A chance brush led to long career in sign writing

Jim Marshall, of Sign Advertising in Gore, has retired after 56 years in the sign-writing...
Jim Marshall, of Sign Advertising in Gore, has retired after 56 years in the sign-writing industry. PHOTO: SANDY EGGLESTON
A chance meeting on the streets of Mataura opened the door to a long and satisfying career for one Gore business owner.

Jim Marshall, of Sign Advertising, was a teenager living in Mataura when he saw Edendale sign writer Errol Allison at work.

He walked over to Mr Allison and started chatting, Mr Marshall said.

When he told Mr Allison he wanted to be a signwriter, Mr Allison suggested he could accompany him on Saturdays.

Not long after, Mr Allison’s business in Gore started growing and he offered Mr Marshall an apprenticeship.

"I owe my start to that man."

Mr Marshall had to choose between finishing his school certificate year at Southland Technical College or the apprenticeship.

He decided to take up the apprenticeship and left school when he was 15 and a-half years old.

The training took five years, which equated to 10,000 hours.

"The trade in those days was all with the paintbrush.

"[Mr Allison] was an excellent teacher."

The business operated from an old villa in Gore’s Irwell St. After completing his training, he went into partnership with Mr Allison for about seven years.

When Mr Allison decided to spend more time on his artwork, Mr Marshall bought out his share of the company.

In those days people who became sign writers needed to be good at art, Mr Marshall said.

If a greengrocer or stud farmer wanted a sign, objects relevant to their business were painted alongside the name.

"Those days were really creative days."

However, it took time to complete the work.

"We used to get big backlogs of work and get well behind.

"In those days people accepted that."

He could remember one day in the workshop in the early 1980s, when an item on the radio described how computers could take over people’s jobs.

He remarked to Mr Allison that sign writers would be safe from that happening.

"A computer will never do our job."

Soon after, computer-driven vinyl-cutter plotters started to be used in the industry.

Mr Marshall visited a sign-writing colleague in Invercargill who had bought one of the computers and was impressed with the results.

"I thought this was the way of the trade."

He decided to buy a computer but had very little money so went to the bank to ask for a loan.

"The bank virtually laughed me out of the building."

When he approached a Southland development company they agreed to finance the project .

"They could understand it; they saw the bigger picture."

The computer changed the business dramatically.

"We were able to do a lot more work and satisfy a lot more people."

A year later he received a call from the bank manager who had noticed the increase in his income.

The bank manager asked if Mr Marshall would like to refinance the loan at a cheaper rate than the finance company.

"I said ‘I don’t care if they charge me twice as much. They went with me on the day’."

The technology and equipment has continued to develop.

"We stayed with the changes and kept upgrading to have better equipment and more capabilities."

There were times when paintbrushes were still used, he said.

"This last week of work I’ve used a paintbrush doing honours boards by hand.

"Large signage on buildings we will still brush."

He had trained apprentices and the business now employed five people, including two graphic designers.

He was also grateful to the loyal staff he had employed throughout the years.

"If you haven’t got a good staff, you haven’t got a good business.

"I’ve had excellent staff my whole life."

He wanted to thank the Gore community for the support they had given the business.

"I’ve found Gore to be a fantastic place to do business in."

After spending 56 years in the industry he was still "passionate" about his work.

"I would still like to take it to another level but time’s running out."

It seemed time to retire.

He was looking forward to travelling with his wife Hilary and spending more time with family.

As well as involving himself in some kind of community work, he also wanted to develop his art skills, which had taken second place to his work throughout his career.