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Highway Signs Company Adapts, Maximizes Market Opportunities

May 27, 2022 01:38PM ● By Dwain Hebda
highway signing employees in neon vests

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Except for the name, people who pay Highway Signing Inc. only cursory attention may think little has changed since CEO Matt Fatka bought the assets in 2007 of what was then known as Highway Barricades.

Those who have been watching more closely, however, have seen the Council Bluffs company modernize and expand to include a comprehensive suite of services for the highway construction industry. There’s also a tsunami of federal infrastructural dollars on the way, so opportunity abounds for the 50-person firm in the years to come. 

“In the past, it used to be everyone kind of had their silo. You had the painting company over here and the concrete barrier company over there,” Fatka said. “When we purchased the company in 2007, all they did was mainly traffic control, putting up signs and putting up barricades.”

He continued, “Now, we want to supply one package. Instead of clients having to hire five or six subcontractors to come in and do all these little things, they can just hire us, one contractor that can do all of it.”

To accomplish this, Fatka has put his money between the rubber and the road, investing in equipment and processes to apply specialized striping. This represents a high capital investment, although Fatka wouldn’t disclose specific numbers.  

“Pretty much, if it’s anything in a construction zone, we now supply it,” he said. “We even took on installing rumble strips. We can cut out the rumble strips you see on the center line or on the edge line.”

The march toward turnkey highway services reflects Fatka’s single-minded focus on the future, something that’s been his hallmark since the beginning. Joining the firm from a competitor at age 23, he worked his way up through various leadership roles before buying out ownership partners. Once in the driver’s seat, the only direction was forward for the upstart CEO. 

“It was definitely an eye-opening purchase, to put it nicely. We learned a lot,” he said. “In our competitive landscape, there are a lot of companies always wanting to move in on our area. There’s always outside state contractors wanting to come in. It goes back to maintaining and building the relationships you’ve already had. On top of that, being able to perform; if you can’t perform, talk is cheap.”

Highway Signing has worked with Constructors Inc. since 2017, a relationship that has flourished on the strength of quality work and relationships.

“As a prime contractor, I’m not too often hunting down signing companies. We have probably five different competitive bidding sign contractors in our area other than Highway Signing,” said Jarred Horsky, asphalt project manager. “When we first started working with them, some of the guys that are now in management were out in the field. We’ve had the chance to work together and their flexibility and innovation as a company is just awesome.”

The company’s performance is all the more impressive given the shortages and price spikes it has endured as a result of supply chain issues.

“It’s unbelievable right now,” Fatka said. “Price escalation and supply chain is nuts. There’s product that doesn’t even exist. You can’t even get it. And what is available, the price went through the roof. If we can get a product, we’re paying at least 30 to 100-plus percent more than we were paying a year to two years ago.”

He continued, “Unfortunately, we’re bidding these projects a year or two previous, so we’re having to absorb all those price increases for everything. It’s all the way down to a pickup truck or a roll of tape. Every week, we’re getting notices of a 20% increase.”

Highway Signing’s performance under such pressure has earned it legions of satisfied clients throughout its regional marketplace. The company does work in Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, northwest Missouri, Iowa, and—now and again—as far away as Kentucky and Indiana. The company’s reputation has also positioned it well to acquire its share of the work that’s coming in the next few years thanks to an influx of federal infrastructure dollars.

“Obviously, everyone is excited and very eager to see what it’s going to look like,” Fatka said. “We’ve seen generalities of what this might look like but nothing in stone yet. As far as what we’re doing to be proactive on it, the biggest thing is just making sure we’re putting people in the right seats. One of my failures in the past was ‘next man up’ based solely on tenure. Well, not everybody is meant to be a supervisor or a manager or lead a big crew.”

“When you promote people into the wrong seat, unfortunately, you lose what was possibly one of your best operators. I’ve learned how to be better at putting the right people in the right seats, so when these projects do come down the pike, we’re ready to go. I feel like we’ve been building for this moment for years.”

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This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022  issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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