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Flexlume's innovation keeps sign company shining bright for more than 100 years

Curtis Martin never thought he'd own a sign company at age 22, but his purchase of Flexlume, the century-old business on Main Street, was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.

"The company had a good reputation, and I wanted to bring it back. I definitely saw an opportunity," Martin said. "I did look at a Tim Hortons franchise, but that would have taken a lot more money."

Martin purchased the sign company in 2015 from the Rowell family with father-in-law Thomas Hanft, who started working at Flexlume as a shop boy in 1989. Hanft, who is now 49, grew up in the business and spent years dreaming about running his own shop.

As its new owner, Martin was tasked with running the business while Hanft guided production and installation of signage. The two men purchased the business for between $400,000 and $500,000, they said.

"Nothing looks like neon," said Hanft. "They try to duplicate it, but it isn't the same. You never know how long neon gas will burn. Some bar signs have been burning for 40 years."

A key to Flexlume's longevity is its ability to adapt to the ever-changing sign industry.

"Neon had a revival in the mid-to-late '70s as an artform and in architectural lighting," said Todd Swormstedt, founder of the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati. "We are experiencing another revival now because there is a big interest in restoring old signs. Restaurants looking for a retro appeal are using it again for signage. It’s all part of the vintage look."

Flexlume's influence went far beyond Western New York, Swormstedt said.

"Flexlume was an important company in the history of sign innovation because of the components they used in neon signs," he said. "They had some patented neon components that were well-engineered and made their signs better."

The company is credited by historians for making the city's first neon sign, a simple circle centered by the word "Gas." (Shuran Huang/Buffalo News)

The new guys

Martin grew up thinking big in the Village of East Aurora. At age 8, he recalled walking house to house in his neighborhood distributing business cards for his shoveling service.

"There were some days I made $70 just doing that," he said. "I was always thinking about making something happen. I'd buy something on Craigslist – a car – and resell it."

Martin attended St. Francis High School and Canisius College. At age 19, he purchased a four-unit apartment building with some real estate investors in the Town of Boston for $165,000.

"I upgraded the painting, carpeting and cabinets myself so I was able to charge $1,000 for rent instead of $700," he said. "Three years later, I sold it for $200,000."

On a recent day, Martin sat in his company's boardroom overlooking Main Street. He wore a fitted shirt with rolled-up sleeves, no tie and dress trousers. His conversation was rapid-fire and loud. He left the impression he'd rather be working than talking.

Martin is married with two young children. His 12-hour workdays leave little time for the family, but Martin said he was born an overachiever whose work ethic, ambition and drive were motivated by two factors.

"My biggest fear is struggling to pay bills. I don't ever want that to happen," said Martin. "I also don't want to be average. I can't do what everybody else does."

Martin views his youth as a liability – which is why he's considering eyeglasses to complement his goatee. "You're perceived differently when people know how young you are," he said.

Hanft respects his son-in-law's aspirations. He said Martin's age, 26, is just a number.

"People know you for you, and what you do – not your age. He hasn't found that out yet, but he will. To wear one hat and do everything is extremely difficult in this business, so I knew I couldn't take it all on myself. My son-in-law was the perfect balance," Hanft said.

Martin's pursuit of new accounts by phone, from his desk, and in person, walking door to door on Transit Road and Sheridan Drive, were spontaneous and to the point.

"I kept conversations short. I supplied my phone number, business card and brochures," he explained. "I never told anyone I owned it. I did just the opposite. I didn't want to take a lot of time."

Hanft also looked for new clients – by driving the streets looking for nonworking signs.

"I was a spotter; Curtis made contact," Hanft said. "If a sign continued to be out, we'd make callbacks."

In 2016, the first full year they owned the business, Martin and Hanft worked 65- to 80-hour weeks and increased company revenue by $1.5 million, they estimated.

"Where we really shine is the larger projects because that is what we are equipped to do, and multiple locations. We updated the menu board at 43 drive-thru locations of McDonald's. At Buffalo Marriott HarborCenter, we were the only company willing to take it on."

