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 with 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 a GI Bill, though these days there's not too much call for it. A pizza shop after an old-time look was the first to call this week 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, about half what it was, 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 up-front 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, 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 last fall converting 13 former Bank of Americas in Maine to 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 is 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."
Making It is an occasional series on manufacturing in Maine, who's making it and where the industry is headed. Send comments to email@example.com
Paul Lessard, vice president of sales for Neokraft Signs in Lewiston
In your own words, briefly describe:
Your market: All businesses fit our market area, but we would be the better fit for the existing business that is looking to move up to the next level, the higher end retailer or business in the architectural market.
Your biggest challenges: We constantly need to pay attention to local and state regulations governing the display of a sign. Whether it is the size, the placement or the ability to light or to change message content, it is our responsibility to make the customer is aware of these rules and for us to file for the permit before proceeding.
In the last 12 months, your biggest success: I would say that at the top of the list might be the Oxford Casino where we were able to interpret the customer's graphics and merge them within the architecture, while at the same time extend the feeling of the Maine woods created by the architect with the building out to the road with the sign.
Any suggestions regarding government regulation: Signs are regulated so many times by arbitrary means where only the aesthetic criteria is considered and what is not considered is the function that it can perform for the business to help it succeed and, more importantly, for the service that the sign can provide to the viewer and the prospective customer to help them make a decision about where to eat, where to stay, where to buy gas. Signs are given a bad rap because of the fact that some people who hate signs also happen to be the most vocal, thereby influencing planning boards to make poor decisions when establishing the rules.
Plan on hiring in the next year? If the economy comes back strong, then we should benefit from businesses improving their signs.
Where do you see the company in 2022? We have innovated by adding electronics and LED lighting in the past 10 years. You can expect us to continue to do that and be ready to latch on to the next latest technology that our clients will need to better compete in the marketplace. Hopefully that means we are bigger and better than where we are now.
Responses edited for length.