Bear Mountain Signs
By: Terri McClung
This is the fourth in the series of interviews conducted by the Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation about small business entrepreneurship in our area.
The Alleghany Highlands Economic Development Corporation offers entrepreneurial services.
We provide one-on-one business planning assistance, training, mentoring and operational assistance to existing local small businesses and startups.
I recently met with Melissa Hundley of Bear Mountain Signs on Ridgeway Street in Clifton Forge on her experiences of a small business owner in the Town of Clifton Forge.
Melissa was raised in the Dudley Stretch area of Botetourt County and attended school at James River High School and the Botetourt Vocational School.
How did the idea for your business come about?
I had begun my career as a hand draftsman. As computers became more common in the manufacturing business I saw an opportunity that didn’t exist before. I have always loved commercial art and creating things so designing signs fit right in to my skills.
In drafting you are creating to scale drawings, with a drawing set to a fixed scale you can enlarge all that artwork to full scale and send it to a computerized machine with a few clicks of a computer mouse or keyboard. The machines can reproduce that cut or print pattern over and over again from the one drawing you started with.
One day I opened the newspaper and saw an ad for an entry level position at a large sign manufacturer in Richmond, which is where I was living at the time. I don’t think I was their first choice but my enthusiasm won them over.
I had one of the same drawing programs in my home that was common in the sign industry at the time so I did a lot of self teaching at home.
It only took me a few weeks to become a profitable asset to the company.
I worked for several sign companies over the years and two different aftermarket vehicle businesses. I worked in their graphic’s departments designing vehicle graphics for business vehicles, aftermarket designs like 4 x 4’s and the fast and furious types of designs. Back then we didn’t have machines that could print multicolored vinyl and cut it out. You had to cut each color out and layer it to get the effect you wanted. That takes more skill to do than the new full color print and cut machines.
I started thinking about opening my own business as my youngest child was leaving for college. My folks were getting older and needed more family around them and being raised in Botetourt County, I could never get the mountains off my mind. I had loved living here with all its beauty and I love the outdoors.
This is when I started to pay attention to small towns locally that could support a small business with my skills.
At that time Clifton Forge was in pretty rough shape and many of the locals living here told me I was out of my mind and Clifton Forge would never be great again.
My intuition told me differently. I noticed a marked enthusiasm in many of the few shop owners. Most of the store fronts were run down and empty but I saw that as an asset and thought about buying a commercial building a live above it.
Clifton Forge’s location to the interstate was also something I notice, Location, location location! It is such an easy commute to and through this little town.
About that time I saw an article in the Richmond paper about Ms. Belmont relocating to this area. When she is excited about something she can command an audience and can be contagiously inspiring.
It was settled; I was relocating to Clifton Forge and buying a commercial building after reading her words.
Looking back I can see that I wasn’t the only one noticing Clifton Forge. Since has came the creation of the Clifton Forge School of the Arts, the C & O Historical Society, who were making improvements to their museum, the Amphitheatre and now we have the massive restoration of the Historic Masonic Theatre.
Year after year, buildings are improving and new businesses have steadily filled up empty buildings.
Since I was very young I had always wanted to own and operate my own main street shop of some sort and live about my shop and I was on my way to fulfilling that dream.
How do you define success?
You have to successful in your trade and I love what I do and I am skilled in my trade. I have the desire to help others be successful and I think my customers see that in me, at least I think they do. Creating a logo and/or signage for other businesses is my favorite part of my job. It is rewarding to get paid to help others businesses be noticed. I contribute that success to learning a trade in high school. I wish the educational system would put more effort in vocational schools. I believe many children and adults would greatly benefit.
Describe/outline your typical day?
I could be cutting vinyl all day and printing out large format items, cutting things, designing art work or outside the shop installing vinyl, reading emails or on a sales call. There are just so many different things I do; it really depends on the job.
To what do you most attribute your success?
I would say from learning a trade at an early age. I love what I do, I find joy in what I do, it is work but work can be fun. Work can be so rewarding if you enjoy what you do.
What would you say are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?
- You must have the funds and twice as much as what you plan. Support from family and friends are very important because there is a lot of work to be done. Once you have the funding and you do not want to waste any time in getting open. Plan for problems, if you run out before you are profitable, you have a dry spell, or equipment problems, it could spell disaster. Time is money.
- You must have a good accountant because you cannot do everything yourself. You must focus on the things you do well and if accounting is one of them and you do not enjoy it, it pays you to have somebody else.
- Having good business peers to talk to for support, you need other local businesses you can go to if you have an issue or perhaps it is something to do with a customer, you can go to these people for ideas or an unbiased opinion, solution or a political correct way of dealing with it.
- Having good employees because they can make or break you, they need to be able to make you money because you have to pay them. To have an employee that can make you money and get things out the door is the key. The more I make, the more I sell.
- The last thing is to take time to enjoy your life, if you don’t you will eventually burn out. It is especially important for me, I have to be creative.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
I get to work with other business and see them get open; I get to create something that makes them be noticed. A sign is extremely important; it is like a welcome mat. People sometimes get all hung up on the cost of a sign but a sign works 24/7. An ad in the paper or radio/tv it is done and forgotten; people are always looking at a sign and if it is well put together sign then it sells for you without you doing anything. Being able to create something like a sign for another business is extremely inspirational to me. I really get a kick out of it.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
If I could rewind on opening my shop I would have done a better job at keeping my cost down. It is easy to look back and see this or that and what you could have done differently but what’s the point. I keep looking forward and not looking back, that is the power I have to affect my life, my future and my business is the future so I try not to look back.
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
My parents have been my greatest inspiration and my greatest cheerleaders. They taught me how to work and how to value money and how to save it. To always pay my bills before I pay myself. Others I might include were a few bosses. The guys were always willing to teach me tips and tricks of the trade. I learned more about the sign business from them than any school or instructional class.
In one word characterize your life as an entrepreneur?