The Marriott installation 240 feet above ground wasn't as memorable as installing Tesla's 15-foot, five-letter aluminum sign painted in certified Tesla red, said Hanft.

"It was snowing and windy," recalled Hanft. "It was a little miserable, but they wanted the letters up and done. They kept changing the height. They wanted to go bigger."

Flexlume installed the signage at the Tesla factory at RiverBend on South Park Avenue. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A luminous history

Brothers Roy and Wallace Wiley founded the business with W.S. Hough, producing white opal glass molded letters for lighted signs in Canada in 1904. They called their flexible-illumination sign business Flexlume, and moved in 1911 to 1453 Niagara St. and the booming port city of Buffalo, according to Preservation-Ready Sites in a 2014 post. After rapid growth and relocating to a 125,000-square-foot newly built plant on Military Road, the company fell on hard times and closed during World War II.

Meanwhile, F.A. "Al" Rowell had been working with neon at his White Electric Sign Co. in 1928. The company is credited by historians for making the city's first neon sign, a simple circle centered by the word "Gas." Rowell purchased the Flexlume business at auction in 1944, and moved to the current facility at 1464 Main in 1946, around the time the sign industry discovered plastic and reinvented neon, noted Swormstedt of the sign museum.

"You started seeing plastic after the war. It was the new modern material," Swormstedt said. "Most plastic signs were illuminated with fluorescent lamps, which is fine with a square shape, but you can’t bend fluorescent into the shape of a letter so neon found a new market behind plastic letters."

Paddy Rowell Sr. took the reins from his father at Flexlume in 1970 as the small company maintained its local and regional presence. He retired in 2013 but continued in an advisory position with the company.

Over the years, Flexlume maintained the Statue of Liberty lights on the Liberty Bank building downtown and installed the original scoreboard at the former Rich Stadium in Orchard Park. The historic marquees that adorned many of Buffalo's old theaters were products of Flexlume.

The Zippo lighter streetlights installed at the company's corporate offices in Bradford, Pa., were made by Flexlume, said William Kolasa, senior marketing and communications manager at Zippo. Each five-foot street lighter stands on a 12-foot post.

Flexlume signs occupy a place of honor in Cincinnati's museum.

"I visited the shop many times and Paddy Sr. gave us a number of early neon signs from the '20s and early '30s. They are a pivotal part of our collection," said Swormstedt, whose great grandfather, H.C. Menefee, edited American Sign magazine. "We have a special Flexlume display at the museum with a lot of material from Paddy Sr. and wife Jean."

Curtis Martin, right, one of the current owners at Flexlume, explains how they make signs compared to the older technology Paddy Rowell Jr., the third generation in his family, used before. (Shuran Huang/Buffalo News)

An informal museum displaying historic signs like Enna Jettick shoes, Good Gulf Gasoline and Utica Club beer was located in the basement of the company headquarters, said Paddy Rowell Jr., 68, who retired at the end of May after 47 years in the business.

"Whenever anyone came up the stairs I'd take them down to show them. We've had people here from around the world. We sold a few of the signs for up to $13,000. We had many requests from big money oil guys in Texas. That's when we realized what we had in the basement."

The Flexlume archive collection of about 150 vintage signs was sold by the Rowell family on Jan. 14. Mecum Auctions conducted the sale at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee, Fla. When the hammer was dropped, the sale netted the Rowell family more than $500,000, said Rowell.

"We suffered through the bad years, but many of our clients were from outside of Buffalo, out to Rochester and even Jamestown and Pennsylvania. We used to have a branch in Erie, Pa. We still do work at the Zippo lighter factory in Bradford," said Rowell.

It took six months to negotiate the sale of the sign business, Rowell recalled. After signing the papers, Rowell said his life got easier. This year, Rowell and his wife plan to tour the country's national parks in their new camper.

"I no longer had the responsibility of making daily calls, whether or not to bring the guys in," Rowell said. "Weather was a huge factor. Making payroll, cash flow, all the things you grew up having to live with, all of a sudden were gone."

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