Ken Hitt: Story of a Sign Guy
In July 2017, Ken Hitt became the owner of Meyer Sign & Advertising — and the first person to run the company who was unrelated to John Meyer. But after been a vital part of Meyer Sign for more than 30 years, don’t let anyone tell you he isn’t “family”.
Ken Hitt remembers meeting John Meyer some thirty years ago. Ken was employed at the time by a local RV company and had worked on John’s motorhome. Ken figures that John must have liked the job he did. “He didn’t actually tell me that, but he did say that they (Meyer Sign) were looking for a ‘guy’ and that ‘you should come down and see us’,” Ken recalls. This was in November of 1984. Ken Hitt was 22 years old. He couldn’t know it then, but he was about to be hired for the very last time in his life. He was also some thirty years away from becoming the third owner of Meyer Sign & Advertising.
Ken Hitt was born in Sedro-Woolley, and at around the age of 10 he and his family settled just east of town in a crossroads community known as Punkin Center. Ken would spend the next 13 years there, and he remembers it fondly as a great place to be a kid. Or at least a kid like Ken Hitt. “I rode motorcycles most every day after school. I did a little fishing and hunting (birds) with my dad and brother. In my teenage years I got into cars.”
Ken didn’t particularly get into academics. He was a competent although somewhat indifferent student. The time honored exhortation to such kids, from teachers if not from parents, is “you have so much potential if you’d just apply yourself.” Ken recalls hearing this on a few occasions from his mother.
“I wasn’t a serious student. I just didn’t see myself being in the academic world. I’d rather work than study,” says Ken. “I did what I needed to do so I could go and do the things I liked. In the summer I mowed a few lawns and bucked a lot of hay — I was a little guy and I still bucked hay. I’ve been working pretty much full time since I was 13.”
It was presumably Ken’s fondness for tinkering with things mechanical, especially cars and motorcycles, that led to his job at an RV dealership — and his eventual chance encounter with John Meyer. Ken took John up on his offer to “come down and see us”, and he was intrigued by what he saw. “What was different was that they weren’t working on things that were broken, but actually building things…and I think I liked the idea of working high in the air. I wanted to give it a shot,” says Ken. “My first day here, Martin gave me a 10 or 15 minute tutorial on how to bend sheet metal and he threw me in the shop and took off for a job. He came back at the end of the day and I’d finished what he gave me. I think I did a good job. I remember telling him that it took me a long time, but I was pretty sure the next time would be faster.”
“What I really liked about the business was being able to leave the shop and be on your own, with nobody looking over you.”
Ken recalls what Meyer Sign was like back in the ‘80s. “Back then John was still around quite a bit, but he really liked having something to do, and he ran errands if you needed someone to do them.” But when it came to the daily operations of a growing sign company, “It was mainly Martin and Tonnie. Martin did some of the manufacturing, the installation and servicing…he was doing everything. They also had to figure out how to make payroll. Martin was a good role model for who I wanted to be in my working life.”
What Ken recalls most of all is the culture of the company, back at a time when people didn’t typically apply that term outside of the Fortune 500. What Ken came to appreciate about Meyer Sign & Advertising was not just what it allowed him to do with his hands and his head, but how his contributions to the company’s success were acknowledged through Martin, Tonnie, and John’s confidence in his abilities and character.
“Back then it was a sketch on a piece of paper and a hand shake,” remembers Ken. “There were no computers or cell phones in the beginning. What I really liked about the business was being able to leave the shop and be on your own, with nobody looking over you. I really never liked being told what to do, although I did listen. I was never the kind of guy who worked well being ‘managed’. That wasn’t Martin’s style either. He let you do your own thing.”
If there were some tough times that the company weathered in its earlier days, Ken notes that you would never have known it based on Martin and Tonnie’s demeanor — and their basic kindness. “They would never put anyone under that kind of pressure or make them feel uncomfortable with their jobs,” Ken says. “Nobody ever yelled at me…and I deserved it when I screwed up or broke something. And I never heard them raise their voices to each other or even look at each other sideways. John could be cantankerous, and he’d been through a lot. He would tell stories about his life and I would suck that stuff up.”
“Back then the company was so small that everyone wore a lot of hats. As we grew, people evolved into more specific positions. You grew into the business.”
Over the years, Ken also sucked up the skills and concepts involved in the daily operations of a multi-faceted sign company. He turned out to be a quick study. “In the beginning, Martin would lay out the jobs, and I’m sure I had questions along the way, and then one day I just found myself at a desk laying jobs out and going out into the field. It just evolved. Back then the company was so small that everyone wore a lot of hats. As we grew, people evolved into more specific positions. You grew into the business.” In Ken’s case, the role he grew into was that of a competent and trustworthy general manager who treated others in the company with the consideration and respect that he had experienced.
Ken doesn’t remember there ever being talk of him as an “heir apparent” when Martin and Tonnie Boer began planning their retirement, adding that, “I never saw myself that way.” What Ken does remember is his reaction when Martin announced his intention to sell Meyer Sign. “I tried to talk him out of it several times. l told him that he had ruined me — there was no way I could possibly work for anyone else. We both laughed at that, but I think that if some other owner had come along who didn’t really know the business, I wouldn’t have stayed.”
In July 2017, John Meyer’s daughter and son-in-law signed a transaction agreement that made the former employee of a local RV dealer the new owner of the company that continues to bear John’s name. Ken says his financial obligations are, “…by no means easy — but they shouldn’t be. If it was easy you wouldn’t work as hard for it.” The arrangement, however, gives Martin and Tonnie Boer a continued vested interest in the success of Meyer Sign — which is just to Ken’s liking. “Martin and Tonnie are no longer partners on a day-to-day basis, since they’ve now retired, but I continue to have access to sources of knowledge that I’ve been gleaning since day one. What better partner could you ask for?”
Although recent years have seen the expansion of Meyer Sign & Advertising in capital equipment assets and in fabrication and installation capabilities, Ken doesn’t see the future in such prosaic terms as “growth”. What he envisions is more an evolution of the company in response to industry trends and technologies, but aimed at preserving the culture that makes the company “work”. What Ken wants to grow are the skill sets and work ethic necessary to be not just a viable sign company, but one that attracts the right kind of people.
“I would like to see some growth, but I think we need to maintain what we have. If you get too big and you have to make sudden changes based on the economy, you may end up losing really talented people. You can’t just go grab any joe blow off the sidewalk. The people it takes to run this business are really professional and knowledgeable people with a lot of different skills. A lot of our success has to do with growing and keeping talent. It is easier to cope with the technology changes. You go through a dozen people before you find one with potential…and that is no guarantee that they’ll stay.”
And the secret of finding and keeping the best people? It’s the one that Ken learned from John, Martin, and Tonnie…one that he has practiced every day himself. “Give people positive advice, not negative advice, and let them run. Let them show you what they are capable of. Let them be free. They’ll be happier people.”
Ken likes to joke that the way to make a small fortune in the sign industry is to start with a large one, and while there is an element of truth to this (despite a stereotype that small business owners must be wealthy), it completely misses the point from Ken’s perspective. “It’s not a business where you’re going to be a wealthy person. Sure, you’ll have things and you’ll work hard for them, but it isn’t a business where you’re going to be driving a Mercedes. People do this job because they don’t want to sit at a desk with someone leaning over them. They believe in what they do and they can feed their families. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always fun — but a lot of the time it is.”
As to the future of Meyer Sign & Advertising under the leadership of a Sedro-Woolley boy who preferred riding motorcycles and tinkering with cars to sitting behind a desk? The question is a bit puzzling to Ken Hitt. “How could it be any better than it is?”