Lisandra “Lisa” Hernandez-Lopez entered the sign industry in 2003 when a family member became a licensed sign contractor and was establishing his company to subcontract from national sign companies. The family member needed an assistant sign installer and someone to assist with the administration for his start-up business.
With Hernandez-Lopez’s background in payroll, human resources, and information technology and her husband’s previous experience in the sign industry, the roles were a good fit, and both joined the company.
Since it was a startup sign company, Hernandez-Lopez soon found her hands in all the service coordinating, purchasing, permit expediting, and computer information technology system issues while also continuing to handle all the administrative duties. Any construction or signage processes she wasn’t familiar with she Googled or learned through her husband.
After becoming unemployed when the recession hit in 2008, Hernandez-Lopez landed at another sign company as a project coordinator on a highly demanding national account, working under a salesperson who recognized the potential in expanding her knowledge teaching her to read and skillfully understand architectural prints and general building construction. Hernandez-Lopez developed a passion for signs and saw potential long-term success in the industry.
It wasn’t until they were repeatedly prompted by their son to open their own sign company that they launched ELLA Signs, Inc., in 2017 with the intention of productively servicing customers in a prompt, professional manner.
When customers call ELLA Signs, they feel confident they will get someone on the other end of the line who is knowledgeable about signs and can address technical questions as needed. ELLA Signs had found its niche as a small subcontractor providing superior service to national sign customers.
When the pandemic hit a year ago, ELLA Signs stayed afloat thanks to its biggest project to date—the rebranding of multiple buildings in multiple locations in Southern California, expanding from the City of Palmdale to the City of Rancho Carmel in San Diego County.
When rebrand work slowed in September, ELLA Signs looked for a new location. Layoffs were inevitable at the start of this year to survive, but Hernandez-Lopez says the shop is slowly coming out of the hard times as it works to back to the work level it had prior to the pandemic.
We spoke with Hernandez-Lopez about the challenges of being a woman leader and the changes she’s made to her company.
Tell our readers more about your role at ELLA Signs.
My role at ELLA Signs has always weighed heavily on my shoulders, beginning with me preparing, studying, and passing the state licensing exam. Now in hindsight, it was not difficult in comparison to navigating through the process of structuring the business as a corporation and the tax ramifications and benefits. The need for me to be well versed in everything from taxes, insurances, human resources, accounts payable and accounts receivable, etc. is something I learned to enjoy doing.
The energy others see in me when handling all those roles will inevitably direct the energy of others in their roles at ELLA Signs. The selection of individuals interested in coming on board with ELLA Signs is a role I hold with great importance because if the individual selected mistakenly ends up being a bad fit to the team, it may be difficult to correct the choice without costing a business money. Some key positions, such as Chief Operations Officer, I was fortunate to find the ideal candidate for within my family. My sister Michelle, who I brought into the sign industry eight years prior, is much like a clone of me.
Together now, my role at ELLA Signs has been lighter: coming up with ideas, direction, and finding an approach to the many speed bumps we encounter throughout our day-to-day functions.
What are some of the challenges of running a company?
In the first two-and-a-half years of ELLA Signs’ existence, a challenge in running the company were the job titles of Chief Executive Officer/President. Being identified with such important job titles in a small business seemed too big of a leap for me in my career, although leading, planning, and executing strategies were duties I handled without any hesitation.
The doubt or feelings of insecurity I felt in my capabilities as CEO of the company required me to overcome them so I could proceed successfully. It would be only then that I could value my effect on ELLA Signs as equal to those by CEOs at large multi-million-dollar corporations. The negative comparison was only a perspective in my mind because the impact to the company did not go unnoticed by others.
Another challenge for me is one I have seen not only as CEO of ELLA Signs but at many sign companies throughout my time in the industry. It feels as if the sign industry may be a dying trade at times.
There are individuals who have been working in trade for many, many years, contributing so much with all their in-depth knowledge and experience, but choosing to continue in doing things in an antiquated manner and not wishing to change anything they feel is not “broken.” This resistance limits the potential for union of the skilled tradesman and an eager apprentice in the sign industry.
Technology now affords us to service customers in a real-time manner allowing the upload and retrieval of photos from virtual clouds in an instant, as well as job site forms filled out/sent electronically, and the ability to speak directly with customers via FaceTime or Google Duo from the field when needed.
What are some of the changes you’ve made during your time as CEO?
With ELLA Signs being a small sign company that is looking to keep growing as much as possible, changes and enhancements happen often.
One of the first changes that felt quite necessary was the need to implement a time-tracking system that would alleviate the headaches in creating work schedules, collecting timecards, and running payroll. Using paper timecards versus a phone application was such a benefit for the administrative staff as well as for employees. It was a costly expense to absorb for a small business, but eventually, the administrative hours spent handling these duties were cut.
Figuring out that ELLA Signs could subtly and continuously remind customers of its value in service by incorporating short taglines on our email templates, forms, and correspondence was a small but necessary enhancement. I feel what it conveys is our priorities and core values we hold for our customer that often are forgotten as necessary when seeking out a vendor through an estimate on a project.
The small detail can essentially help remind the customer to not only consider the bottom figure, but that the vendor who shows up on their project is a representation of themselves.