Wide-Format Graphics Make the Magnificent Mile More Magnificent
After a decade in the ad agency world, Shira Kollins took her graphic design and production background and launched SpeedPro Chicago.
After a decade in the ad agency world, Shira Kollins took her graphic design and production background and launched SpeedPro Chicago. By taking an active role in local business associations—and being “pleasantly persistent” when it comes to sales and marketing—she has built a business creating cutting-edge display graphics for some of Chicago’s biggest retailers and restaurants.
“I wanted to bring the ad agency world into a small business environment as much as possible because I enjoyed it and that was where I really learned everything,” said Shira Kollins, founder and owner of SpeedPro Chicago. Kollins and her three-person team produce interior and exterior signage, window graphics, fleet wraps, environmental graphics, trade show and event displays—virtually anything you can think of—for many of Chicago’s biggest retail locations. It’s a lot of work—14-plus-hour days are not unknown—but it’s also not without play, as Kollins strives to maintain an optimal work-life balance for herself and her team, and ensure that they enjoy what they do. And it’s paying off; for the eight-year-old business, 2018 has been a banner year—and Speedpro Chicago prints much more than banners.
Like a lot of wide-format shop owners, Kollins began her career as a graphic designer, but printing was in the bloodline. “I came from a commercial printing background because I grew up with it in my house,” said Kollins, who was raised in Minneapolis. “My mom did invitations back in the day, and I would go to press checks.” Kollins was interested in the arts and studied graphic design at DePaul University in Chicago and went right into the ad agency world. For the next 10 years, she worked as production manager for an ad agency and later art director for a high-end fashion magazine. Then the 2008 recession hit. “That’s when I started to research other options and freelanced as a designer,” she said. “I had my own freelance company for a couple years and realized that I needed something more stable.” So, in 2009, she started weighing her options, which led to opening SpeedPro Chicago in July 2010, which was the first SpeedPro franchise in the Windy City.
At the time, the nearest SpeedPro was in Madison, Wis., and as Kollins was ramping up, she would occasionally get projects printed up there—putting a lot of miles on her car dropping off and picking up jobs, and doing installations even as she was outfitting her own facility.
Having a background in the ad agency world was a great advantage. “I never burn any bridges, and a lot of my employers and even my old coworkers in the agency world have become some of my biggest clients.”
A large chunk of Kollins’ business is what has come to be known as environmental graphics—SpeedPro Chicago does a lot of build-outs of new offices and develops creative office environments—but it’s in Chicago’s high-end retail realm that she has made her mark. “We do a lot of short-term activation projects with big marketing brands that need installations across the U.S.” she said. Those installations also include vehicle and fleet wraps. “We did vehicle wraps for an agency out of New York for Dos Equis that went on 18 different modified non-templated food trucks for three days and that was our largest nationwide wrap job,” she said.
A landmark client was Eataly, the large-footprint Italian marketplace that includes restaurants, food and beverage counters, bakeries, retail shops, and even a cooking school. Eataly Chicago opened in 2013 (there are other locations in New York, Boston, L.A., and one coming in Las Vegas), and SpeedPro Chicago is the Chicago location’s sole vendor, doing a wide variety of interior and exterior graphics. It’s also a big source of repeat business. “Every other month there’s a huge promotion,” Kollins said. “We do hanging signs, wrapped canvases, half-inch gator board, all sorts of temporary decals, and creative window graphics.” Through partners who have CNC routers, SpeedPro Chicago is also able to do 3D lettering.
The relationship with Eataly, and many of her other clients, came about thanks to Kollins’ heavy involvement in the Magnificent Mile Association, a business development organization serving Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile commercial district, especially the high-end retailers along Michigan Avenue. “I’ve been part of that association for five or six years, I’m on multiple boards, and I network with different building management groups,” she said. Calling and emailing don’t always yield immediate rewards, but Kollins describes herself as “pleasantly persistent”—which eventually led to a meeting with Eataly when they were scoping out spaces in the city. “It was $150,000 job just to begin with,” she said. And the relationship continues. “I’d say about a fifth of our business is purely Eataly.”
“We get a lot of custom design needs,” she added, “which is probably my biggest selling point because of my creative background,” Kollins said. “You can’t take the art director out of the owner!” She is also quick to sing the praises of her team. “I have an amazing production manager who can just whip things together. I have a lot of confidence going into any job that we can make it look amazing. And we have a lot of fun here, which is important.” In addition to herself and her production manager, she also added a marketing/project manager at the beginning of 2018. Yes, all the work that SpeedPro Chicago does is done by three people.
Kollins’ workhorse output device is a Roland Texart—capable of white and metallic ink—that often runs overnight. The 3,000-square-foot studio is part showroom as well as production facility. The facility also has a converted vehicle bay where they keep substrates in a climate-controlled environment.
Being a small company helped land the Eataly account. Early on, the owners of Eataly had wanted to visit Kollins’ studio, she said, “so I brought the Eataly corporate team to my studio, set them up in our conference room, and they said, ‘Honestly, we’d be worried if you had more people because we’re a small team, as well, and that’s what we’re looking for in a partner, someone who clearly runs an efficient company.’”
Kollins also works with about 25 other SpeedPro studios to handle volume as well as out-of-town work. She also has several teams of local installers and a network of 20 nationwide installers to handle projects as far away as New Mexico, L.A., or Long Island. One recent installation was at a Foot Locker in a Long Island mall, where SpeedPro Chicago had been hired by the agency overseeing a new Adidas product launch. “These activations are pretty key for us,” said Kollins. “So these marketing agencies are a huge part of our business.”
Kollins and her team also do a lot of trade show and other event graphics, as well as window graphics for local organizations. SpeedPro Chicago has done several window projects for the Joffrey Ballet, which require a combination of opaque and translucent images. “We do a lot of really interesting reverse printing on clear substrates,” said Kollins.
SpeedPro Chicago has also done 45-foot bus wraps for local businessman and politician J.B. Pritzker, known locally as “the billionaire on the bus” (who was just elected Governor of Illinois). As any printer can sympathize, getting materials and approval was a challenge and it ended up being a stressful, last-minute print run that required Kollins’ production manager to spend a weekend getting it printed and installed.
Despite the heavy workload, Kollins doesn’t like to make overtime a habit. “I want people to go and enjoy their lives and have that work-life balance,” she said. “It’s really important to me.”
“We're not an old school sign shop that’s for sure,” added Kollins, who loves to keep pushing the limits of what is possible with display graphics. “We call it ‘impact graphics’ for a reason. If my graphics aren’t making your head turn or making my my client’s marketing dollars well-spent, if they can’t see a payoff or we can’t make them look better, than then I’m not doing my job.”