Now in its 37th year, California-based American Graphics Installation is that unique company that has lasted decades without really diverting much from what it was doing when it got into business in the first place.
American Graphics is an installation company focused on fleet vehicles. Yes, it does some retail commercial graphics installations, and a handful of automobile wraps each year. But the core of the business has always been and continues to be fleet installations.
“Trucks and trailers, some cars, but mostly trucks and trailers…we like big fleets of trailers,” says Keith Slater, who founded American Graphics with Peter Vernasco, who he’s known since the two attended Indiana University together years ago.
The two had been doing graphic installs for an advertising company when they decided to go out on their own in 1979.
“We were a mobile service, and we started with just a couple pickup trucks and a couple ladders and a couple squeegees,” Slater says. “That was about all we needed to be in business – we didn’t have any shop per se.”
By the mid 1980s, large-format graphics were starting to be used more and more and it was in that time period when American Graphics caught its first big break, Slater says.
“The one that I think was kind of a big groundbreaker was Lucky stores,” he says.
The Northern California-based chain had 1,000 trailers in its fleet and was a leader in adopting the mobile billboard look that’s so pervasive today.
“It wasn’t really a full wrap but it was pretty darn close,” Slater says. “It was in bits and pieces, but they had big salads and big loaves of bread, and a big ‘Lucky’ splashed across the side. That was in 1985. We started that job and it took us about three years to do their fleet. And I think for us, that was kind of our big breakthrough, going from smaller graphics to big graphics.”
Only a couple years later, through its association with Safeway stores, American Graphics found the company that would quickly become its biggest client: California-based Utility Trailer Manufacturing.
“They’re definitely our biggest customer,” Slater says. “We decaled 22,000 trailers for them last year.”
Though American Graphics’ business is primarily in California, in the case of Utility Trailer the company actually has staff on-site at the trailer company’s four factories: two in Virginia, one in Arkansas and one in Utah. About 15 to 20 of American Graphics’ installers work at each factory, doing graphics installations on the trailers as part of the production process.
In total about 81 people work for his company, Slater says.
All his company has ever done is installations, Slater says. A lot of its business came from printing companies, and he and Vernasco didn’t want to compete with their own customers. They also didn’t want the overhead associated with running a print shop, he says.
American Graphics has had a longstanding relationship with the Kansas-based Lowen Corp., Slater says, and over the years has steered graphics business their way as one of the trusted printing partners American Graphics works with.
One of the country’s biggest print houses, Lowen has often used American Graphics installers over the years, according to Dennis Shea, Lowen’s director of operations.
“Our company started using them for installations,” Shea says. “But there wasn’t any kind of organized teaching or training, so we naturally migrated to these guys because they seemed to know what they’re doing.”
A few years ago, Lowen and commercial graphics material manufacturer 3M decided to team up and get into the training business themselves. In 2009 the two companies opened the Lowen Certified Training and Testing Center together in Lowen’s hometown of Hutchinson, Kansas.
About a dozen of American Graphics’ employees have gone through training at the center, Slater says, including two that went through and passed the testing to become Lowen Certified and 3M Preferred Graphic Installers.
That reinvestment into its own staff demonstrates the value of the training center, Shea says.
“These guys are pretty much top of the line installers, and they are willing to invest in training and testing to make sure that they do have the top of the line guys,” Shea says of American Graphics. “Many of those guys, when they were down here, have been with that company five, 10, 15 years, so it’s not a high turnover rate, which is pretty unbelievable too.”
His company, which hires installers for hundreds of projects worth millions of dollars in any given year, looks first for companies that have Lowen Certified, 3M preferred installers on staff, Shea says.
“If you’re Lowen Certified you go to the top tier of all the graphics installers, of which there are about 100,” he says.