From Kansas to California: How this Company Really Started
My name is George Collins. I started doing lettering for money when I was ten, started a company out in Kansas when I was fourteen, and was getting pretty well known around town in 1962, at about the same time that JFK was killed and Bobo’s Drive-In with car hops was the coolest thing happening. Me, I still looked like I was ten years old, weighing in at eighty pounds and stood about 4’10” tall. The following story is about what happened to me a few months later.
I want to preface this by letting you know that I’m not intending to brag. I was a sad numb little kid with a bad scar on his face who happened to love art, calligraphy and lettering, and who understood very little about anything else. I taught myself everything I knew.
The story goes, it was late April 1963, and I was kind of in trouble, trying to get projects done and had sold a sign painting job putting lettering on 3 big box trucks, saying “Scotty’s Delivery Service.” I had agreed to paint them all on the weekend which should have been no problem and got started as soon as they arrived at my place. (My place being the house my dad rented, a pretty nice two story house on six acres of pasture with small sheds for milking cows.)
So the trucks arrived and at the ripe old age of fifteen I thought I had this job wired. But then it started to rain hard, then cleared up, then hard rain again, on and off.
I got one truck almost finished, then a hard rain streaked up the red paint entirely like a sick bloody horror film. When the sky cleared I got it cleaned up and almost painted again, then a new rain wiped that out too. Very annoying. This went on all day, all night with spotlights and into Sunday, just cleaning them off and putting the lettering back on. In total I lettered and then re-lettered each truck about three times each.
Witnessing each of these embarrassing and painful disasters was this white-haired old man about seventy five wearing khaki work clothes, calmly always smoking his pipe and mostly just standing around watching me, or inside his car when the rain came. I knew that he owned this property and had rented it to us. I also knew that his name was Frank and he had come to the back door a couple of times to collect the rent. He had soon found out that I supported the family and after that collected from me.
About Sunday noon the skies were momentarily clear, the most beautiful blue I have ever seen.
Frank, the old man, dodging the mud puddles, came walking up slowly and then just stood there at arms length looking at me. Quietly, humbly he said, “You need a shop.” “Yeah,” was all I could think of to say. He said,”Do you think your dad would mind if I built you one?”
He had my total attention now. I looked right at him and said, “I’ll go ask him.” I controlled myself to only walk into the house where my dad was resting and said as nonchalantly as possible,”Hey dad, do you mind if Frank builds me a shop?” This startled him a little but he said well, no. I walked back out to Frank, looked him right in the eyes and said, “No, he doesn’t mind.” So he kind of mumbled that he would check it out and that was that.
Over the next week he talked to me a couple of times about different buildings and actually got me to pick out the one I liked. A week later two huge earth-moving Caterpillars showed up, going down into the meadow and forest area, bringing in dirt and gravel, leveling out a place to build. It was like a dream, unbelievable. Next the concrete slab and then the big Armco Steel building arrived in pieces, beams and paneling.
Workers came and set up the huge building. It was 45’x 65′ with 14′ sides and a 16′ roll-up door. Then Frank, after questioning me about what I needed, made it well insulated, good lighting, put in exhaust fans, a huge compressor for spray equipment, and built a 10’x 20′ office inside the front door, with wood paneling and tile floors.
Then, while I was trying to keep up with sales and the incredible work load, he planted shrubbery along each side of the building and out front, where a new sign had gone up proudly stating “George’s Signs” with a colorful artist’s mixing palette as part of the design.
So, a typical scenario began to occur with mistaken identities, whereby Frank (the multi-millionaire it turns out) is in his khaki work clothes out there gardening and a client comes up and kinda gruffly wants to talk to the owner, so Frank the gardener sends them to the office. One such client enters my office and says, “Go get me your dad.” It took awhile for it to sink in to him that I was the owner and that I could help him with whatever he wanted.
That’s pretty much it. We boomed the place. My younger brother was my only real assistant and he was a hard worker too. I continued this company for 5 years. We did every kind of project imaginable, from fleets of trucks to grain elevators 80 feet up to posters, billboards and campaign signs.
Then Vietnam and USMC came and I went there. But at age 22 in California I was labeled a high-end journeyman sign painter for many years with the rep of being the best anywhere.