Executive Q&A: Stephen Saak, an Oklahoma City entrepreneur, reads the signs

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign: Oklahoma businessman grows retail sign company he started at age 19 with $100.
BY PAULA BURKES pburkes@opubco.com Published: June 24, 2012
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Stephen Saak once considered selling his successful, 40-year-old retail sign business, S&S Promotions — and credits a business coach for the motivation to keep and grow it.

“I met Phil Engle at a Shorty Small's for lunch, and he asked me if I wanted to fix my company or liquidate it. When I said ‘I don't know,' he just got up and walked out, telling me to call him when I'd made a decision,” Saak said.

Saak opted for a growth plan, and within three years, S&S was lauded as one America's fastest growing urban businesses by New York-based Inc. magazine and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber. Since 1994, when annual revenues were about $800,000, sales have shot up six- to sevenfold, Saak said. Sonic Corp. and Macklanburg-Duncan are among the larger organizations served by the sign company, which employs 30.

From his offices at 1717 S Pennsylvania — in a 50,000-square-foot building he totally refurbished five years ago — Saak, 58, recently sat down with The Oklahoman to talk about his personal and professional life. This is an edited transcript:

Q: Can you tell us about your roots?

A: I like to joke that I'm the son of mother Mary and Father Saak. My mother's name is Mary (Waxwell), and my dad, the late Bill Saak, after a secular career, became an Episcopal priest. He was a clergyman at St. Paul's Cathedral downtown and the chaplain for the Episcopalian Diocese of Oklahoma. I have two sisters, three and six years older. Our parents divorced when I was 8. But we remained close to both of them. My mother, who ran a car dealership with my stepfather, instilled in me a sense of discipline. From her, I learned that I deserved everything I earned — and nothing more. My father, who was very affectionate, taught me not to be self-absorbed and that there's nothing more important than relationships. Whether you wreck a car or misprint a job, the relationships with the people involved are what's important.

Q: What were the highlights of your school days?

A: I played the drums in a garage band, Spellbinders, in high school, but mainly I worked. In fifth or sixth grade, I was mowing lawns and contracting others to help me and, during junior high, I'd frequently work until 11 p.m. at El Rancho Sanchez, as a busboy. For me it wasn't so much about the money, but the independence. In high school at U.S. Grant, I took vo-tech courses, where I learned graphic arts. Most of the time, I was doing on-the-job training at The Oklahoma Journal in Midwest City.

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PERSONALLY SPEAKING

Position: Chief executive, S&S Promotions

Birth date: July 21, 1953

Family: Lacy, wife of 13 years (his father officiated at their wedding); sons Eric, 39; Nick, 29; and Alex, 24; two granddaughters, 4 and 5 months, and an infant grandson

Civic involvement: Serves on the boards of Creative Oklahoma Inc., and the University of Oklahoma School of Dance

Hobbies: He plays the drums with two bands: Sons of Thunder and Old Men with Issues; reading, boating and “reloading” at his retreat on Lake Hiwassee; and with Lacy, gardening, attending concerts and dinners out with friends

Favorite book and movie: “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand and “The Shawshank Redemption.” He appreciates the free market capitalism theme of “Shrugged” and in “Shawshank,” the willful perseverance of the wrongly jailed lead character to correct his situation

Latest reads: “Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson and “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, from which he reads almost daily

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