In a Sign of the Times, This Company Has Pivoted into New Products
Jim White says it took him 15 years to go from zero to 60 with his business. And 15 days to go from 60 to zero.
That’s how the co-founder of East Longmeadow-based Go Graphix, a maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and a host of other marketing products, described that two-week period back in March when business came to a near standstill.
That’s because most all of the company’s major clients — MGM Springfield, the MassMutual Center, sports teams like the Thunderbirds — came to a complete halt.
It seems like years ago now,” White said of those days in March. “It was tough — probably the toughest times I’ve experienced in business.”
With many of those businesses still shut down, Go Graphix has pivoted into other niche products that could be described as ‘COVID-related,’ said White, adding that it now has what could be called a line of ‘back-to-work’ products, including social-distancing graphics — those ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs now appearing across the region — as well as the protective barriers that are also appearing almost everywhere.
Still, revenues for April and May of this year are down roughly 80% from their levels of a year ago. The company, which had to lay off a few workers and cut most employees back to four days a week, has been helped by federal assistance, specifically the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) — and White’s ‘save for a rainy day’ philosophy, passed down by his parents.
“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep,” he said. “We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”
Flashing back to early March, White said that’s when a number of major clients had to shut down operations, which brought operations at the Benton Road facility to something approaching a standstill.
Those clients include MGM Springfield, for which the company makes a wide variety of promotional items, from signage for upcoming events to the dasher-board advertisements for the skating rink.
“That’s what you get with the son of a commission-only heavy-equipment sales rep. We knew every recession, because it was a depression. And my parents saved, and I learned from them.”
“They’ve been one of our best customers,” said White, noting that his company was one of many fortunate local businesses to become vendors for the casino operator. “Throughout the casino, you see a lot of promotional graphics, and we were doing things on a weekly basis — work that came to screeching halt.”
But even clients that weren’t shut down and were actually doing well had put work given to Go Graphics on hold, said White, citing the example of beer distributors, for which the company provides vehicle wraps.
“They were so busy, they couldn’t leave the trucks with us for a day to be wrapped — they needed them on the road,” he explained. “They were hitting all the package stores, which were doing really well during all this. That was tough one for us; we’re thinking, ‘even the guys who are doing great can’t do any business with us.’”
Beyond the PPP loan, what has helped the company through the crisis has been its ability to adapt and create new product lines. White calls this the “great pivot.”
It involves making plexiglass shields for a number of clients, including Baystate Health, Monson Savings, J. Polep, Hartford Hospital, and others, as well as social-distancing signage now seen in virtually every sector of the economy.
As he talked with BusinessWest at the plant, he stopped to display the round ‘Please Stay 6 Feet Apart’ signs bound for Staples’ corporate headquarters, a contract that has provided a good amount of work for the company.
As for the plexiglass partitions, most of them are custom orders, and the work is intricate, which is why a number of businesses across several sectors have decided on Go Graphix for the work.
“We’re not just providing an off-the-shelf solution,” he said, while pointing to some models bound for Baystate Health. “And the orders keep coming in — we’ve pivoted, and we’re going for it.”
And White has to hope that the orders keep coming in, because plexiglass is now a commodity; amid fears that short supplies would become even shorter, he ordered a lot of it.
“It’s kind of toilet paper in the early days of this pandemic,” he said with a laugh. “Everyone’s looking to get it, and it’s becoming harder to find. But we have some good suppliers, and I’ve made the investment in a good amount, even though it scares me to the core. I figured, ‘I’d better be the guy who has it on hand,’ and just pray that we sell it.”
All indications are that he probably will as companies scramble to take the necessary steps to reopen, a process likely to play itself out over the next several months.
As White said repeatedly, this isn’t work he could have imagined doing just four months ago, but he’s very grateful to have it — an attitude that’s understandable after watching a company go from zero to 60 to 15 years, and 60 to zero in just a few painful weeks.