Green Bay entrepreneur discovers passion for sign business, like his father before him
Zach Engels of Green Bay hopes that all signs point to success in the new year as he continues to grow his business, Economy Signs.
A graduate of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Engels learned the machine tool trade and is applying those skills to working full time and starting a business on the side.
“I got into the sign business because my father, before he passed away, owned Sign Edge in Green Bay,” Engels said. “I was only 12 years old when he passed, but I had already been working there with him.”
His mother told him that his dad was hoping he would take over the business after he graduated so he could retire.
“It stuck with me in the back of my head that that’s what he wanted for me," Engels said. "He thought it would be a good choice for me, and it’s something I always wanted to do.”
Because he didn’t feel ready to start a business right after graduation, he worked for a number of companies in machining but didn’t find the right fit until he was hired by Robinson Inc., about five years ago. There, he says, he has finally found a company that cares about its employees. Robinson has been very supportive of his side business, as well.
His dream to own a sign business began in 2019 when he and a friend bought a small CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine and laptop to see if they could successfully create a market for their signs. Engels said the first step involved massive online research; he spent as many of his free hours as possible learning the craft and became fascinated with the process.
While it turned out to be a passion for Engels, his partner was less involved and decided to sell his half. As a single owner, Engels began to formulate a plan. Since his CNC machine was best utilized in creating smaller signage, he decided to specialize in vehicle graphics. He developed a marketing plan, and promoted the business through social media and networking.
“I am doing what I’m capable of as far as machine-wise, and because of that, my business is in small signage vehicle graphics," Engels said. "Since starting, I’ve done company vans, personal vehicles, golf carts and semi-trucks, and have learned to work with a variety of vinyl from colored to reflective.”
He tries to find a balance between his full-time job and side business while spending time with his three children, all under age 3. That has been the greatest challenge.
“I’m pretty driven, and people at work know that I’m going to work nonstop,” he said. “When I’m sitting down, I feel like I should be doing something and that can be good and bad. I've always had an interest in learning, and if I don’t know something, I will do whatever I can to learn it.”
Part of that learning will be done with the help of Paul Carron, his Green Bay SCORE chapter mentor. Carron is advising him as he prepares a business plan that will fit in with his busy life.
Engels added: “I wish I would have focused on this a long time ago when my dad was around; that I would have truly listened to what he was telling me.”
He remembers his dad showing him the benefits of computer design, and Engels has tried to embrace all of the newest upgrades in technology. As the business grows, he hopes to purchase more machinery and be able to move the business out of his basement. The business has had steady growth, and Engels emphasizes his gratitude toward his current employer.
“One of my biggest customers right now is Robinson," Engels said. "They are all about supporting people like me that have small businesses. I started doing some graphics for shelves, and eventually, some project coordinators found out about me and now I’m putting my graphics on machines.”
Word-of-mouth has also helped, and as business rolls in, he is cognizant of taking only as much work as he can handle. He describes himself as a perfectionist and says that can be a weakness. To prevent overthinking projects, Engels has developed a project management system that will help him balance time and quality.
The system follows each part of a project on a dry erase board with colorcoding for each step. When he first started, there were minor issues with miscommunication so now he draws out projects in advance, makes any requested changes and obtains approval before starting. The comments from customers have been excellent.
“It is gratifying to see my work driving around town,” he said. “It is like, ‘Yes, I did that.’ And when a project is completed and I see the customers’ faces light up, it feels good.”
His goals are a bit more long range as he enjoys his current job and says there are many similarities. At his job, he runs CNC machines. In his business, the table routers that cut out large letters also run off of a CNC machine.
As he continues to learn more about the trade, he says it could take five years or more before he is ready to go full time at his business. His family is a priority.
“If someone asked for advice before starting a business, I would ask them first if they had small children, and if they don’t have those responsibilities, they don’t have as much to worry about in terms of supporting them,” Engels said. “Then I would say they should learn as much as they can, get experience in their field of interest and go full force.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.