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The Immigrant Artist Who Helped Build Urban Business Success
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We’ve all heard stories of immigrants moving to the U.S. to find better lives: America is a land of promise, a land of opportunity. These immigrants are a vital force for inner city economies. Businesses on the Inner City 100 list have created roughly 70,000 jobs and employ nearly 100,000 people—40% of which are inner city residents. Many of these business owners open Mom and Pop shops, but others wind up transforming existing businesses.
This is the case with Luc Brami, Principal of Gelberg Signs in Washington, D.C.
Luc Brami’s father came to America from North Africa in 1959. An impressionist painter by trade, he only had $25 in his pocket when he immigrated. He had trouble selling his wares when he first arrived in the U.S., so he went to work for Gelberg doing hand-letter paining for his sign company. He eventually transitioned in to creating logos—including the well-known Marriott logo. Before long, he was Gelberg’s right-hand man.
When Gelberg passed away in 1977, Luc’s father took over the business. By 1987 he was ready to buy Gelberg Signs from the Gelberg family. Despite his attempt to do so, he was outbid by investors who spent the next two years running the company in to the ground. Then, in 1989, Luc and his brother bought the company from the investors and set the business on a path for success.
Initially, Luc’s goal for the business was to pay off the $750,000 loan he had taken out to transform the business. It took 10 years to pay It back, but now the company is growing at such a fast rate that it was recognized as #93 on the 2011 Inner City 100 list, with year-over-year growth averaging 13%. And Luc sees continued growth on the horizon: he expects to expand the company 3-4 times its current size within the next five years. What makes the company so unique is its ability to achieve such steady growth, despite competing in a market with larger companies that have access to newer sign-making technology.
So how does Luc maintain such growth?
Seven years ago, he noticed that all of his biggest companies were located outside D.C.; only 1-2% of his businesses were local. So Luc attended a local city council meeting and pulled one of the council members aside afterwards. He explained to the councilman that he was having a hard time hiring local workers. Together, he and the city councilor a program that created set-aside standards for inner city businesses. Now, 15% of Luc’s business comes from within Washington, D.C.
As a result of expanded business, the company added 15,000 square feet of front office space in 2008. By taking a chance an buying a company from investors who had seemingly let the company fall apart, Luc was able to grow the company and expand profits.
Luc now supplies signs to a number of large corporations, chief among them: Turner & Clark General Contractors and HMS Host Travel Plazas. He explores businesses opportunities using referrals from regular customers, and by pursuing leads in trade magazines and construction trade journals. Of course, a bit of cold calling happens now and then too. Luc may begin with a cold call, but he then focuses on building a relationship with the potential customer before making a bid on services. And when he’s successful, he’s careful to follow up once the job is completed. These personal relationships are what keep clients coming back time and time again.
There have also been advantages to locating the business in Washington, D.C. Namely, the access to D.C., Virginia and Maryland expand the number of prospects for business. As a D.C.-based business, Gelberg Signs has easy access to federal government contracts. According to Luc, business may be strong but there needs to be a greater initiative to hire local employees. He’s hoping that the improvement in local public schools over the past several years will increase these residents’ access to jobs like those with his company.
In addition to hiring locally, Luc offers more business advice to similar inner city CEOs: Create a plan for investing and spending your money. Set goals and stay on top of them. Create metrics to measure your goals, but reevaluate the metrics as needed. Engage in this type of strategic planning, even if you have limited funding and it seems cost prohibitive to do so.
Tell us how your company is creating jobs and investing in its local community. How have you been able to do this despite a difficult economic climate?
Thanks for sharing this great article, I really enjoyed the insign you bring to the topic, awesome stuff!
By jack on 06/25/2012
BY Alex Rodriguez on January 30th, 2012
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