Grinnell’s ASI: Signs of the Times
by Michael McAllister
Even in the age of GPS and Google Maps, even with Siri and Cortana no more than a question away, we still need signs. And a vibrant international company called ASI Signage Innovations is fulfilling that need, in part from Grinnell.
ASI’s beginnings can be traced to two brothers, Hanley and Stanley Bloom, in southern California in 1965, and the unlikely combination of rubber stamps and bowling.
“It just kinda happened,” offers Stanley Bloom in a video marking ASI’s 50th anniversary.
The brothers were employees of Douglas Aircraft but had a yearning to explore opportunities beyond those offered by their employer.
Hanley was the first to venture forth, choosing the enterprise of producing rubber stamps for a company called Westwood Office Supply. Stanley joined him after about three months. The Bloom brothers had a friend who worked at Westwood, and he assured them that they could acquire the office supply company’s business.
“We were 23,” Stanley continues, speaking of the project. “It seemed like an interesting thing to do.”
No doubt things grew even more interesting when Stanley was “asked to leave” his primary job because he was printing forms for the brothers’ endeavor on Douglas Aircraft’s equipment during Douglas Aircraft’s time.
But the brothers were not without Plan B—an apt initial in this case since it can stand for bowling.
“Hanley and I were both hustlers, and what’s what we kinda did,” says Stanley with a distinctive chuckle. By pooling some tournament winnings, they infused a little under $1,000 into their fledgling enterprise and assured its continuation for a time.
The corporate website reports that the brothers “patented a revolutionary process … the use
ASI’s corporate website credits growth of the business to innovations involving “a Letraset process for the application of graphic text to sign panels.” While some dispute existed as to who had a right to claim ownership of the process, one lawsuit and a counter lawsuit did not fully develop, and in the process, in January of 1977, Hanley Bloom approached Don Healy of Letraset at a Los Angeles trade show and suggested a collaboration.
“But we’re suing you,” Healy protested.
“Yes,” Healy recalls Bloom replying, “but let’s not let that get in the way of things.” And a collaboration did indeed begin that produced, in Healy’s words, “great things.”
ASI came to Grinnell in 1985, about two years after a pivotal corporate meeting had established opportunities for a franchise network. Tom and Dianne Latimer were former residents of Grinnell who decided to return to a town they were fond of, and they brought a part of the company with them.
From Grinnell, the Latimer group has expanded to encompass Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Colorado, and Wyoming. Latimer Associates, Inc., is the official corporate name of the franchise, which does business as ASI Signage Innovations.
The Grinnell facility is located at 1219 Zimmerman Drive, with a spin-off company known as ImageFirst just up the road at 1001 Pinder Avenue.
Beginning with only two employees, the company now lists 97 workers on its roster between the two facilities. ASI in Grinnell is led by Michael McKeag, President and Chief Operating Officer, and his management team of eight presents a total of 113 years of ASI experience. McKeag is a Grinnell native, a graduate of Luther College and a CPA since the mid-1990’s. He came to ASI Grinnell in 1997.
The company’s executive summary attributes ASI’s growth to “providing new and innovative products along with an absolute commitment to customer service.” In addition, “Work should be fun,” notes Erin Carey, Business Development Manager in a November 14, 2016, proposal. “We live in an exciting industry and see no need to make it dull.”
It takes only a glance at the display wall in ASI’s Grinnell location to realize that signage today is anything but dull. From building embellishments to freestanding markers to small but distinctive room numbers, signs in the twenty-first century seek to please the eye and inform the observer, all the while enhancing a company’s image and blending with the architectural features of the building or the grounds.
According to McKeag, 80 percent of ASI’s products originate with an architect or a specifier working with the overall design features of the structure. The balance of the company’s output is designed in-house according to customer specifications and requests. He points especially to digital signage, to donor recognition boards, and to requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act as product types creating strong demand.
In addition to meeting customer needs, ASI strives to meet the needs of the planet. McKeag reports that environmental and safety concerns are “extremely important and…a part of our core values and ethos as a business.” The corporate website cites specific green innovations pioneered over the last twenty years: eco-friendly paint finishes, online ordering systems, the use of recycled materials, and steps to not only reduce water consumption in the manufacturing process but also to return the water “as clean as or cleaner than when it came in.”
There are times when corporations must be flexible, and the Latimer Group has passed that test. For example, Aims Community College of Greeley, Colorado, had contracted for signage with a December delivery date. Upon learning that the lieutenant governor of the state was planning a visit to the campus, Chief Facilities Management Officer Michael Millsapps requested shorter fabrication time. ASI came through, delivering and installing signage on the day before the lieutenant governor’s visit—approximately two months ahead of time.
Of all the types of signs that ASI manufactures and markets, one of the most significant is the dollar sign. McKeag states that the combined annual payroll of ASI Grinnell and ImageFirst totals $5 million, and he notes that, according to the Iowa Department of Economic Development, an employer’s true economic impact on a community is its annual payroll multiplied by 11. In addition, he continues, “we typically contribute to numerous local and county-wide charities, social programs, and education systems.”
A short trip through ASI’s facility at 1219 Zimmerman Drive is bound to give the observer a new appreciation of signage and the dozens of steps involved in serving the needs of clients such as UIHC Children’s Hospital, the University of Iowa, State Farm, Rockwell Collins, Principal Financial Group, Farm Credit Services, Kum & Go, and Iowa State, to name a few.