When it’s all too easy to run merrily through the same process day-in and day-out, somebody needs to push the envelope.
Gemini, a second-generation family-owned signage and case manufacturer, does exactly that. Equipped with unique technology that is unparalleled by others in the industry and with a history of breaking ground in what is possible to create, this company has led the charge in advancing custom signage.
The business was nurtured from the ground up by Jim and Sharon Weinel (starting in the Weinel’s garage in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, back in 1963) and is instilled with the family’s unshakeable core values of exceptional customer service, taking care of the people who work at your company, and ethically delivering a quality product – intentional, hard-earned values that truly distinguish the company from its competitors and many other companies for that matter.
When Fred Oss took over as President of Gemini 13 years ago, he set out with the goal of continuing this legacy with a strong desire to keep pushing the industry forward. Here, Oss speaks on the core values that have fueled the Cannon Falls, Minnesota-based manufacturer to the national stage of the sign industry and how the company plans to draw upon its wisdom to pave the way for a new frontier of innovation in years to come.
Q. Before we discuss where Gemini is going, can you tell us about the Gemini of today?
Oss: Gemini is a company that serves our people as well as our customers, and our focus is on custom manufacturing. Being able to take a customer's 2D dream or idea and turn it into something fully dimensional, that's really what we are known for. Whether it's stainless-steel fabrication or lighting, we lead the market by providing things that people either can't do themselves or that we can create better than what they are capable of themselves.
Q. Where do you think the company – and the industry as a whole – is going?
Oss: Customers continue to demand higher levels of service. Anyone can buy a product online and have it delivered incredibly fast these days, and that has had an impact on every industry. The goal now is not just being more convenient than another manufacturer, it's being able to stay as convenient as all these other segments that our customers deal with daily.
A large part of that is our customers are demanding even more integration with our operations. It's funny to think that there used to be a time when a customer would order something, and they get it when they get it. Now, we have every step of the process tracked through an online system. This process is going to become even more seamless for our customers in years to come, and that will extend beyond order tracking.
The largest challenge sign shops have these days is solving their customer’s problems, and that’s where we want to help. People are coming into sign shops with all kinds of questions, such as: I want a sign, and this is what I want to decorate, but how do I make that happen? Or: How do I drive more sales for my business by putting up a sign? We are striving to use our expertise to grow that front-end influence and offer guidance for those customers to accompany our back-end operations that are very strong right now.
Q. Through the pandemic, more people ordered online than ever before, and it's been calling into question the future of the in-person shopping experience and even the future of the in-person workplace. Where do you see those variables affecting the signage business?
Oss: Signage is much more than just a means of identification. Signage is somebody's brand. It's their identity. Think, for example, you drive by a brick building that has signage on it that is outdated or peeling. That initial impression is going to reflect poorly on the business.
If you go to an attorney's office and you look behind the front desk and there's polished metal signage in stainless steel or bronze, it looks nice and professional. That gives you an idea of who you're dealing with. I don't ever see that need fully going away.
Will it change over time? Yes, for sure. The industry is constantly changing, and signage has its own trend cycles. For example, neon and awnings were popular not too long ago, and the era of the billboard was in the '7Os, but now that's started to taper back. The technology will morph into something new, and with that, there's always going to be a need to refresh and rebrand both exterior and interior signage.
Q. Can you speak to the investments that Gemini is putting into the business?
Oss: I think that applies to any one of our products, whether it's Gemstar cases, the new sheet line that we put out in 2015, our first cleanroom technology, or our robotics, all those investments will propel future growth for us. I often quote another family business that says, “We don't think quarter to quarter. We think generation to generation.” Making those investments that provide that continued growth is critical.
Q. Why does it matter that Gemini keeps investing in your business?
Oss: When a company doesn’t invest, it gets stale. It's like being in a river. You can never stay in the same space. The minute you stop, you’re actually going backward.
Many businesses will consolidate a segment of an industry, strip out all the costs, get rid of a lot of high-priced talent, strip out all the profitability and sell the business. But at the end of the day, those practices don't leave any room for future growth.
We have a number of employees who are here today because they know that we are investing in the future, and that means we want long-term stability and growth for our employees as well as our technology. At Gemini, we have always maintained full working hours and have never had to lay off any of our people – even during the Great Recession or the recent pandemic. I feel really good about that.
We won’t be the next darling of Silicon Valley. That's not who we are. But when we make an investment and we can figure out how to leverage that with our customers, it secures our position in the market. It provides for greater profitability and greater stability to be able to continue that growth.
Q. Why do investments matter to the signage industry as a whole?
Oss: The robotics at Gemstar are a great example of that. If you stop by building six in Cannon Falls, our extrusion building, you’ll get to see the first cleanroom technology used in our industry. That investment puts us in a position to make a quality product that nobody else could come close to. Once we did that, other competitors had to follow suit, which they didn’t necessarily want to do. That kind of investment is going to power the industry for years and has put Gemini in a position where we're not going to be easy to unseat no matter who is out there.
Q. Has the change in technology allowed both you and your customers to find new levels of creativity that weren't around 20 years ago?
Oss: Absolutely. Some of the finishes and advanced materials that are available allow you to be much more creative. I’ve found the biggest game-changer was the introduction of LED lighting. It used to be that the only way to light a sign was to use incandescent bulbs with light sockets or neon. From a retro standpoint, neon is fantastic, but as far as being user-friendly, it falls short. It can be dangerous, costly, and fragile if done incorrectly.
12-volt LED lighting looks great, ships well, saves energy, and continues to go down in cost. As time goes on, they keep getting smaller, brighter, and more energy-efficient, and you have more color options. That really opens your arena of what you can achieve creatively with signage.
Q. What would Jim Weinel, the founder of Gemini, think about the Gemini of today?
Oss: Jim, who is my father-in-law, gave me four words of advice when he finally turned over the keys: "Don't screw it up." I say that with a smile.
We go about doing business in very different ways, but we share a lot of core principles that are very much the same. I think he always felt comfortable with where we were going because we never wavered from those core principles. He saw that I had a vision of growing the business, continuing to strive to make it better for our people and for our customers. Those are things that Jim would recognize in our business today. In his mind, if you do those things, of course, you're going to do well. And we have. Jim built a solid foundation for us, and the team we have in place today is going to keep building on it.
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