When Billy Ng told his former boss at Island Sign Service Inc. that he and his brother, Min, wanted to eventually buy the business, his boss didn’t think the two would succeed.
“Imagine, we were two immigrant boys from Cambodia who had never owned a business before. He didn’t think we’d make it!” remembers Billy Ng. Nineteen years later, they continue to prove their former boss wrong.
In 1981, the Ng brothers and their family were refugees in a Phnom Penh camp, when a U.S. church sponsored them to come to Hawaii, where they had relatives. They were in their late teens and spoke no English, but attended adult school to learn.
Billy’s first job was at a game room in Waikiki, while Min went to work at Island Sign Service. When a job opened at ISS, Min recommended Billy, who had always enjoyed painting and making movie posters back home.
Then in a complicated but serendipitous series of events in 1994, Bob Little, the original owner of ISS, sold it to another owner. Little died in 1995, so when the new owner defaulted on payments, Little’s widow repossessed the business and sold it to Ng and his brother in 1996.
There have been changes and challenges over the years. In 2007, a rent increase forced the brothers to move their store from Waimanu Street in Kakaako to Middle Street in Kalihi. “Although we’re farther away from the center of town at the Middle Street location, we’re now getting about 10 to 15 percent more walk-in traffic,” Billy says. “At Waimanu Street, we couldn’t be seen from the road.”
The post-9/11 economic slump forced a permanent cut in hours for one employee and the 2008 recession compelled the co-owners to cut their own pay by 10 percent for a year.
Technology has provided opportunities and challenges. “Back then, there were no computers,” explains Billy. “All of our signs were done on a manual ‘show card’ typesetting machine. Now, the new computers allow us to print bigger, faster, better.”
Yet technology comes at a price. A full-color digital printer cost the brothers $22,000 in 1998; they’re currently eyeing a $90,000 full-color flat-bed printer that can print directly onto most materials.
“We’re the only sign shop in town that has an eight-foot printer for banners or any large applications, and 90 percent of our production is done here locally. We try to provide better quality and faster service, at a comparable price.
“At least 50 percent of our customers are return customers, old-timers and word-of-mouth referrals,” Billy says. They include stores, banks, real-estate developers, shopping centers, construction companies and individuals.
Rick Hobson, VP of sales and marketing for Gentry Homes, has been an ISS customer for over 15 years. “All our community signs, sales office directional signs, model-home IDs and banners are provided by Island Signs,” he says. “Like Gentry Homes, they are a family-run business and have a team approach to customer service. They deliver on time and at a fair price.”
Billy is 52 and his brother is 51, and they don’t plan on retiring any time soon, but they admit none of the children have any interest in taking over and “you can’t force them.”