“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind.”
When Les Emmerson of the Canadian rock group Five Man Electrical Band penned those words in 1971, he clearly had no idea that signage would someday evolve into a unique art form. But that’s exactly what has happened. In fact, signage as an art form has been spurred to new heights with the ample assistance of brothers Neil and Luke Markey, founders and owners of ShieldCo in Frederick, Maryland.
“It may sound funny, but we sing that song a lot around here,” said Danica Vince Cruz, 28, a 2008 graduate of Urbana High School’s International Baccalaureate program who now serves as ShieldCo’s sales and design manager. “This is about the coolest job in the world. I love the creative atmosphere and the flexibility that the job allows me.”
“Danica is an important asset,” said Luke Markey, ShieldCo’s founder and co-owner. “She’s been with us for about a year and a half, and in that relatively short period of time, she’s produced a tremendous sales record.”
Indeed, she has. By year’s end, ShieldCo is expected to reach a significant milepost—$1 million in annual sales.
Since 2013, Luke and his older brother Neil have put together a team of highly skilled artisans and craftsmen, creating customized metal signage for customers across the United States and around the world.
“But we’re not making just any ordinary signage,” said Julie Redmon, 38, another Urbana High School alum. She runs ShieldCo’s social networking program and oversees the company’s robust Web presence. “We use a unique digital process to create stunning three-dimensional signage that’s intended to leave an indelible impression,” Redmon explained.
Redmon agreed with Vince Cruz that working at ShieldCo is a rewarding experience.
“I like working for Luke and Neil because they’re very talented young men and they encourage everyone on the staff to do their best, to be creative, and to be part of the team,” she said. “They work very hard to improve the business while also encouraging collaboration. That kind of leadership makes me feel very happy to be working here.”
ShieldCo’s genesis began about eight years ago with Luke Markey. “I was still working at Deloitte when I began reading ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’” he recalled. The book, first published in 1974, is a fictionalized autobiography by Robert Pirsig in which he explores his “Metaphysics of Quality.”
“That book got me to thinking more about the way I was living my life,” said Luke. “I began asking myself why I should spend my life doing something I didn’t find very fulfilling.”
It wasn’t long before Luke decided to quit his high-paying CPA job at the nationally renowned accounting firm and go to work for his dad, Peter Markey, founder and owner of Creative Metal Design, also headquartered in Frederick. The senior Markey’s metalwork skills are well established.
For example, when the Statue of Liberty was renovated in 1986, Creative Metal Design was selected to create new iron entrance gates for one of the nation’s most revered treasures. “I felt like I could learn a lot from my dad,” said Luke. “I wanted to work with him so I could learn from him and see how he had supported our family.”
Throughout their lives, Neil and Luke have watched their father cut, weld and shape steel into everything from ornate chandeliers and bed frames to intricate railings and gates. “Our family has a long history of metal workers and craftsmen going back hundreds of years,” Neil said. “So my brother and I always had an appreciation for art and sculpture.”
In time, Luke’s metal design concepts began to diverge from those of his father. “My brother and I started experimenting with some new types of designs while working with our dad,” recalled Luke. “I remember telling him that I wanted to change his business, but he said he was happy with the way it was set up.”
Thus, with strong encouragement from Neil, the brothers split off from their father’s business to form a separate business of their own—ShieldCo. Neil was fresh from a six-year stint in the U.S. Army after serving as a captain in the storied 75th Ranger Regiment. “I was in New York attending Columbia University, going for my MBA,” Neil recalled. “When Luke told me about his idea, I said, ‘Let’s do it. … Let’s go for it.’ I was totally intrigued.”
And so it was that the brothers officially founded their own corporation in December 2013. Their initial marketing plan targeted academic institutions with proposals for custom-designed signage for sports teams. They garnered NCAA approval at a few schools, scored a small deal with Barnes & Noble, and sold signs to several retail outlets.
While the early enterprise proved moderately successful, Neil said, “I don’t think we pushed hard enough. In order to bring a new product to market, you’ve got to be prepared to fund it and then commit to doing just that. I think we were a little too hesitant in the beginning.”
Meanwhile, even as the brothers began reassessing their business model, they were steadily being queried by businesses and other enterprises in search of custom logos and lobby signs. “What we were looking at was pretty much a no-brainer situation,” said Neil. “We shifted our focus almost exclusively to business signage and corporate logos.”
Today, the company ships custom-made signage and metal art to businesses and enterprises all over the country. “We’ve even begun shipping to customers overseas,” asserted Luke. “In fact, this year—2019— will be a landmark year for us. We fully expect to see $1 million in gross sales before the end of the calendar year.”
Making that first million is the hard part, observed Neil.
Since its beginning, the ShieldCo staff has grown to about 15 members. “We try to be very flexible,” said Luke. “Our people are more than employees. They are our associates, our collaborators. We see them as equals.
“For the most part, our people create their own work schedules,” he continued. “And we have all types of folks here … experienced craftsmen, first-time apprentices, single moms, retirees, college students. We take great pride in maintaining a family-like work environment.”
Indeed, visitors to the small shop at 1209 North East St. in Frederick, Maryland, will see a lot of smiling faces. “That’s because we’re all very happy,” said Vince Cruz. “We’re doing rewarding work, and we’re being rewarded for the work we do.”
“As a growing company, I feel we’ve definitely found our niche,” said Redmon. “Just think about it for a minute: If you’re a small business, you know that first impressions are critically important. And the best way to make a great first impression is with a custom-designed entryway sign that’s unique and memorable. That’s our specialty. Our proprietary process allows our customers to choose from an incredible range of colors, finishes and materials to create the ultimate ‘wow factor’ entrance.”
— James Rogers