GRAND HAVEN — After a lifetime of running things for somebody else, Roy Cowdery was ready to venture out on his own.
As he looked around for a new business opportunity, he wanted something that served other businesses, would not require all of his time and could be run with just a handful of employees.
He found what he wanted in the sign business. The 52-year-old Muskegon native moved back to the area earlier this year and in April opened A Sign City, a commercial custom sign shop in Grand Haven.
Like many small business owners and entrepreneurs, Cowdery was driven to open his own business by a desire to work for himself and make the decisions — no more running things past the CEO, through a committee or up the chain of command.
“I just got tired of that. I just decided it was time to make the call,” Cowdery said. “I just said, ‘I want to make the decision, I want to do it fast and respond quickly.’ That’s the way business is today and those that do it are successful.”
Cowdery’s decision to go into business for himself brought to a close a 22-year career in manufacturing that began when he was recruited to join the Holland Hitch Co. in 1979.
Cowdery, who previously spent six years as a vice president of commercial loans for the former First of America Bank after earning a degree in finance from Michigan State University, became Holland Hitch’s general manager of western operations, based in San Jose, Calif. He was responsible for sales, distribution and manufacturing operations for Holland Hitch in the western U.S.
He stayed there for about 20 years until the company began to change in the late 1990s. Corporate downsizing and restructuring within his division were leaving Cowdery with less and less responsibility.
Cowdery decided to leaved Holland Hitch in 1998 and “took a real leap of faith” by going to work for a small San Jose-based company that sold fasteners to high-tech manufacturers. What interested him in the firm was its attempt to consolidate the industry through acquisitions.
The strategy didn’t work, though, and the company “quickly went south.” Cowdery then was recruited to become general manager of a custom machine shop in San Jose that served the high-tech medical and fiber optics industries, a job “that was probably the most complicated I ever had.”
The company, with a workforce of about 160 and sales of $20 million, enjoyed its best year ever in 2000, Cowdery’s first year with the company. But its fortunes sank in 2001 with the high-tech crash and down economy that forced Cowdery to lay off half of the workforce.
By late summer last year, Cowdery began to explore his options and decided to go into business for himself and leave the corporate world behind.
“I have a pretty good background, but that was enough. I didn’t want the same thing to happen,” said Cowdery, who left the San Jose company in February.
After attending his 35-year high school reunion in Muskegon and becoming reacquainted with an old friend, he decided to move back to West Michigan. Working with a good friend with whom he attended college at Michigan State University, Cowdery started to look for business ideas.
He quickly discounted becoming any kind of franchisee. He didn’t like the idea of having to pay franchise royalties to a parent company or answer to a corporate office.
“That’s like having a boss,” he said.
His search connected him with a loose-knit affiliation of sign shops across the nation that provides assistance with business planning, training and a vendor network. The ability to mix his administrative, financial and sales skills with a creative element to design and produce custom marketing promotional signs made the business an attractive venture for Cowdery.
Every day also brings commercial and corporate customers with widely varying needs.
“It gives you a chance to be creative in helping the customer and trying to decide how they want to do it,” said Cowdery, who runs the business with the help of a single employee who handles the graphics and design work.
He plans to maintain A Sign City as a small business, perhaps growing to no more than five employees. Staying small will keep the business manageable, his life uncluttered and allow him to focus on personally serving customers.
“We don’t want to get big (just) to get big,” Cowdery said. “I want to be the best. I want to have the best service and win them over by the way we take care of them.”