Celebration Corner: YESCO's 100th anniversary

By Barbara Spector

The creator of numerous iconic signs held celebrations in three cities before COVID-19 put a halt to communal events. 

The Business: YESCO, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, produces and services signs, lighting and other display systems. The company has created some of the most memorable signs in America, including the 80-foot-tall Hard Rock Café guitar sign and the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, the sign atop General Motors headquarters in Detroit’s Renaissance Center, the Olympic rings for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre sign, the Reno Arch in Reno, Nev., and the sign and fascia that covered the front of Las Vegas’ former Stardust casino.

Founder Thomas Young was 15 years old when his family immigrated to Ogden, Utah, from England.
“He loved to draw, he loved oil painting, he loved to hand-letter,” says Jeff Young, YESCO’s third-generation senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Thomas quit school, got a job at a sign shop and then realized he could be successful on his own.

In 1920, Thomas, at age 25, borrowed $300 from his father and started the Thomas Young Sign Company, going door to door to peddle his services. His specialty was lettering in reverse on the back of glass windows so the text would be protected from the elements. He did a lot of gold leaf work and also lettered on trucks, brick walls and brass name plates that morticians attached to coffins.

A born entrepreneur, Thomas hired a team to help him manufacture signs and grow the business.

“He added on some tremendous people that stayed with him the rest of their lives. And that included some very gifted fabrication people,” Jeff says.

One of these hires, Ben Jones, became the company’s engineer. “It was Ben who, in the ’20s and ’30s and through the ’40s and ’50s, designed most of the large displays that you would know and recognize in historic Las Vegas,” Jeff says.

When the expansion of the team, the company was renamed the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). In 1927, it began manufacturing neon tubing and sold neon signs in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada.

The company began serving Las Vegas in 1932, one year after gambling was legalized there. YESCO’s first Vegas clients included the Boulder Club on Fremont Street, whose neon sign.

“Soon after, the Pioneer Club and all the other clubs said, ‘I want something bigger and brighter than that,’ ” Jeff says. In 1945, the company opened a branch in Las Vegas.

Thomas Young Jr. — Jeff’s father — joined the business in 1942. He was the only one of the six second-generation siblings to take an interest in the family company.

Thomas Young Jr. — today known simply as Thomas Young — was named president of the company in 1969. His father died in 1971.

Under the second-generation leader, the company doubled in size four times, Jeff says. Much of that growth occurred through acquisition.

Among those acquisitions was Western Neon, which built the famous “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. YESCO acquired the company in the early 1960s.

“In the process of acquiring Western Neon, we acquired the title to the sign as well as the lease contract [with] the county,” Jeff says. “We’re out there at least weekly, just keeping it running.”

Over the decades, YESCO has embraced a succession of technologies — neon, incandescent bulbs, fluorescent lamps and plastics, flexible materials and computer operations.

The advent of LED lighting technology in 1996 enabled YESCO to develop big-screen electronic message centers. “Some of the largest systems in the world came from us and have been installed by us and are still maintained by us,” Jeff says.

Today, Jeff estimates, only about 20% or 30% of YESCO’s business comes from casinos. “Outside of Las Vegas, we do a tremendous amount of work for every business you can think of, every municipality you can think of. Hospitals and hotels that are not casinos, car dealerships —anybody that needs a sign, we’re pretty much on it.

“And then we love to service them. Once a sign goes up, we want to take care of it for the life of the sign.”

Following the 2008-10 recession, the company built up its maintenance and repair operations. In addition to its 40 service offices in 11 Western states, the company developed and marketed a service franchise model. Today, besides its 40 Western locations, YESCO supports 71 other offices in the United States and Canada. “We can functionally get anywhere in North America pretty easily with our staff and equipment for service,” Jeff says.

YESCO also manufactures custom signs, posters and promotional materials (even yoga mats). In addition, the company has a billboard operation.

“We’ve been able to put up our messages on our billboards, celebrating our hundred years,” Jeff says.
Many of YESCO’s vintage signs can be found in the Neon Museum in Las Vegas. The company retains the title to those signs, which are on loan to the museum. About half of the items in the museum’s collection were produced by YESCO.

“That race for bigger and brighter signs is still happening today,” Jeff says. “Everyone’s trying to outdo the other hotel-casinos with something bigger and brighter. We’re still in the middle of something that really started with my grandfather.”

There’s “a lot of emotion” tied to putting a sign on a building, Jeff says. “There’s so many other aspects of business that are important for a company, but the sign, it just matters so much. When [YESCO’s clients] finally get their signs up and put their name on the building, it’s the culmination of a lot of effort and time.

“We felt the same way when we put our signs up on the building we built about 12 years ago in Utah.”

The Family: In 1969, Thomas Young Sr. gave the controlling stock to his son and namesake, although the founder continued to work for the company until his death in 1971.

“There was no payout; there was no sale of the company,” Jeff says. Significantly, the move enabled the generational transition to occur without saddling the company with debt.

When it came time for the second-generation Thomas Young to transition ownership, “my father substantively did the same thing, although it took him longer than a stroke of a pen, through the gift tax,” Jeff says. “He was able to, over a couple of decades, gift the controlling stock to a trust.” Jeff and his two brothers, Mike Young and Paul Young, are co-trustees of the voting trust.

“That whole act, basically giving the company to the third generation without asking for a payout, put us in a marvelous position going forward. Because then, in terms of transition to the fourth generation, it just becomes a matter of naming new trustees.

