Janesville business a sign of the times

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Friday, January 21, 2011
— Go ahead and call Dave Babcock a dumb optimist.

He’s heard it before, but it’s a personality trait that’s helped the Janesville businessman fare well.

Fifteen years ago, Babcock started his outdoor sign business with 10 years experience in the industry but no outdoor signs.

Now, he’s got 350 in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

Babcock started what was then called Babcock Outdoor Advertising by leasing a couple of billboards. He cashed out a 401(k) account to build three billboards and then took those assets to his bank for loans to build more.

He operated that way for five years, gradually building a portfolio that approached 50 signs. He bought a competing company, and suddenly his inventory jumped nearly tenfold.

“I look back on it now as an entrepreneur, and people always ask me if I was ever afraid,” said Babcock, whose company, Babcock Signs, is at 966 Center Ave. “I was never scared. I put everything I had in to making it happen, and I truly believed in it.

“I was naïve, but I think to be a successful you have to have that entrepreneurial naïveté. I’m happy to say I paid back all that money, and the company is now in very good shape.”

Call it naïveté or call it dumb optimism.

Either way, it’s the same aggressive approach that today drives Babcock Signs, which employs 10 people as both a billboard advertising company and full-service sign contractor.

Babcock is building a 4,100-square-foot production facility next to the company’s office. He knocked down a couple of “sad” looking buildings to make way for the new building, which he said will dramatically improve the looks of the property that sits on a major city corridor.

For 11 years, he’s leased a larger space across busy Center Avenue.

“I just wanted to consolidate our operation on this side of the street,” he said. “We’re losing some space, but we’ll become much more efficient.”

While Babcock has somewhat scaled back the business—particularly on the sign side—investing in a new building during a difficult economy was not a difficult decision, he said.

“Our business is established, and Milly and I believe in this area,” Babcock said in reference to his wife. “There are a lot of good things going on in this community, and it’s just as vibrant as any of the communities I do business in.”

The loss of General Motors and its suppliers was a blow for the community, he said, but it wasn’t the knockout punch many expected.

Unfortunately, he said, the plant closings came at the same time the economy was tanking.

“Lots of people lost jobs at places that didn’t have anything to do with GM,” said Babcock, who earlier worked for 12 years on the assembly line at the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Ill.

Still, Babcock maintains his optimism.

Janesville continues to be a retail hub, and it has a solid mix of large and small manufacturers and an educated workforce, he said.

The city offers outstanding health care, and that will become more diverse when the St. Mary’s Janesville Hospital and Dean Clinic open early next year.

“Janesville will grow, and we’ll attract companies,” he said. “We have everything in place and are well positioned for when things turn around, and they will turn around.

“There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic, so pulling the trigger on a new building was really a no-brainer.”

Babcock said the new building will dramatically improve efficiencies for the business, which works within a 100-mile radius of Janesville.

His billboards are competing with newspapers, radio, television and the Internet for customers

“Advertising dollars are much more spread out than they used to be,” he said. “There’s much more competition, so we can’t really get the price increases we’d like.

“In our industry, about the only way to grow is to acquire other companies.”

Babcock said it’s becoming more difficult to site new billboards because of tougher zoning requirements, and billboard rates are driven by location and traffic counts.

Often, those rules are different in every community where Babcock does business.

Still, he’s adding four new billboards this year: one in Monroe and three in northern Illinois.

“The tough thing about our business is that it’s hard to build new structures, but the good thing about our industry is that it makes our inventory more valuable,” he said.

Last updated: 4:01 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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