Longtime local businessman Monte Graybeal grew up in the Wenatchee Valley and learned to appreciate art from his father, Larry. Although Larry worked in banking and real estate all his life, art was a special hobby for him.
Larry had one piece of practical advice for his artistic son, who himself was growing into a gifted artist. He advised his son not to be an artist because his passion would quickly lose its appeal as a job. Instead, he said, try to find work you enjoy doing, and put your artistic talents to work in that job.
Graybeal heeded his father’s advice, eventually growing his small business into the area’s largest professional sign company and the only one in Central Washington that is a member of the trade organization World Sign Associates (WSA).
“Graybeal Signs is the prime sign and graphics provider for Jerry’s Auto Supply,” said Ron Berschauer, president and general manager of Jerry’s. “The staff is creative, and I utilize their ideas and input on most every project we do. I appreciate their professional on-time work performance.”
When Graybeal, founder and owner of Graybeal Signs Inc., 1909 N. Wenatchee Ave., received an invitation to join WSA in 2001, he knew it was an honor. Members must meet high standards to be accepted to, and remain part of, the premier trade association.
It was an affirmation of his artistic talent, business practices and years of building unique quality signs.
“Being a member of WSA has been a wonderful chance to learn and participate in the sign industry on all levels,” said Graybeal, who served in various capacities for WSA and is now a division director at the national level. “It has been one of the best opportunities for our business since starting the company.”
Graybeal graduated from Eastmont High School and attended Wenatchee Valley College. With farmers on both sides of the family, Graybeal immersed himself in horticultural classes. When he determined his future was not to be in agriculture, he worked in construction and around heavy equipment.
It was the mid-1980s and data-related jobs were attracting qualified workers, including those who knew how to splice data wires.
“I just wanted to get a job making some good money while deciding what I wanted to do with my life,” Graybeal said.
So, while on a waiting list for popular wire splicing classes at a vocational-technical school in Tacoma, he enrolled in graphic design and sign painting classes at the same school. He completed the program and found his calling.
In 1989, Graybeal put his sign painting skills to work. He opened Graybeal Signs, and started the business in his basement. He quickly learned being a good artist wasn’t enough; he had to become a good businessman as well.
“To become a businessman, I had to give up some of my artist side,” Graybeal said. “Not that I don’t create every day — I do. But you do sacrifice some of that to learn and become some kind of a businessman, or else you’re going to continue to be just an artist and never a businessman.”
The artist/businessman mix Graybeal achieved was effective.
Graybeal Signs (graybealsigns.com) grew steadily, moving from his basement to a 3,000 square-foot space on Miller Street. When it reached seven employees, the business found it needed even more space. In 1996, the employees enjoyed ample elbow room when the business expanded to its current location featuring a comfortable 12,500 square feet of working space.
Business sales grew at least 15 percent per year from 1989 to 2008, Graybeal said.
In the fall of 2007, he reinvested in his business by adding 6,000 square feet of working space. He added a new interior paint booth, a paint mixing room and an overhead trolley system to handle larger work. He built a new neon room, and converted the old neon room into office space.
But then the dark economic cloud enveloped the company.
“Business really dropped off in early 2008 with the recession,” Graybeal said.
The remodel of the business during a period when the economy was down put it in a position to do bigger and better work. Now the economy is recovering, and business is picking up.
“Last year we grew by 4 percent, and it feels like the economy is improving,” Graybeal said. “We want the recovery to be slow. Sometimes slow economic growth is solid.”
Today the company’s fabrication shop uses mostly old-school equipment, such as sheet metal breaks, rolls and shears. It also uses more modern welding and cutting equipment, and has a two-axis CNC (computer numerical control) router table capable of producing three-dimensional work.
Graybeal Signs serves a large area: from Wenatchee, north to Oroville, east to Grand Coulee and Moses Lake, south to Kennewick and west to Cle Elum. The largest sign builder in the Wenatchee area, it employs 18 people.
But making signs is only one aspect of working at Graybeal Signs. Employees are also carpenters, electricians and concrete finishers. The company’s outside sign installers operate modern lift trucks, cranes, ladder trucks and scissor lifts.
“As a company, we are a jack of all trades,” Graybeal said.
One incentive to consistently providing quality products and service is repeat customers. Berschauer is one of those customers. However, signage isn’t the only work Graybeal Signs does for Berschauer.
“My wife, Kathy, and I were in charge of designing and building the Washington State Apple Blossom parade float for several years,” Berschauer said. “The float had been built by out-of-town contractors for many years and we wanted to bring the work home. Monte Graybeal came alongside of us, and with the assistance of his team, we built some of the best floats in the Northwest. Monte was generous with his time and donated a portion of his work to support our community.”
As an artist and a businessman, Graybeal enjoys a challenge.
“I’ve often taken on some challenging jobs just to see if we could do them,” he said. “For example, when a customer wanted a neon sign years ago, I learned how to work with neon and we built the sign. Today when a customer wants a neon sign, I’m the guy in the shop who does the neon work.”
Whether a sign is built with neon or newer LED lights, it’s one of the most important aspects of a business. The sign identifies a business and makes a statement. It can also be one of the biggest investments a business can make.
“Signage packages are often very involved, including exterior signs in the parking lot and on multiple sides of the building,” Graybeal said. “Packages often include interior business signs as well.”
Signage packages in the $50,000 range and up are not uncommon, he said. Examples of big local projects for Graybeal Signs that would exceed that amount include Central Washington Hospital, Dell in Quincy and the Town Toyota Center.
And as far as his favorite sign? Graybeal taps his artistic side.
“You’ve got the creative side and the challenge of the project itself, and once you pull it off, you move on to the next one,” he said. “If Picasso would have had a favorite, he would never have found his Blue Period.”
As Graybeal searches for his own Blue Period, the horizon is bright.
“Graybeal Signs is a healthy company,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to keep that up. The type of people I work with — clients and employees — are the people that run this country. We’re going to continue doing what we do, and enjoy it.”