“Learn as you go” has likely been a mantra for many budding entrepreneurs. For Sara Greil, owner of Fox Cities Sign in Menasha, that’s exactly what happened.
With a degree in fine arts and graphic design, the 36-year-old Brillion native never planned on owning her own business. But after working for 13 years at the business that launched in 2006, Greil became owner in early 2020, leading the company to win a Small Business of the Year Award from the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Greil says. “I remember sitting at the awards ceremony thinking, that’s a huge accomplishment, that’s my goal.”
Greil worked both as a graphic designer and salesperson at Fox Cities Sign during her tenure when she eventually began running more of the business, which she called a “learn-as-you-go” experience. “It was a pretty smooth transition,” she says.
While Greil and the previous owner had talked for years about the possibility of her buying the company, the reality of being an owner/employer set in after securing financing from Bank First in Appleton. Then the pandemic hit.
“I had my first panic attack,” she says, thinking “I have this big loan now. I’m responsible for (employees’) livelihoods and we don’t know what’s going on in the world.”
Even though she had a solid footing and many accounts, COVID-19 threatened numerous businesses. But Fox Cities Sign has thrived in the past year, Greil says. “We’re installing all day long and designing all day long.”
While a few jobs have been halted, she adds, business has been booming with many installations for national accounts like McDonald’s and Dunkin’. “Those national accounts kept us strong,” Greil says.
Fox Cities Sign does graphic design as well as sign production, installation and service. But when Greil took over this year, she incorporated her side business, Vivid Graphix & Apparel, with the company. Fox Cities Sign now offers apparel printing and embroidery, promotional products, business cards, vehicle wraps and banners.
“That’s what’s kind of nice. We do a lot more than most sign companies. We wanted to be a one-stop shop,” she says, which is important in a competitive region like the New North.
Fox Cities Sign’s focus on servicing Wisconsin clients and those local partners is important to both Greil and her customers, like Hans Hartleben, founder/CEO of FIRE Fitness Camp, headquartered in Plover. He’s used Fox Cities Sign for all the business’s sign projects for the past two years.
“What stood out to us was their ability to grasp concept, put the concept to creation and then deliver as intended,” Hartleben says. “Communication, above all, is important in all business, and Sara communicates very effectively.”
Greil says employees are proud of what they do and that feeling is passed along to customers.
Fox Cities Sign also is working with local schools, offering an outreach program for job shadowing and internships. “We want to make students aware of the employment possibilities they may not be aware of in our industry,” Greil says.
Plans for the future include expanding the business’s space and continuing to hire more workers. The company is considering purchasing a building of its own since it is outgrowing its rented space off of Highway 441. And after adding a new truck, Greil says she’d also like to hire more installers.
Greil says she’s been lucky to find and retain good employees. And that starts with finding strong people first and then training them for the specific job.
“We’ve noticed that our best approach is hiring people for who they are and how they will fit in,” she says. “We’re a very family-oriented group.”