For career variety, the working life of Riley Gunnels is hard to top.
The top is where he started, as a defensive end for the championship Philadelphia Eagles of 1960, part of his eight seasons in the National Football League.
Since then, he has owned a chain of delis in Alabama, a couple of coal-testing labs in western Pennsylvania, and then spent a dozen years in player development at the Sands and other casino hotels in Atlantic City.
Thirteen years ago, Gunnels decided to go back into business for himself, in yet another field: printing.
His Signal Graphics franchise shop started in 1999 in a small shopping center on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, about a mile from its current and bigger Tilton Road location in the township.
Perhaps Gunnels was hoping to blitz the market, but it called an audible on him and nearly eluded his new business.
“We opened the business up thinking there would be a big walk-in business, that kind of thing,” Gunnels said, but that was not the case. “We don’t do too much walk-in business.”
So Signal Graphics struggled to break even and survive its first few years.
“We went through some tough times, but we kept going,” he said. “We did a good business with the casinos, which sometimes pay you a little slowly and that didn’t help matters.”
For that reason, he had tried to limit casino business to less than 20 percent of the shop’s revenue, he said.
What he found instead was that there was another market for his print shop’s forms, stationery, fliers and such — small businesses and organizations, especially medical and government.
“We really didn’t intend to push toward the professionals’ business such as law firms, doctors and schools, but that’s what we did,” Gunnels said.
Now, some of Signal Graphics’ biggest customers are medical offices, pharmacies, municipalities and community groups. “Local banks, too. Two of them, we do all of their work,” he said.
The casino work moved below Gunnels’ intended limit on its own as the local industry lost business to the slumping economy and increased regional gambling competition.
The unexpected market Signal Graphics found was good enough that with hard work, the shop earned four straight honors as a top volume producer in the Franchise Services Inc. network of 500 shops in 13 countries.
“We’ve been hustling, trying to give customers a good product and fast turnaround,” Gunnels said.
The shop’s challenges in the downturn have been shared throughout the industry.
The National Association for Printing Leadership expects growth of nearly 3 percent this year, but that would still leave sales down 20 percent from their peak before the recession.
Besides the economy, print shops face many of the same digital and online challenges as others in print media, with some communication moving to electronic forms from paper versions.
Gunnels said he’s moving that way, too, with a graphics designer who is helping businesses with marketing campaigns across the digital and print worlds. To expand that segment, he’s looking to add graphic artists to the shop’s staff of 12.
His key partner in Signal Graphics — and everything else in his varied career — is Kay Gunnels, his wife of 48 years.
“She does a little bit of everything and is our customer relations person primarily,” Riley Gunnels said. “We’re together 24 hours a day.”
In the early days of their Signal Graphics shop, many of those hours together were spent making good on excessive promises.
“We’d take jobs that we’d need a little more experience to do. Now we laugh about them,” Gunnels said.
“We wanted work so bad we’d take just about anything. My wife, family and myself would work all night and day and weekends to get jobs done. We kind of overcommitted ourselves,” he said.
“You learn by doing.”
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