Shorewood, IL

As material costs rise, Illinois sign-maker sees some challenges ahead in creative manufacturing.

For 35 years, Express Signs and Lighting Maintenance has created custom signage materials for small businesses across Illinois.

“All kinds of signage, but primarily external illuminated signage. These are the signs you see on the wall of the Jewel Osco, or Walgreens, pole out front that has a sign on top of it,” Lino Carillo says. “Although we do any type of signing that someone might need, including the store operating hours on the door.”

Carillo became CEO in 2019 after acquiring the company from the original owner. The business operates in Shorewood, IL providing all kinds of signs, sourcing most of the materials domestically. While Carillo was looking forward to taking over the business in 2019, the pandemic impacted his early days there.

“I would say that the pandemic caused a little bit of a hiccup in our business, and it wasn’t as immediate as you might think,” Carillo notes. “The immediate problems were when the governor of Illinois basically said, shut everything down. … We went back to work after about four days, which actually worked out. So we didn’t stop from that standpoint, other than that first week. Now, I will say that we stayed busy, but most of the business that I would do is business that has a pretty long lead time.”

Project delays were delayed

Many of Express Signs’ projects could take a few months from start to finish due to sourcing materials, installing the proper electrical wiring, color schemes, etc. According to Carillo, the effects of the pandemic didn’t really hit Express Signs until months later.

“We didn’t see fall off until probably third or fourth quarter of 2020 when it did start getting slow,” Carillo says. “My guess is projects that would have gotten started in the second quarter, slowed down considerably. We had a bump, but it was really the end of [2020], beginning of 2021 work slowed down considerably.”

As a sign maker, Carillo works with companies to build their brand and marketing. Along with the physical manufacturing of signs, Express Signs also deals in the creative side.

“We do a lot of design work,” Carillo says. “People often don’t know what they want in the sign, and we can help them by designing specific signs for them. Every sign is custom. We don’t make a ‘one size fits all’ for anybody.”

Industry growth is coming

Without sign stencils, Express Signs sees opportunities as the industry grows and changes.

“There’s a lot of companies, not all of them can do everything that needs to be done,” Carillo says. “So right now, we’re in a pretty good position to be able to fulfill a lot of demand that’s out there.”

Over the last year or two, Carillo has seen more demand and believes it’s happening now because there was a slowdown in new businesses early in the pandemic.

“I’ve seen a flurry of activity that people that were planning to do something and put it off for a year or two years, they generally still had the money and there was a lot of money in the economy,” Carillo says. “There’s lots of expansion. We’re fortunate we’re in a growing area.”

While there are growth opportunities for Carillo’s business, there are plenty of challenges as a result of the pandemic as well. Carillo emphasized two of them.

“Businesses currently have a lot of uncertainty with the current economic climate and are afraid to commit to too much. So if you have a sign currently, and you know, it’s in need of repair, you really should upgrade it, you may hold off, and I’m gonna wait and see how things go for the next six months or a year or whatever,” Carillo says.

“The second challenge was the extreme increase in the cost of goods. Basically, the raw materials we use for signage – aluminum LED modules, electronic components – accelerated in price back in 2020, and 2021. People talk about stuff coming back down in terms of pricing, containers no longer cost you $20,000 or whatever. But honestly, the prices never really came back. We’re still at a price level that’s bigger than what it was, and part of that is just the general inflation in the economy.”

Energy innovation drives creativity

As Express Signs experiences greater demand, Carillo is looking forward to continuous innovation in the creative sector of manufacturing.

“As the move toward electric vehicles happens, there’s a significant need for charging stations across the country and across the world and charging stations don’t have to be a pole with heavy electrical in it, it could be a pole with heavy electrical in it and a message center to display advertising and or other things,” Carillo says.

“As power consumption goes down, the ability to use solar power goes up. Now, you still don’t want to have a big, ugly solar panel on your sign, but I think the technology is just around the corner where they can actually not paint, but use a solar panel type array on the top of a sign that nobody ever sees.”