Tim Johnson inspected letters he spray painted at Honolulu Sign Co. The Rotz family has run the company since 1949.


Rotz family handiwork has been
hung on the islands for decades

By Tim Ruel

A five-month dock strike in 1949 couldn't stop Honolulu Sign Co.'s Robert H. Rotz from getting his raw goods.

"He was ripping floor boards out and material off the walls just to make signs," said William "Terry" Rotz, son of the late Robert Rotz.


Honolulu Sign, based in Kalihi, was a little more prepared for the more recent threat of a West Coast dock strike earlier this year.

"We planned ahead. We kept a large inventory of materials," said Terry Rotz, 42, president of Honolulu Sign.

But that doesn't mean business is easier these days. About 10 years ago, Robert Rotz said if he could do it all over again, he wouldn't, Terry Rotz said. Health insurance is too costly and liability is too great, the father said.

Robert Rotz, who came to the islands as a 19-year-old in 1939, joined Honolulu Sign in the 1940s and later became president and general manager. The firm is now owned by the Rotz family. Robert Rotz died earlier this year, at 83.

Terry took over as president in 1987. Since then, he's had his own share of tribulation. Revenue peaked in 1992 at $2 million, when Honolulu Sign had 23 employees. Since then, competition has gotten fiercer. Anybody can order a for-sale sign cheap from the mainland, and there are dozens of sign firms in the local Yellow Pages.

Moreover, the Hawaii sign business is historically tied to the state's once-booming construction industry, which has shrunk in the past decade.

Terry Rotz and his mother, Harriet Rotz, display signs the company has made at its Moonui Street ship in Kalihi.

"Any company that is somewhat tied to that experiences similar difficulties," said Heather Spencer, president and owner of Hawaiian Sign & Design Corp. in Kaneohe.

Last year, revenue at Honolulu Sign was $1.3 million. The firm now has about 15 employees, and it hopes for revenue of $1.4 million this year, Terry Rotz said.

Hawaiian Sign, which has 30 employees, has seen revenue grow in the past decade, albeit slowly, Spencer said.

Seeking to fill a niche, Honolulu Sign stays away from generic sign projects and pursues specialized business, such as tapa-print signs, Terry Rotz said.

Another strategy is to focus on relations with long-term customers, including tourism firms Outrigger, Sheraton, Budget, Hawaiian Airlines and real estate firms Shidler Group, PM Realty Group and Schuler Homes, Terry said.

During this year's elections, last-minute orders for political signs took a back burner to jobs for long-standing clients, Terry said.

Honolulu Sign also taps markets outside Hawaii, including American Samoa, where it has provided signs for the past three gubernatorial campaigns, Terry said.

Although Honolulu Sign is family owned, Terry and his mother Harriet, 78, are the only family members who work for the business. Terry's children are too young, he said. The issue of succession is a blip on the radar screen. Ideally, he'd like to keep Honolulu Sign within the family.

At the same time, he said, it's important for a company leader to work from the ground up. Terry pointed to his own experience of starting in the back shop at $4.50 an hour at Honolulu Sign in 1982. He knows what employees go through, how chemical fumes can wear workers down during the working day.

"A lot of people, I think, are put in positions where they don't have the experience or don't understand how things work," he said.

Terry said he doesn't want to force the company on his kids. He said he plans to offer work to them as an opportunity, not as a burden.

His father, Robert, asked Terry to work in the back shop, just to see what it was like. In doing so, Terry ended up shelving the idea of becoming a graphic artist.

"You can't be a graphic artist drawing stick figures," he said.

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