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Lyle Hanzal, left, and Roger Olson worked together for 34 years before starting Advantage Sign Supply Inc. in Roseville.

Joey Mcleister, Special to the Star Tribune

New career in old industry works to his advantage

  • Article by: SUZY FRISCH
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • April 3, 2012 - 1:55 PM

Roger Olson spent 34 years at a distribution company, rising to positions of increasingly greater responsibility and helping grow the firm from $1 million in sales to $100 million.

But then the owner's wife took over the business when the owner passed away, and after a few years it appeared she wanted her own management team -- and three vice presidents, including Olson, were let go.

Olson specialized in sales and marketing at the privately held sign and digital graphics distributor. He knew the industry inside and out, having launched his career calling on customers and making sales across the Midwest. When Olson left the company, his experience included vice president of sales and marketing and vice president of purchasing and IT.

Olson said the layoff wasn't unexpected, but the way it was handled still stung. He decided to make the most of it anyway. He would find a way to become owner or part owner of a different company and drive his own destiny for the rest of his career.

"Sometimes things happen for a reason and you have to take advantage of it and go out and see what you can do on your own," said Olson, 56. "Part of it is having enough belief in yourself and seeing that I have an opportunity to do something different. It wasn't chasing a dream that I always wanted to work for myself. But when the opportunity presented itself it made a lot of sense."

After being laid off in January 2010, Olson had to sit out a one-year non-compete agreement. This gave him time to reflect and thoroughly evaluate what he wanted to do. He considered several options, including finding a job in the same industry, transitioning to employment in a new industry, purchasing a franchise, or taking an ownership stake in another company.

After thoroughly vetting the prospect of purchasing a home health care company franchise, Olson concluded that he didn't want to learn an entirely new industry. Eventually he partnered with his former co-worker, Lyle Hanzal, who was laid off at the same time as Olson. They agreed they both wanted to get back into what they knew best -- the sign and graphics distribution business.

They focused on finding a company that wanted to expand to the Twin Cities or that would let them buy into their business. That way Olson and Hanzal could distribute the company's existing brands and not have to start from scratch building those relationships.

They found a willing partner in Advantage Sign Supply, a Grand Rapids, Mich., distributor that entered into a joint venture with Olson and Hanzal.

The partners opened a Twin Cities branch of Advantage Sign Supply in July, running a region that covers Minnesota, eastern North and South Dakota, and western Wisconsin. They were attracted to the company's established product lines, strong reputation throughout the country and lack of presence in the area.

Olson and Hanzal now run the business out of a 5,000-square-foot warehouse filled with product in Roseville, using Advantage Sign Supply's marketing, human resources, and operations blueprint. Serving as territory sales manager, Olson is now back out on the road. He even calls on many of the same customers from his early days on the road -- except now, he notes with a laugh, he meets with the original owners' children.

Through this process, Olson has rediscovered his passion for sales. He enjoys the time he spends with clients, helping them make decisions about how to grow their businesses through unique signs and graphics. Simultaneously, he gets to learn the ropes of running a company, even though the industry is quite familiar.

For Olson, it's a thrill to have a vested interest in the company where he works and have responsibility for the financials, challenges and successes. "It's not that I wasn't always concerned about the bottom line in the past, but measuring sales every day and seeing what's happened and what activity we created, I'm much more in tune with it than I ever was before," he said. "It's pretty exciting."

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