At age 61, Reuven Rahamim remained as passionate as a twenty-something entrepreneur with his first customer.
During an interview the day he was killed in September, Rahamim discussed Accent Signage’s past and future with a freelance writer on assignment for the Star Tribune. As a wholesaler, Accent didn’t have a huge public presence, although it is well known in the interior commercial sign industry for its pioneering Braille signage system.
Earlier in 2012, at the invitation of Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Rahamim attended a White House meeting on job creation. After touring the plant last August, the U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce blogged about Accent as “a gleaming example of a business that is successfully competing abroad.”
Accent was planning to expand as it deepened a relationship with a global retailer Rahamim said he couldn’t name. He loved his work, he said, and expected to be there at 95. “Retirement is not in my lexicon.”
As he told it, Rahamim’s story was a classic immigrant tale.
Rahamim had grown up in Israel on a farm with no running water and an outhouse, he said. An old black and white photo his mother gave him the last he saw her shows him at about age 14 working in a sign shop.
In search of opportunity, he emigrated in the 1970s, joining relatives in the Twin Cities. After a two-year program at the Dunwoody College of Technology he went into plastics molding.
“In Israel, they used to say in America you find the golden street,” Rahamim said. “And it’s absolutely true. If you want to apply yourself, you want to work.”
He founded Accent Signage in 1984 in the basement of his house, venturing into Braille after St. Catherine University, which offers degree programs for the blind, ordered some signs.
“I thought, it’s not a big deal. I’ll take a drill press. I’ll drill a bunch of holes,” Rahamim recalled. “I went to an aquarium store, I got a little fish pump. I used it to suck up one of those balls and push them in by hand.”
The first results were less than stellar, recalled Deborah Churchill, now a St. Catherine professor, who placed the order. Rahamim worked with Churchill and some blind students until he got the Braille right.
What eventually emerged was the patented Braille technology on which he built Accent, a method of punching tiny acrylic beads into precisely drilled holes so that the fingers roll over the dots more smoothly and accurately.
“He was so passionate about wanting his product to be high quality — I have remembered that for years about him,” Churchill recalled.
Reuven saved the aquarium pump. The wooden ball attached to the tube, presumably as a grip, looks scuffed and worn.
With the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, which required public and commercial facilities to put up Braille signage, Accent Signage took off. It became one of the top manufacturers in the world for interior Braille language signs, with licensees in 38 countries.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury who writes a weekly small business column for the Star Tribune.