Many Clients of Arnold’s Warren Sign Company Glow in the Dark
There’s a little of David Warren at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis. There’s also some at the National Blues Museum and at the St. Charles Convention Center. And also at Dierberg’s grocery stores, at major banks, community centers and shopping malls in greater St. Louis.
There is some of David Warren all over St. Louis because his late father, Lynn Warren, opened a sign-making shop in 1929 near what is now Interstate 55 in Arnold and began to grow a company that, almost 90 years later, is considered the biggest, most experienced sign company in metro Saint Louis.
Its custom-made signs for clients identify brands and stores, restaurants, sports teams, banks and additional enterprises all over the region, and in many out-of-state cities. Warren Sign is the oldest full service sign company in business around here today and certainly one of the busiest in the Midwest.
David Warren’s ambition, his hard work, and that of his dedicated company employees helped build the firm into what is today – a successful company that originated during America’s Great Depression when many other companies went broke.
“I remember my father telling me how hard it was to put food on the table and clothes on his children when he started this business,” says David Warren, who prefers “David” to “Mr. Warren” though he is Chairman of the Board, CEO, and President of Warren Sign Company today. The firm is located in an industrial park at 2955 Arnold Tenbrook Road a mile off Jeffco Boulevard.
“He was trying to build a business during the Depression and times were tough for everyone, but he never quit.”
During the Great Depression, David’s father worked alone building signs of all designs. The company Warren Sign became the first in the region to design and install neon signs, which were introduced in the United States in the mid-1920s. In 1957 Lynn Warren hired George Wilson, his first full-time employee.
“They were not sign painters,” asserts David Warren, who today is in his 70s. “They specialized in neon signs and plastic-faced signs. I remember that when I was a teenager George Wilson drove me around in the company truck to installation jobs and that is how I got introduced to the business. I began to work part-time for the company in summers, and I tried to learn everything I could.”
Craftsmen such as Lynn Warren and George Wilson were called neon benders. Neon tube signs were produced by bending glass tubing into designs. Neon tubes made of hollow glass were assembled into custom fabricated lamps for commercial applications.
Pure neon gas produces shades of red, orange and pink. Colors of blue, yellow, green, violet, and white, and soft shades of pink, are created by filling tubes with another inert gas – argon – with a drop of mercury added. When the tube is ionized by electrification, the mercury evaporates into vapor, producing ultraviolet light. The ultraviolet light in tube coatings produces different colors. Such tubes don’t use any neon gas but are often called “neon lights” anyway.
Today, Warren Sign Company uses ultra-modern techniques to design and fabricate neon and other types of signage for clients. The firm has about 40 employees who work in a 40,000 sq ft facility with manufacturing, storage, parking and office space.
But it wasn’t always that way. Warren Sign grew slowly through the 1930s, and faced tough competition from other local sign companies after World War Two. Yet it persevered.
In 1950 David Warren enrolled in Arnold’s Fox Schools. Years later attending high school there he met his future wife, Cheryl Werner, who also attended Fox High School. In 1962 David graduated and enrolled at the University of Missouri, but he left college a year later to work for Warren Sign Company. He wanted to grow the business.
In 1965 David and Cheryl married. Dave’s father retired and David became sole owner of the company. It turned out that Cheryl’s three brothers and father worked in the sign business for another company. Before long, all three Werner brothers and Cheryl’s father started working at Warren Sign Company.
“We definitely were a family company,” says David, a sociable, outgoing man who became the firm’s top salesman.
Warren Sign at Sharpshooters BBQ
Warren Sign at Arnold First Baptist EMC
Warren Sign at Cardinal’s Nation
Warren Sign at National Blues Museum
The biggest adjustment that transformed Warren Sign Company from a small, hard-working firm into a larger firm that did business on a much bigger scale occurred in the early 1970s when Warren Sign Company and all of the employees joined local chapters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and, also, the Painters District Council.
“When we did that, big doors opened for us,” David says.
“Up until then we couldn’t call on larger companies to try to win their business or visit their job sites because unions would put up picket lines – we couldn’t get in. Unions were much stronger back then than they are today. I remember going in to bid a new signage project at a big savings and loan company that was expanding its facilities after we joined the unions – and we won that job!” he adds.
“I couldn’t have gotten in the doors to bid if we weren’t a union shop. Soon we had the chance to bid another big project – it was for a big bank – and we won that job, and then we went on to win other big jobs. And whenever we got those jobs I hired more people. I am pro-union and I am proud of the fact that we pay good wages to our union employees,” David says.
To expand, Warren Sign soon moved from its site in Arnold to a larger manufacturing facility in Fenton, but in 1998 returned its operations to Arnold and the headquarters on 4½ acres where it operates today.
“Our passion, management style and dedication to top quality customer service helped us grow,” David asserts. “Our company goal was always to grow and grow. I wasn’t afraid to borrow money from lenders when we needed to expand. And, we all worked hard.”
Then in 2008, the nation’s economic recession set in and hit the construction industry – hard. “It was a challenge,” David admits. “The company struggled. We suffered in 2009, 2010 and 2011. That was the only three years in the history of the company that we experienced real difficulty, and it was very challenging. We had to let some of our people go, and we didn’t want to do that. I worked as hard as I could to keep our employees here for as long as we could. Business was slow, but we got through the tough times. In 2012 things started picking up, and we began to hire back our employees. Every one of the employees that we had to let go came back to work – except those that found other jobs outside the construction industry during the recession. Today, we have more employees than we did in 2009.”
After Warren Sign regained its footing in 2012 and returned to growth serving clients large and small – including well-known companies, banks and hospitals in the metro area – David Warren entered semi-retirement.
As Chairman, CEO, and President, he remains involved with big decisions for the company, major loans, capital investments and big equipment purchases. He works in his office at Warren Sign one day a week and sometimes strolls the plant to visit employees.
Day-to-day operations are managed by his executive team, including Vice President and General Manager Tom Werner, one of Cheryl Werner Warren’s three brothers who joined the company years ago.
“David is a great guy to work for. Our company works in a very competitive industry, and we feel like we can do it better than any other company. We provide the same levels of dedication and committed customer service to every customer we serve, whether the project is large or small. We’re a proud union company with proud traditions, and I would hate to see Missouri become a right-to-work state,” says Tom Werner.
For descriptions of Warren Sign Company capabilities, policies and project photos, visit WarrenSign.com.
Story by Jeff Dunlap
(Neon light description paraphrased from Wikipedia)