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.
Q: And college?
A: I took a few semesters at Rose and Oklahoma City Community College, but the classes bored me. I'd already started the process of starting my own business, where I thought I'd learn more. At one time, I aspired to be an architect but, when I learned how much math I had to take, I settled on graphic arts. I started my business in 1972 at age 19 with $100. For the first few years, I had a partner — a guy I met in vo-tech whose last name also began with S, hence the name S&S Promotions. One of our first jobs was printing decorative car plates, on which we made a dime a plate, which was big money then. For the first few months, we worked from a friend's garage, until I rented my first office space: 1,200 square feet at 100 N Classen. I bought my first press on Aug. 19, 1974, for $1,873. I still have the cleared check.
Q: What makes up the bulk of your work today?
A: Digital printing. We recently sold our last six-color press to an outfit in South America. Today, we use, along with other equipment, two Belgium presses originally manufactured for publishing single runs of books. We've built a website and can collect variable data for varying menus at separate Sonic or other stores, so we can print signs for customers within days versus four months or more.
Along with Sonic and Macklanburg-Duncan, other companies, for whom we're lucky to work, include QuikTrip and Tyler Media.
Recent special projects include the rock 'n' roll display for the Oklahoma History Center's film exhibit and the five-story Thunder banner that wraps the MidFirst building off Interstate 44.
Q: What's your favorite quote, and why?
A: “If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less” by General Eric Shinseki, retired chief of staff of the U.S. Army. It's the screen saver on my computer screen. I get it. We've got to embrace technological changes and question our processes every day.