“So my grandfather and my father really cleared the way for us to keep the business going without all the complications that a lot of family businesses face when there is a buyout of some kind.”

In addition to the voting shares, there is also common stock, which is held by various family members, most of whom don’t work for the company.

Like his father before him, Thomas Young, 92, has continued to work; he is celebrating his 78th year with the company. “He loves the business, he loves the products, loves the customers, he loves life, he loves the action of neon, he loves this new LED technology that’s just pervaded everything that we do. And we just love working with him,” Jeff says.

Jeff’s brothers Michael Young and Paul Young serve as YESCO’s CEO and executive vice president, respectively. A brother-in-law, Stephen Jones, is president. Patriarch Thomas Young is chairman of the board.

Fourth-generation member Ryan Young is a vice president and regional manager. Another fourth-generation member, Josh Young, is president of YESCO Franchising.

About four other G4 members also work for the company. The most recent G4 to join the company full-time is Paul’s son Thomas Young, the third family member with that name to work at YESCO.

In 2016, Jeff appeared on the CBS television show Undercover Boss. In the episode, he had to overcome his fear of heights to replace bulbs on a sign.

The Celebration: YESCO created a “100 Years” section on its website, featuring photos and stories highlighting the company’s history.

The company produced a video series to mark the occasion, featuring current and historic footage and interviews with family members, customers, employees and other stakeholders.

“We went out and interviewed anyone that we knew who knew my grandfather when he was still alive,” Jeff says. “So it was a wonderful commemoration of our founder.”

YESCO had scheduled events to celebrate with employees and their guests at each of its major locations. As of early March, three of these events had taken place. About 600 people attended the Salt Lake City event, held in February. Celebrations were also held in Denver and Los Angeles.

The remaining events will probably not be held because of COVID-19, the company says. Among the canceled celebrations is a Las Vegas party, which was expected to draw about 550 people.

Although the main purpose of the parties was to celebrate employees’ commitment to the company, some key suppliers and customers were invited, as well.

The Planning: Conversations about how to mark the anniversary began in 2017, Jeff says. Jeff worked with the marketing team, relying especially on the recommendations of Annette Gaddis, a longtime marketing department member who, like many of her YESCO colleagues, is the daughter of an employee. (There are also some third-generation non-family employees at the company.)

“I give Annette a lot of credit for her insights, because she’s planned a lot of events in the past,” Jeff says.

Jeff describes the anniversary events as among the most stressful in his career, up there with rebranding 250 bank locations over a weekend or turning on the Olympic rings in Salt Lake City a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“For me, the anxiety came from making sure that our employees and our guests all felt what we were feeling in our own hearts. We wanted to project such a great feeling of satisfaction and of 100 years of hard work for so many people. And so much gratitude, for so many reasons. That’s what we worked really hard to convey — they would feel how deep the emotion really ran, and how much we really appreciate their service and sacrifice.”

About 75% of YESCO’s employees work in fabrication, installation or service, Jeff notes. “They’re up high, they’re in the wind, they’re in the rain, they’re in the snow, they’re in dangerous situations, working with high-voltage electricity.

“We’re just so grateful for all their hard work and sacrifice. It’s not an easy business. It’s a custom manufacturing business, so there’s nothing that gets mundane, and there’s always a surprise around every corner. That makes it fun for us, but it also makes it very challenging.”

Because of YESCO’s focus on signage and branding, it was important to ensure the decorations, the graphics, the video content, the menu and “the feel of the room” were on point, Jeff notes. All of those efforts were completed before the pandemic.

The Response: At YESCO’s 50th anniversary celebration, which took place a year before Thomas Young Sr. passed away, a photo was taken of the founder and his wife, Elmina, with a cake.

The Young family beamed with pride at the Salt Lake City centennial celebration, held on Feb. 20, when Thomas Jr. and his wife, Dwan, posed with a 100th anniversary cake.

“We had a band playing, and the lights came on, and we cut the cake. The whole event, for us, it was a dream come true,” Jeff says.

Jeff says his father had had some health setbacks before the celebration. “To have him here for the 100th was a remarkable experience for us.”

Having the extended family at the celebrations was “a great opportunity to expose the wider family to what we do and what opportunities might exist,” Jeff notes.

At the three events, there were “a lot of tears shed, for all the reasons,” Jeff says.

“I mean, we have employees whose parents may have worked for us in the past, who have since passed away, and they weren’t here to celebrate with us. And [the employees] are looking back, wondering what [their parents] would have thought.

“We have the same thought in our minds: What would the founder and his wife, our grandmother, think if they could be sitting here today? What would they be saying? What would they be feeling? It evokes some really deep emotions.”

The videographer who produced YESCO’s commemorative videos found an 1922 invoice for brushes and gold leaf from a company called N. Glantz. That company, also a family business, is still a YESCO supplier. The discovery of the invoice made the owners of both businesses emotional, Jeff says. “Can you imagine a supplier relationship that’s endured nearly 100 years?”

YESCO has similar long-term relationships with customers. Some of those companies also recently marked 100 years, such as Salt Lake City companies Woodbury Corporation, a real estate development and management business (founded in 1919), and Okland Construction (founded in 1918).

Key Bank, which does business with YESCO, put up billboards congratulating the company. “If you can imagine this, they paid for billboards from us commemorating our hundred years,” Jeff says. “Key Bank put ads up for us, thanking us for decades and decades of business.”

The Advice: Jeff says the YESCO team researched other companies’ milestone celebrations to generate ideas.

“You need to celebrate in a way that would be the most meaningful for your group,” he recommends.       

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.    

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