at Permaletter on 4th Avenue North, and hoping for an October unveiling. They have plans to continue to serve the customers of both businesses with the same dedication to quality and satisfaction – and to be able to add some new dimensions to what they offer.
In talking to the two business owners, one finds how similar their backgrounds are. . . they both started out with a passion for art and they both decided early on that they wanted to someday own their own business…..
Ron Bachman is a designer at heart. He went to art school in Denver. He became enamored with the sign industry once he saw how business success integrates with design, and understood the potential of advertising and marketing. Besides deciding that this was the career path for him, Ron also decided, shortly afterward, that he wanted to own his own business. That illumination came in about 1980, after working in the industry for about four years.
His first introduction to what would become his lifelong pursuit began in 1975 as a project to design a sign for his cousin who managed a shopping mall in Denver. The endeavor brought Ron into contact with Bill Nyman of Epcon Sign Company (Denver). The connection landed him a job in Billings for Epcon, as a designer.
Ron’s new job required that Ronda give up her job – and a very good job it was, lament the Bachmans. Ronda grew accustomed to giving up jobs, as over the years Ron’s job required several moves.
Ron lived at the Picture Court Motel in Billings from the time he got the job in December 1975, until early 1976, when Ronda was able to join him.
Four months later, Dart Industries, which owned a number of major companies such as West Bend and Tupperware, sold their Epcon Sign division, which served the northwestern US. The local Billings manager purchased the Montana part of the business which included a sub-office in Great Falls. Ron’s boss called him into the office to inform him, ‘We don’t need a designer right now, but you can work in the shop and produce signs.’ For six months Ron worked in production and then he was sent to the Great Falls office to once again be a designer.
Bill Nyman and Dennis Harriman, who ran Epcon’s Denver office, bought Billings Neon as a result of the Dart transition. Ron, went to work for them as a sales representative about three years later. “That was way outside my comfort zone,” said Ron, but as any businessman quickly learns, advancement and increased income originates in sales. Ron, as introverted as he is, understood that, even though his natural talent was artistic. He had to consider the additional income potential, since he had a growing family to support. The Bachmans added two daughters to the family in short order.
So, starting from Great Falls, then moving to Billings once again, Ron began traveling eastern Montana contacting businesses and potential new clients. He was on the road Tuesday through Friday. For the next 22 years Ron worked as a salesman. He wasn’t such a great salesman, said Ron, “Bill Nyman just put in the effort to not fire me.”
In the mid-80s the industry began using vinyl extensively and Billings Neon purchased vinyl from Permaletter, since they did not have a vinyl cutter. It was an indicator that “The industry was changing in a way that Billings Neon wasn’t prepared to do go,” observed Ron. The world was moving from analog to digital, and while Permaletter had digital printing equipment, Billings Neon did not.
It was time – time for the Bachmans to go into business themselves.
Ron “put together a deal” with Curt Clark and Bill Frates to purchase Permaletter from them. “I probably paid too much for it,” said Ron — just one indicator that he had a steep learning curve ahead of him as a business owner. Fortunately, Ron had had a very rounded experience in the sign business and all of it served him well in managing his own business. The Bachmans told themselves, “This needs to work … we have everything invested in this.”
His steepest learning curve was in dealing with the new age of computers. That curve was vertical, claims Ron. And, up until his last day, it was a challenge to keep up with advancing technology, which is pulling nearly all industries in many directions. Helping to make the transition was an employee who came with the purchase of Permaletter, Mike Marshall. He and Ron had met years earlier when Mike lived in Bozeman and worked for Signs & Designs. Mike worked only for a short period of time for Permaletter, with the Bachmans as owners, before leaving to start his own business, Zee Creative, but his expertise was of great value in helping to incorporate new technology into Permaletter.
When Ron and Ronda purchased Permaletter, it operated out of a small space, about 20 feet by 93 feet with two steps up along the way, and no ceiling taller than eight feet. The facility was ill-suited to be a manufacturing site, to say the least.
The Bachmans purchased the former Yellowstone Electric property at 1105 Fourth Avenue North in 2000 and built a new building specifically for the design and construction of signs.
The business has grown and succeeded over the past 21 years. At the time they sold the business they were employing five people, in addition to themselves.
Ronda was always an integral part of the business, helping to smooth over transitions with outside income, and for many years working part time for the business as bookkeeper, a position that was always hard to fill, otherwise, because it was not full time. Ronda said that she is grateful for the foundation that Ron built for the family because it gave her flexibility. She was able to do her job from home and to be available to be “a hands-on grandparent.” Ronda believes that for the first few years of a child’s life they need to be cared for by someone who loves them. The Bachmans were able to help provide that for their two grandchildren.
And, of course, Ronda was always Ron’s insightful advisor, offering a different perspective and moral support.
While there was a lot to learn about running a business the toughest part, said Ron, is dealing with employees. Getting and keeping good employees, training them, and the many different issues that arise in the work place and in their lives. “It is still not easy to fire somebody,” muses Ron, but he is pleased with the staff they have assembled. “I’m glad to have reached that stage … it is awesome to have a crew that knows what they are doing.” Most of the employees have worked for Permaletter for more than ten years. That says something about the employer.
One of the things Ron learned is that “people aren’t always motivated by money.” “I came to that realization kind of late,” he said. The sign industry is, by nature, an inventive, challenging and creative process that involves the employees and gets them “excited and engaged,” said Ron.
“Ron loved the creative process of putting something of quality together,” observed Ronda.
Ron became rather noted for his passion about freedom of speech, and fought against excessive sign code regulations, a little recognized service to the business community. “It was an issue I learned about from Dennis Harriman in Denver,” said Ron. What he objected to about the writing and rewriting of codes is that most of the time it made no sense. Every time the codes were rewritten and the fees on them increased, Ron was there to object and point out when they were crossing over the line in violation of freedom of speech and expression. “A sign is free speech.” Fees are ostensibly charged to cover the cost of operating the bureaucracy, but the fees are increased as the size of the sign is increased, even though size makes no difference as to the costs incurred by the agency. “I asked to see all their costs,” said Ron.
Ron has mixed feelings about letting go the reins of Permaletter. As dedicated as he always was to Permaletter, other than searching out the perfect locally brewed beer, Ron developed no other past-times. Fortunately, his experience in the sign industry was all about creative thinking, problem solving and imagination when addressing challenges. But now there is the relief of not having to engage the next era of technological innovations that are coming at the industry fast.
Ron sees the change as “another iteration of the same issue.” The same issue confronted by Billings Neon and the industry when he stepped out on his own. It’s a new era and time for a new generation.
“My vision isn’t the vision going forward,” said Ron, “but Mike has that vision.”