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At Accuform Signs, the focus is on employees and expansion

BROOKSVILLE

When Wayne Johnson talks about the value his company places on its employees, the accuracy of orders and safety, he practically glows with pride.

But to really see the twinkle in his eye, ask about the plans for tripling the size of his family's safety-sign manufacturing facility.

With Gov. Rick Scott by his side last October, Johnson announced the expansion of Accuform Signs, billed as one of the largest planned manufacturing projects in the state.

Founded in 1976 by his parents, Ron and Veronica Johnson, Accuform operates out of roughly 100,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space scattered in three buildings in the industrial park at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

Later this year, a new 300,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility will begin to take shape on a 44-acre, airport-owned site at Corporate Boulevard and Aerial Way.

The current staff of 293 is expected to grow by another 271 workers by 2016 and could eventually reach 600.

Using the latest artist's renderings, Johnson described a first-class office and manufacturing facility ringed by windows to take advantage of as much natural light as possible. Those entering the building will be able to look up and see the second-floor, glassed-in office areas.

Out in back, the drawings show an outdoor kitchen and dining area and an amphitheater that could seat 600. Inside amenities will include a larger cafeteria and gym for employees. A larger training and conference room and a personal computer learning center are also in the plans.

Johnson said he is excited about enhanced security, improved lighting and a state-of-the-art temperature control system "so you're not having to go through four weather zones when walking from one end of the building to the other.''

While he said Accuform is currently "bursting at the seams,'' he knows there will be some unused space in the new facility, at least initially.

But expansion has been a big part of the company's history, and the new site will accommodate that continuing growth. Plans show a place for another building to be constructed in the future. They also include ample parking, which can be a challenge at times at the current facility, Johnson said.

The new facility has an estimated price tag of $15 million.

"We're finalizing all of our architectural drawings,'' Johnson said.

The plan is to seek bids by early April.

"We've got to get some estimates so we can see if we're going to have to go back and change anything,'' he said.

Ground breaking is expected midyear, and construction is expected to take as long as a year.

• • •

As Johnson gave a tour of the company's facility recently, he pointed to inspirational posters around the office complex touting Accuform's core values: experience, people, technology and opportunity.

He talked about the importance of culture in the business and how Accuform is choosy when it comes to employees. They need to be flexible, upbeat, creative and collaborative.

As he navigated around office cubicles, he stopped to point out the account managers who deal directly with customers and take orders. He touted their accuracy and praised their skill at getting the right product to the customer, even though Accuform's massive catalog — which includes a lot of road and workplace signs — features more than 100,000 items and half its business is custom orders.

During a brief stop in the cafeteria, he pointed out the accuracy numbers on the wall and a digital sign announcing how many days the operation has gone without an accident.

Accuform recently won a top workplace safety award by becoming SHARP certified through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program award is given to small businesses in the private sector with exemplary safety and health management programs.

As Johnson walked around the supply, manufacturing and shipping areas, he stopped to say hello to workers and to describe the purpose of the complex machines the employees were using.

In one corner, a massive printing press was quickly sucking in huge pieces of plastic film, and, just several quick passes in and out of the printer later, the plastic was printed and dry.

In another spot, near a pile of fluorescent safety cones, a much smaller machine was using a laser to cut through stainless steel. Still other machines were cutting signs from plastic sheets. Johnson was particularly proud of a new printing press from Germany that reflects some of the most sophisticated technology in the shop.

Accuform remains very much a family operation. Johnson is the chief executive officer, working along beside his brother Dave, who is president of the company and chief operating officer. Dave's son, Paul, is director of continuous improvement.

Wayne's son, Matthew, directs the new product development team, and his son-in-law, John Murphy, is head of the customer service team.

With the backdrop of machines humming and employees bustling around with carts, Wayne Johnson explained that Accuform doesn't order its business priorities the way other companies do. Most corporations worry about the bottom line, customers and then employees.

By putting employees first, Johnson said, customers and the company's profitability are both served.

Accuform's history seems to show that.

For the last three years, the company has landed on the Tampa Bay Times list of Top Workplaces, an honor based on employee comments about how they feel their contributions are acknowledged and appreciated by their employer.

The company's growth also seems to show that it has done something right.

Ten years after the company opened in Port Richey, it sought to expand and found Hernando County industrial land available for an affordable price. At that time, Accuform brought 21 employees with it. By 2003, the company moved again, this time with 120 workers.

Not only has the company continued its growth, but it has done so in recent years, at a time when economic indicators were pointing downward for many businesses.

Johnson again credits his employees, but he also says Accuform has been aggressive. Difficult economic times, he said, are "the best time to steal market share.''

While competitors were pulling advertising out of trade magazines, Accuform was buying up the available space. When they were pulling out of trade shows, Johnson would double up his displays.

His company may not be the biggest in the field, but his high profile told clients and competitors he was growing.

The company has added new products and developed new product lines and has been doing business in Canada and Latin America. It is also looking for business in England and Australia.

"It's all kind of a test,'' Johnson said, "to see what happens.''

• • •

Johnson says a key element in planning for Accuform's new facility has been the cooperation between the company and the county.

Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager, agrees wholeheartedly. As far as important projects go, Accuform is "the biggest we've ever had. It's my day job. It's my night job.''

With support from the County Commission, county staffers have fought to deliver more than $4 million in direct economic development incentives if the company follows through with its promise to created 271 new jobs.

The county is also seeking grants from the state for basic infrastructure for the site. That includes running utility lines, running fiber-optic cable, engineering and building an entirely new drainage system for the area, improving the intersection of Aerial Way and Corporate Boulevard and extending Technology Drive all the way around the Accuform site.

"All hands are on deck'' to make that happen, McHugh said.

Part of the issue is coordinating everything, with much of the work needing to be done at about the same time.

"It's probably the most collaborative construction project we've ever done,'' McHugh said. "They're depending on us to get the roads done. They're depending on us getting the water, sewer and other things brought to the site simultaneous to them building.''

The design work is ongoing, but McHugh said he is confident it will all come together.

"Failure,'' he said, "is not an option.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

At Accuform Signs, the focus is on employees and expansion 03/16/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 5:15pm]

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