Gary Kelly was in his early twenties in 1968 when he set up a small shed in Corunna Bay at the foot of Napier Hill and drove around town in his Morris Minor armed with sign brushes offering ‘signs of quality’ to clients. More than 50 years later, Gary is still on the job but has handed over the heavy lifting at the family-owned business to his three sons.

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  Gary Kelly at the original Napier Signs shop 

“Dad started signwriting when he was 15 and he’s 73 now and he’s still with us, still going strong,” Gary's youngest son Andre told Wide Format Online. “I’m the youngest brother so I run the shop, my brother runs the machines, my other brother’s tucked away over there somewhere, he’s on painting duty today. We’re also got a young fella who works for us as well.”

Andre Kelly joined the family business ten years ago. “I came back from overseas and Dad was at that point where he was thinking about retiring and was quite happy to run the business into sleep mode. But my brother said to me, ‘Why don’t you come on board because it’s just too good a business.” 

Andre confirms business at Napier Signs is good and "has been for a while.

“The whole Hawkes Bay area is booming. You can just stand here and look at the trucks going to the port full of logs and containers. What’s happened is that places like Auckland has become very unaffordable, with house prices and things like that. And people have this ability now to work remotely, so you don’t have to be based in Auckland to work in Auckland.

“A lot of people have moved here and that’s fuelled quite a bit of housing construction and population growth; businesses are coming here because we’ve got a good port and it’s maybe cheaper to come out of here rather than places like Auckland and Tauranga. I think Napier [pop: 62,000] is the third-busiest port in New Zealand.”

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  Andre Kelly at Napier Signs, 2019

 About 60%-70% of the business at Napier Signs is corflute, including billboards and real estate For Sale signs, says Andre. “Generally we’ll go through about 200 sheets a month of corflute.

“One thing we’ve definitely learned is that if you don’t invest in the technology, you’re going to get left behind. The latest thing we bought was a Primera digital label press and we’re doing small label runs for several customers.

“The biggest revelation has been the big Fujifilm Acuity flatbed. It’s a very good and very powerful machine and just gives us that ability to print directly onto something when a client walks in the door.

“We had a classic case a couple of weeks ago when Napier City Council called up about a problem here in one of the big parks; they had an algae bloom in one of the lakes and it was poisonous to dogs.

"They wanted 50 signs up as soon as possible. An hour-and-a-half later, those 50 signs were out across the park. Doing it the old way would have taken us at least three or four hours.

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  Anderson Park, Napier. (photo: Duncan Brown Photography)

 “We’ve also got a good old faithful Roland VP-540 that’s about 11 years old now and still goes well. We still love it and it still loves us.

 “We’re evolving and we can always get better at what we do and that’s the attitude we take. It’s a small town and you work hard; you have to put in a decent day’s work and if you do the rewards are there. We seem to keep increasing the business every year, which after ten years is getting a little bit tiring, but we’re picking up new clients all the time. 90% of our work is referral and that’s fantastic because it means you're doing a good job. We’re very focused on that - customer service has to be 100%. It can’t be just 99% or 98%.”

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  A view from a hill: Napier, NZ

With their father’s 55 years of experience to call on, Andre says he and his brothers have access to an encyclopaedia of signage solutions when the need arises.

Art Deco mecca Napier, on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island, is “a good spot” and the future looks bright. “We’ve been in business here over 50 years as Napier Signs and when you’ve been going that long, you have a very widespread data base of clients.

“I was a professional bartender for 20 years so I travelled the world and did my own thing and had a good time. Then you come back here and you just look around sometimes and you look at what’s happening elsewhere in the world and you go, ‘Yeah, we could be in a lot worse places.’”

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  Napier was rebuilt in Art Deco style after a 1931 earthquake that destroyed the town centre and claimed 261 lives (photos: JL Gabriel)

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