Case Studies

Acorn Sign Graphics

A step ahead in architectural signage that works for people, places and the environment

In Richmond, Virginia, Acorn Sign Graphics is making more than custom architectural signs and graphics; the company is also on a social and environmental mission, practicing sustainable manufacturing, material sourcing and creating valuable connections in the local community. Acorn Sign Graphics was formed through the consolidation of several companies dating back to 1964. In 2003, owner Beth Gillispie and her husband, Steve Gillispie, purchased the then-small company, starting out with just six employees.

Today, Acorn Sign Graphics employs 55 people with a combined experience of more than 100 years. The company installs and ships its architectural sign products to customers throughout the country.

Over the last decade, Acorn Sign Graphics has grown by acquisition, a dedicated team and by tackling the challenge of bringing meaning and purpose to the business endeavor. “It is a very exciting industry and for us and it has been an exciting challenge,” says Beth, president of Acorn Sign Graphics.

Together, Beth applied her management-consultant experience and Steve’s printing industry know-how to turn Acorn Sign Graphics into the values-driven company it is today. “We wanted a business that represented our values and we wanted to do something that we felt folks would flourish in by creating a product people need but also value for the community,” she explains. “We wanted to see if we could practice what we preach – and those practices for us also include social and environmental values.”

Starting with a sustainable mentality

Acorn Sign started with its supply chain. “At first, our vendors thought we were crazy,” recounts Beth. “The sign industry sort of notoriously works with products that are environmentally unfriendly. We were concerned not just about the materials and products that we would be working with, but also the health of our people.”

Acorn Sign moved out of its once small, dark and dusty office space and into a new facility with air filtration, more natural lighting and elements to bring the outdoors inside in an effort to create a highly collaborative and productive environment for its team.

Right off the bat, Acorn Sign Graphics began to implement more companywide recycling, including paper and plastics products, scrap metals such as aluminum, drill bits and more. Acorn Sign also turned to a local metal fabrication provider to reduce its freight footprint.

In terms of shipping and receiving, Acorn Sign has been developing a paperless method to track orders. “We also use carbon credits through UPS,” explains Beth. “These carbon credits help offset the environmental impact of shipping by using the added fee to fund important environmental programs.”

“We’ve focused on making small, incremental improvements,” adds Owen Taylor, general manager of Acorn Sign Graphics. “We looked for different adhesives, different cleaning products, nontoxic materials and things that matched our green mindset. All these little things in the long run do make a difference.”

Beth says Acorn Sign Graphics’ process starts with a conscious train of thought, from the workplace environment to the company’s approach with customers and suppliers. The company is highly diversified across the building industry, working directly for end users, facility managers, owners, architects, municipalities, contractors and even other sign companies.

“We serve almost every market you can imagine – new construction and renovations for hotels, schools, commercial real estate, hospitals and so much more – but, no matter who we’re working with, we try to build sustainable thinking right into the beginning of a project’s process from design to fabrication,” she says. “It’s a mental checklist we go through on the design side.”

Beth says Acorn Sign Graphics has a particular niche in Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant signage. “We have a strong customer base in schools and hospitals doing interior ADA code-compliant signage, including brail signs,” she says. “We’ve worked for many years doing these interior signs. Our photopolymer supplier offers us materials with 40 percent recycled content and, when possible, we use foil-stamping for lettering, which is more environmentally friendly than screen printing.”

One of the most interesting projects Beth says Acorn Sign Graphics has recently completed included sourcing metal from an old tin building to make the lettering for a small specialty foods retailer. “We formed the corrugated tin to make letters mounted on a substrate to create their sign; we’ll go out and find reclaimed materials whenever possible,” she says.

LEEDing the way in signage

Staying on the forefront of design and production of green friendly architectural signs and graphics, Acorn Sign Graphics is a go-to for LEED projects. “We’re very familiar with LEED requirements, language and the levels of certification,” adds Beth. “While LEED does not give many points to signage, signage is very important to the built environment. One of the points you can get in the innovation section of the LEED rating system involves educating folks about what makes the facility green. A lot of people working on these projects think about ways to approach this LEED credit opportunity.”

Acorn Sign GraphicsAcorn Sign wasted no time breaking into the world of LEED certification. “I approached the U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC] about what we were doing in terms of iconography and mentioned we wanted to collaborate with them,” she says.

This conversation quickly turned into a contract for Acorn Sign Graphics. “They were trying to find a way to represent graphically the criteria in the LEED rating system,” says Beth. “We agreed that we would provide the art for those icons and it would be available for free to anyone in the world to use them.”

In 2010, Acorn Sign completed signage for the Virginia Association of Counties building, a certified LEED Gold facility. “We produced the aluminum historic plaque and LEED plaque, lobby graphics panels and dimensional letters, LEED educational signs, interior room identification and wayfinding signs and exterior dHPL exhibit panels,” notes Beth.

All of the hard work has certainly paid off for Acorn Sign. In 2012, the company was recognized as a certified B-Corporation, one of only about 1,200 other companies in the world. “The B-Corp movement is expanding worldwide,” explains Beth. “Other B-Corps share the same philosophy in doing not only what’s best for their business in terms of profit, but in doing what’s best for people and the planet.”

In order to become a certified B-Corporation, a company must undergo a rigorous third-party assessment in the areas of: environment, workers, customers, community and governance. In the August 2013 score, Acorn Sign Graphics received 100 points, 20 points over the minimum certification requirement of the B-Corporation rating scorecard.

“Where we can, we are always choosing a more sustainable path,” says Beth. “You obviously have to remain profitable to stay in business, but beyond that, business is about people and the planet. At the end of the day, if we’re giving back to both of these areas we’re doing something right.”

For Acorn Sign Graphics the focus is more than manufacturing a green product, but pushing the complete concept of sustainability – starting with healthy workplace environment and products that customers can feel good about.

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