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November 5, 2018

Bursting at seams, Lewiston sign-maker finds the 'perfect tall building' to meet his needs

Courtesy / Northeast Commercial Brokers at Keller Williams Realty
Courtesy / Northeast Commercial Brokers at Keller Williams Realty
Neokraft Signs outgrew its current space at 686 Main St. in Lewiston. Owner Phil Bolduc found what he needed by purchasing 70 Commercial St. — a 47,720-square-foot building with a 18-foot ceiling height, on 1.72 acres — for $1.8 million. Two weeks later he sold the building at 686 Main St. to a confidential buyer who has redevelopment plans for the property.
Courtesy / Neokraft
From the 1960s, a Reliable Oil & Heating sign in Lewiston.
Courtesy / Neokraft
Neokraft owner Phil Bolduc at the Chestnut St. Arch in Portsmouth, N.H.

After unsuccessfully searching for larger space for his growing custom sign-making operation, Neokraft Signs owner and President Phil Bolduc had resigned himself to adding on to his existing space in Lewiston.

That was before he mentioned his dilemma to an electrician he was doing business with.

"He said, 'Instead of doing that, why don't you just buy my building?'" Bolduc recalled. "I said, 'No, I need a tall building.' He said, 'Well, I've got 18-foot ceilings.' I said, 'That's perfect.'"

Bolduc made a deal for the electrician's building, at 70 Commercial St. in Lewiston, then listed his own site, 686 Main St. — which sold in less than two weeks.

"The Realtor never even put a sign up," he said of 686 Main St. "I knew I had a good property there. But we didn't need that visibility."

Doubling the space

Courtesy / Northeast Commercial Brokers at Keller Williams Realty
Courtesy / Northeast Commercial Brokers at Keller Williams Realty
18-foot ceilings helped make 70 Commercial St. in Lewiston attractive for sign manufacturer Neokraft.

Bolduc not only got high ceilings but nearly double the space.

He purchased 70 Commercial St. — a 47,720-square-foot building with a 18-foot ceiling height, on 1.72 acres — for $1.8 million.

He sold 686 Main St. — a 15,000-square-foot brick building on 2.85 acres that's in great condition — to a confidential buyer who has redevelopment plans for the property. The building listed for $725,000, said Kevin Fletcher of Northeast Commercial Brokers at Keller Williams Realty.

Fletcher represented Bolduc in both transactions and represented the seller, a long-time client of his, in the 70 Commercial St. transaction.

Bolduc retains a leaseback at 686 Main St. until renovations at 70 Commercial St. are completed.

"The sale directly reflected Neokraft's expansion and need for more space," said Fletcher. "They're busting at the seams. The coolest part about this is that Neokraft was founded in Lewiston. I think this shows Phil's commitment to the community by staying in Lewiston."

Opportunities out there

The twin deals illustrate the strength of the Lewiston market, Fletcher added.

"There are still opportunities out there and there are still deals being done," he said. "And it's still significantly more affordable to buy an existing building than it is to build brand-new."

Bolduc said the plan is to make the move in March 2019.

"We have to do prep work to be able to move over there," he said.

That includes building a new office and moving in equipment.

Born and raised in Rumford, Bolduc worked as a kid with his father, who had an auto body shop.

"I learned to be jack-of-all-trades from my dad," he said.

He went through trade school and then joined the Navy, where he studied the metal trades and became a machinist. He went on to learn sign manufacturing from an uncle, then took at job with Neokraft in Lewiston in 1988.

Signs across Maine

Founded in 1947, Neokraft produced many custom signs across Maine for companies like Reliable Oil in Lewiston, Goodwin's Ice Cream in Auburn and Dexter Shoe Factory Outlets across the state, according to the Neokraft website.

In the 1980s, typical projects included the Casco Bay Municipal Ferry Terminal and the Marine Trade Center in Portland. Today, Neokraft's custom work can be found at the Portland International Jetport, Poland Spring Inn, Resort, Museum and Preservation Park in Poland, and the HBO miniseries "Empire Falls," which was filmed in Skowhegan and includes a number of the company's custom signs, including the Empire Grill.

Neokraft fabricates signs in-house, from drawing to installation. Jobs include everything from vinyl graphics to stick on vehicles, to the 1995 engineering and execution of an upgrade to the landmark Time & Temperature sign in Portland. The firm makes signs for collectors, corporate and retail educational, financial, health and science, food, drink and fun, and municipalities. The firm has 34 employees and makes signs for clients across the nation

In 2000, Bolduc, with Peter Murphy and Paul Lessard, purchased Neokraft from the lobozzo family. He bought out his partners in 2015.

Investment in technology

Courtesy / Neokraft
Courtesy / Neokraft
A lighted sign created for Oxford Casino.

The industry has changed significantly over the years, thanks to new technology, Bolduc said.

"We run more computerized equipment for cutting shapes," he said. "When you have individual letters, computer-controlled equipment cuts the letter backs and notches around the returns. In the old days you had to lay all that out by hand. That's something I invest in. I believe in tools and equipment because it allows your artisans to really do their jobs. It's a little less hands-on, but you still get to use that old-time skill set."

Another cool thing about the sign industry, he said, is that it employs quite a few different types of trades.

"We have graphic designers, electricians, carpenters, welders, masons, crane and equipment operators — it's endless, what we do," he said. "And now we have CNC operators."

As one of the few neon plants left in Maine, he has a separate neon plant that employs neon experts.

Bolduc said he stays competitive by cross-training his employees in the various skills.

Turning sideways

Bolduc had been looking for a new space a long time.

"I gave up a year-and-a-half, two years ago," he said.

Instead, he'd been working since this past January with engineers on plans for a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot addition. The company's height requirement was illustrated when the company produced a large outdoor arch to span the entrance of Chestnut Street, an arts district in Portsmouth, N.H.

"When we built the arch, it went up into the rafters," he said, adding that 70 Commercial St.'s 18-foot ceiling was perfect.

"We should have done this 10 years ago," Bolduc said of the move. "We're already jam-packed in our current place. Sometimes we're so busy that we have to turn sideways to get through our shop."

Business over the last three years, especially, has picked up significantly, he said.

"Everyone is busy in our trade," he said.

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