May 26, 2018
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Maine sign manufacturer keeps up with changing tech, regulations

Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Paul Lessard, vice president of sales at Neokraft Signs on outer Main Street in Lewiston, holds up a letter for a sign the company is working on in its shop.
By Kathryn Skelton, Sun Journal

LEWISTON — The aluminum letters lying on their side, even tipped, stood almost as tall as a man. They would be repainted, strung with LED lights and hung 10 stories up in the air in Portland.

Massive would-be half bubbles bound for the side of a Brunswick building, a foot deep in the middle, were in the midst of putty and sand.

From its outer Main Street headquarters, Neokraft Signs outfitted the Portland International Jetport during its recent expansion, providing signs with seven-foot letters and others that read “turn here.”

The company specializes in the complicated pieces that need custom angles, tooling, height or shapes.

“The rectangles are few and far between,” said Paul Lessard, vice president of sales and an owner with Peter Murphy and Phil Bolduc.

Neokraft was founded by Alexander Lobozzo in 1947 in his mother-in-law’s basement. The World War II veteran trained to bend neon using the GI Bill, though these days there’s not too much call for it. A pizza shop seeking an old-time look this week was the first to call and ask about neon in he couldn’t remember how long, Lessard said.

He sees more orders now for digital and LED-lit signs. Sales have more than doubled in the last 13 years, and the workforce grown by 50 percent.

Neokraft has grown with its customers, landed new accounts — it’s making signs for the new MaineGeneral hospital in Augusta — and benefited from image upgrades.

The market and the Maine Legislature are behind some of the trends.

About 15 years ago, a large electronic sign cost $50,000 or more, Lessard said. And before 1995, state law said the message on that sign could only change once a day.

“Not many people were interested in spending a ton of money just because they didn’t want to go out in the snow” and manually change a sign every day, he said.

State law now allows a change every 20 minutes, with municipalities allowed to shorten that. In Lewiston and Auburn, signs can change every four seconds.

The price has come down — costing about half what it once did — while the potential went up.

Neokraft has sold several hundred in the last six or seven years, Lessard said.

The price of white LED lights has dropped substantially in that same time, according to Lessard, after a patent expired and several manufacturers jumped into production. LED costs more upfront than fluorescent, he said, but cuts electric use 40 to 50 percent a year and requires less ongoing maintenance.

The giant letters in Neokraft’s workshop, from the Eastland Hotel, will swap three rows of exposed neon for strings of white LED lights hidden behind a colored plastic cover.

The bubble domes will hang outside Molnlycke Health Care as part of its logo. Designers had to marry and shape five layers of foam; someone from the road will never be the wiser.

“There’s always the challenge of doing something you’ve never done before,” Lessard said. “We have the ability to figure things out.”

Neokraft has worked on a number of high-profile jobs, crafting signs for both Lewiston hospitals, Portland’s Time and Temperature Building, the Senator Inn, the Taste of Maine Restaurant and converting 13 former Bank of America locations into Camden National Banks.

At the jetport, “By the time you get out of your car and to the counter, you’ve probably seen 500 signs and you didn’t even know it,” Lessard said.

The company works in plastic, foam, steel, aluminum, paper and paint and it has a second, nearby dust-free facility. Most work comes between Kittery and Bangor. There is a three-month backlog of orders.

Lessard, who started as Neokraft’s first trained salesman 33 years ago, isn’t convinced most people really get signs.

It’s not just about putting a name out there.

“A sign could represent 40 to 50 percent of your business that day as an impulse,” Lessard said. “You make a lot of subconscious decisions and people don’t understand signs play a role in that.”

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