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Heritage Businesses in WNY / Flexlume

The technology evolves, but the craftsmanship remains



Flexlume has a long and distinguished history of providing some of WNY’s most well-known signage.

Contemporary photos by kc kratt

 

1464 Main Street, Buffalo

flexlume.com

 

Lighted sign technology

How old: 114 years

How many Employees: 15

 

Flexlume was founded in Canada in 1904 upon the invention of what was then a groundbreaking advance in lighted sign technology: the creation of opal glass molded letters that pushed through a sign face and illuminated from the rear. This technique was called flexible illumination, and brothers Roy and Wallace Wiley partnered with a man by the name of W. S. Hough to develop this process. Together the trio founded Flexlume.

 

Co-owner Curtis Martin

 

By 1911, a relocation to the rapidly growing city of Buffalo spurred growth, and, in 1924, the company was operating in a massive 125,000 square foot factory on Military Road with over five hundred employees. During this time, Flexlume’s craftsmen designed, constructed, and erected many of Buffalo’s most famous marquees. But soon, in the face of wartime steel restrictions, the company began to struggle. By the late 1930s, both Wallace brothers departed from the business. In the early forties, local business owner F. A. Rowell acquired the company as a logical addition to his business, White’s Electric Signs. Shortly thereafter, Flexlume relocated to its current address on Main Street, where it was operated by various members of the Rowell family until just a few years ago.

 

Curtis Martin is a property owner and manager and never really saw himself in the sign business. But his father-in-law, Thomas Hanft, had worked at Flexlume for decades and knew it was up for sale. After speaking with Hanft and the Rowell family, and touring the facility, Martin saw an incredible opportunity for increased productivity and profits. Together, in 2015, Hanft and Martin bought the company.

 

Since then, Martin has looked to create efficiencies, streamline processes, upgrade equipment, reinvigorate the workforce, create and reconnect with alliances, and generally overhaul the century-old business without changing what it does best: create signage using impeccable craftsmanship with the unwavering goal to always do the best work possible.

 

Flexlume has a long and distinguished history of providing some of WNY’s most well-known signage.

 

Recently rejoining World Sign Associates (WSA) has allowed Flexlume to be part of a network of the most esteemed signmakers in the country. This partnership has given them the ability to bid on out-of-state jobs and to offer an even larger range of services to a growing number of clients. It’s a valuable opportunity and the unanimous vote by existing WSA members in favor of Flexlume joining the group speaks to the quality of the Buffalo-based company’s work.

 

Martin’s decision to invest in new technology and equipment has helped the company stay on top of the uptick in business. Adopting new software for sales and project management has moved the company’s record-keeping into the twenty-first century. A new CMC 5000-series multicam router table has increased both the speed and accuracy at which workers can cut channel letters, the backbone of the sign business in 2018. With accounts for companies like M&T Bank, which has locations in several states, these kinds of efficiencies are gamechangers.

 

“It’s taken a while for us to get our team where we need to be, in terms of being motivated and excited about where we are going,” Martin says, “but now we’ve got it where we want it.” The company currently employs fifteen workers at its Main Street location. “We now thrive on the complicated and difficult jobs,” he remarks, pointing to the sign located on the sloped wall at the very top of the downtown Marriott as an example. ‘We want the hard jobs. We strive to meet challenges like those.”

 

“What has kept this company strong, through economic downturns and changes in technology, both under the Rowells and with us,” says Martin, “is that the quality of Flexlume’s work has never changed, it’s still the best. We’ll never take a shortcut.”

 

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