By Matthew Rink
Posted Sep 9, 2018 at 9:19 AMUpdated Sep 9, 2018 at 2:56 PM
Fairview Township company was formed on Sept. 3, 1928, in Rochester, New York.
Howard Schneider started designing sign letters by hand in the basement of his Rochester, New York, home when he only 14 years old.
Schneider, though, would soon shift his focus to creating neon tubing, which in the mid-1920s was growing in popularity.
“He set up a neon plant in his basement making neon tubing,” Gary Schneider said of his late father. “He actually improved the neon tubing back then by improving the different colors that you can make by putting mercury into the tube. It would change the color. He just kind of grew from there.”
Ninety years ago, on Sept. 3, 1928, Howard Signs was born. It wasn’t until 1936, though, that the company would establish its home in Erie when Schneider hoped to win over a new customer, the Koehler Brewing Co.
“They wanted the beer window signs to be neon and they were having a hard time getting them,” Gary Schneider, 72, said. “He tried selling to them, but they wanted a local vendor, so he moved here.”
Today the company, now known as Howard Industries, does just under $10 million of sales a year.
It’s hard to miss their work.
A History of Howard Industries
1928: Howard Schneider starts Howard Signs in Rochester, New York, on Sept. 3.
1936: Opens first Erie location, with six employees, at 16th and State streets.
1973: Gary Schneider and Larry Schneider create Howard Industries, a manufacturer of exterior aluminum sign systems.
1974: Howard Industries expands architectural sign division, adding four internally illuminated aluminum post and panel products. Moves to 2910 Pittsburgh Ave.
1988: Relocates to 4985 Pittsburgh Ave. in Erie. Becomes the premier manufacturer of architectural sign systems.
1991: Introduces traffic-control products that use LED lighting.
1998: Relocates to a new 50,000-square foot facility in Fairview.
2003: Expands plant to accommodate growing sales and product lines.
2005: Develops PRIME Sign Program for clients that require sign project management.
2008: Named an Inc. 5000 company for the second year in a row.
2009: Introduces new interior sign system for facility identification, wayfinding and information.
2010: Develops new technology for creating and hanging vertical street- and light-pole banners.
2011-present: Expands line of architectural sign system extrusions; adds equipment, including large-format and UV flatbed printers, laser cutters/engravers.
2018. Employs 47 people.
SOURCE: Howard Industries
The company makes signs for dozens of local businesses. It counts UPMC Hamot, Saint Vincent Hospital, Erie Bank, Mercyhurst and Edinboro universities, and all 24 branches of Penn State University, including Behrend, among its customers. Other customers include the Cleveland Clinic and Mercedes-Benz.
The company, now located at the Sterrettania Business Park in Fairview Township, makes both exterior signs, including parking and wayfinding signs, and interior signs, like those that identify hospital rooms and classrooms.
“We ship products all over the world,” President Patrick Sutton, 61, said. “Back when we had phone books, I would tell people that our customers are in the yellow pages under ‘S’ for ‘signs.’ We sell to any sign company in the world who, for whatever reason, needs a product that they don’t want to make, don’t have time to make or they can’t make.”
Sutton and Schneider said the company prides itself on making products that can easily be updated and adapted at little cost.
Howard Industries employs 47 people. It has contracts through the state and federal governments to supply signs to state-run and federally-run agencies.
The company has gone through several changes in its 90-year history, most notably in 1973 when sons Gary and Larry Schneider bought Howard Signs from their father, sold it, and started Howard Industries, shifting the focus from a company that made signs for customers to one that manufactures aluminum sign systems using more than 165 proprietary aluminum extrusions.
That allowed it to expand from a regional to a national company. Today, its products are sold worldwide.
Though it still designs, manufactures and sells signs to customers in a five-state area, direct sales are a relatively small part of the overall operation, Sutton said.
The business has expanded several times, and changed locations to accommodate its growth. Currently, it’s located on a five-acre parcel in a 65,000-square foot complex.
Gary Schneider was the same age his father was when he started the business — 14 — when he began working with dad in the shop, which was in the garage behind the family home at 29th and Raspberry. He’d work after school and into the night. The younger Schneider never studied a trade. He learned everything working alongside his father.
“Back then it was mostly taverns and restaurants that we sold to,” he said. “It was mostly local.”
Technology has changed the business dramatically.
“Back in the late ’70s we got a fax machine,” Gary Schneider said. “When I saw that fax machine, I thought, ‘that ain’t going anywhere.’ It certainly did. And, of course, then all of these (industrial) printers came out and they got bigger and bigger and now we use them in here for the exterior signs.”
About four years ago, Howard Industries added 4,000-square feet to specialize in interior sign work, which is now a third of the business. The facility includes a large flatbed printer, which applies a UV-protective paint directly to signs, three laser cutters, and a router/engraver that’s used to make ADA-compliant braille signs.
“We did a job for First National Bank of Pennsylvania, large lettering for the Millcreek Mall when the bank first opened,” he recalled. “Larry and I made the patterns for those. It took us a week to make full-sized paper patterns so we could cut out the metal to make the sign. Today with the computer, I don’t think it would take 20 minutes to make those paper patterns — and they’re exact.”
The company continues to be an innovator. About two years ago, one of its largest customers, Geisinger Health System, in eastern Pennsylvania, asked the company to design a sign that would make crossing the street at night safer for its employees who had to park blocks away from the company’s hospital in Danville in Montour County.
Howard Industries designed a seven-and-a-half foot tall, four-sided sign that sits on each end of a crosswalk. It’s a major improvement, Sutton and Schneider say, over the small, traditional display that alerts pedestrians when they can cross the street.
Their version can be activated by a button and/or a sensor that detects when someone is in the crosswalk. Its flashing lights catch the eye of the motorist. Most uniquely, though, is that it also illuminates the crosswalk with LED lights for 30 seconds.
After selling Geisinger a pair of the signs, which cost about $16,000 each, it bought a dozen more. Howard Industries then received “hundreds” of inquiries about the product from hospitals, universities and factories across the country.
But there was a problem.
“Many of the municipalities had never seen this before, but loved the idea,” Sutton said. “They were having their own conflict with Department of Transportation guidelines. You can’t just stick something in the right-of-way on a street without Federal Highway Administration approval.”
Cutting through that red tape is taking time. The product has met six of seven federal requirements but still needs to be crash-tested.
That hasn’t precluded the company from selling the signs to companies like Geisinger that use them on private roadways, but it has stalled sales to hundreds, if not thousands, of potential customers across the U.S.
“It became a potentially valuable life-saving product,” Sutton said.
Howard Schneider was hard to impress, Gary Schneider said, but would be thrilled at how far the company has come in 90 years.
“He would be amazed,” he said.
Matthew Rink can be reached at 870-1884