UI helps Grinnell sign-maker expand to global markets
Monday, March 7, 2016

A Grinnell-based sign company is looking to expand its market outside the United States and sell its products in the Middle East, thanks to the work of a group of University of Iowa students.

The students were taking an entrepreneurial class through the university’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and Institute for International Business, where they performed a market study as part of their class assignment. Tom Latimer, president and CEO of ASI Signage, says his company had dabbled in the Middle East before, but with limited success.

“We’d bid on multiple projects but didn’t get any of them, and we didn’t want to waste our time anymore,” says Latimer. “So we wanted to determine if it would be profitable for us to more actively market to potential clients in that part of the world—and how to do it.”

The students’ report focused on the sign market for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates and determined that there is a market, especially for ASI, whose niche is signs for education and health care organizations (the company has manufactured many signs for the University of Iowa and University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics campuses). The report noted that education and health care are two rapidly growing fields in those countries, and about $90 billion in construction of education and health care–related facilities will be underway by 2020.

two men looking as a third man points
Dime Doresca (left), lecturer in the UI's Henry B. Tippie College of Business and director of the UI Institute for International Business, and Hassan Alsaeed (center), a student in the entrepreneurial class offered through the university’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center and Institute for International Business, listen as ASI Signage's Michael McKeag gestures inside the Grinnell-based company's work area. Photo by Tim Schoon.

“All those new buildings will need signs,” says Latimer, whose other clients include the Iowa Farm Bureau, Rockwell Collins, and the Principal Financial Group. He says a market of that size could generate upwards of $1 million in annual revenue for the company, if it hired an agent to do some serious marketing there, and could lead to significant growth for the company, which has 100 employees.

It helped that two of the students on the team are from Saudi Arabia and have an in-depth understanding of the region’s culture and politics. Hassan Alsaeed, the team leader and one of those students, says he appreciated the opportunity to work with ASI and develop strong relationships with its management group.

“It was not required for the students to meet the clients we were working with, but we thought we should meet them in person because I know that a relationship is a bridge,” Alsaeed says. “We met Tom in Grinnell—he was the most welcoming person ever, and he invited us to have lunch with him and his team. We learned about them a lot and they learned about us and that helped us to do our work right and to know how to communicate with them.”

The ASI project was one of several the students worked on during the fall semester through the Institute for International Business. Other clients included Happy Joe’s Pizza of Bettendorf and Higher Learning Technologies and Cardiostrong of Iowa City.