Steve Thompson has made his share of signs and banners over the years, probably somewhere in the thousands.
The Overland Park businessman has been in the sign business for more than 25 years with various companies, including his current firm called Steve Thompson Signs Graphics. Over the years, he’s promoted all kinds of activities for businesses, homeowners, school and churches.
However, Thompson’s favorite signs have been more lighthearted in nature.
“The things I’ve had the most fun with are joke banners,” Thompson said. “Once I put a label on a can of repellent that said ‘How to keep him away,’ that stuff’s fun,” Thompson said.
An Illinois native, Thompson moved to Kansas when he was a child and lived in Topeka and Lenexa. After graduating from Kansas State University, where he worked as advertising manager for the school newspaper, Thompson began his career at a small newspaper in Beloit, Kan.
Later, he moved to Overland Park and took a job outside journalism. It wasn’t long before the creative itch took over and Thompson looked to make another change.
“My brother had a sign shop in Lawrence when he got a call from a client to put a sign on his truck,” Thompson said. “So he called me to do it.”
In 1981, Thompson opened Thompco Enterprises focused on painting. Self-taught, Thompson drew upon his graphics training from journalism school.
“We would do anything — painting houses, signs,” Thompson said. Six months later, Thompson transitioned to signs only and his business took off.
“I got busy enough that I sub-contracted,” he said. “We hand painted until 1987 when I got my first vinyl cutter.”
Through an industry connection, Thompson landed a big national account.
“I did thousands of banners for NFL teams,” he said.
Thompson operated Thompco until 2006 when, at the age of 51, he decided to take a break.
Q: Why did you decide to leave the industry for a while
“I had done it for 25 years and I thought I’d done this for a long time,” he said. “My friends said I was really marketable, but I found out I really wasn’t all that marketable. Then I thought maybe I wanted to ride the trains.”
Thompson sold his business and enrolled in a train conductor’s course at Johnson County Community College.
“In the middle of the course I decided maybe I didn’t want to ride the trains, but I did get my conductor’s certificate,” he said.
For several years, Thompson moved between various jobs and waited out the non-compete agreement he had signed when he sold his business. By 2010, Thompson was ready to move back into the creative arena. With life experience under his belt, he decided to go back into the sign business, forming Steve Thompson Signs Graphics. He took some business classes to bring himself up to speed.
“I even hired the instructor to come in and make sure I was doing my books right,” he said with a laugh.
Thompson bought new equipment and set up to do business from the basement of his Overland Park home with a separate entrance and restroom for customers.
“I’ve always done it that way,” said Thompson about his home office. “I’ve looked at commercial space every few years but decided to stay in the house. If you have a retail space you have to have a counter person, and most of my business is not walk in but done over the phone and through the Internet.
Q: Why have you gone the solo route with your business?
“I’ve had employees and not had employees, like right now,” Thompson said. “My preference is to not have employees. I don’t make that much more money and I have control and can touch every sign. I talk to my clients and they know I will do their sign.”
Q: How has the industry changed since you first went into the sign business?
“I started with paint and a brush and I wasn’t very good,” Thompson said. I would even make two invoices for a customer – one if the client wasn’t totally happy and the other if he was.”
Digital technology has made it possible to make things faster and more accurately, said Thompson.
“Using my 54-inch printer, anything that’s on a roll I can print,” he said.
Like many small businesses, Thompson said the Internet has been helpful and harmful.
“That’s where the competition is,” he said. “It’s really Internet companies who say they can offer you signs and banners cheaper…but by the time you include shipping and sales tax, it is not always less expensive.”
Thompson said by having his own space to produce his banners and signs, customers can see the product in person and he can make last-minute changes.
Today, most of Thompson’s work is repeat business. He offers free delivery and design consultation. Thompson said he can turn orders fairly quickly.
And after all these years, Thompson still enjoys the work.
“I love the design part of working with clients,” he said. “I enjoy our interaction.”