Founded when suppliers delivered wares in wagons and folks routinely paid bills with sacks of flour or heads of cattle, few Utah businesses can boast 100 years or more of survival. Those tenacious enough to have remained in the hands of family are not just endangered species, they’re practically extinct. We asked a handful of local, family-owned businesses to share their secret sauce for surviving over a century of depressions, pandemics, wars, construction, big box stores and—lest we forget—online shopping. You’ll likely recognize the names. Now you’ll appreciate what it’s taken to stand the test of time.
Right place, right time. That’s how Thomas Young helped build Las Vegas…that, and elbow grease. The artist and owner of a Utah hand-lettering sign company developed a fascination for neon, but, unlike his painted signs, the new medium required electricity. In the early 1930s, his train stopped in the tiny town of Las Vegas where a new hydroelectric dam called Hoover was in the works, and Young saw possibility.
A year later, just as the little train-stop town of 5,000 people legalized gambling, he renamed Thomas Young Signs to Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO) and Thomas snagged his first big break in Vegas: a neon sign for the brand new Boulder Club. Not long after, the Las Vegas Club wanted YESCO to create something bigger, taller and brighter than their neighbor. Soon the Golden Nugget came knocking, and Young’s neon signs spread up Fremont Street, testing the laws of physics, each sign more spectacular than the one before. Thus, the “Glitter Gulch” was born. The rest is history—a history written in the dazzling lights and neon icons that transformed a dusty Nevada town into an international destination.
“We’re the name behind the lights,” says third-generation Sr. VP Jeff Young. YESCO’s fingerprints touch everything from the ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’ landmark sign to Vegas Vic (the waving Fremont Street Cowboy) to the 80-foot Hard Rock guitar to the newest generation of massive LED displays that wrap the lengths of hotels like The Aria, The Wynn and The MGM.
The company’s reach is felt at home as well, from the iconic spinning Snelgrove’s ice cream cone to the weather-forecasting Walker Center sign (blue means clear skies, flashing red means snowstorms), to the state-of-the-art Utah Jazz Jumbotron. Everywhere you look, Salt Lake City is aglow with the company’s glittering feats of engineering.
“Sometimes when I look at some of the large-scale projects we do,” Jeff reflects, “I wonder, ‘what would my grandfather think of this?” The 103-year-old company now employs thousands of people in over 100 cities, its scope recently on display when Jeff starred in an episode of Undercover Boss on CBS.
The TV show followed the clean-cut businessman, disguised with spikey, purple hair, road-tripping across the U.S. to try his hand at assorted rank-and-file positions within his own company, from marquee sign assistant, (hunting his way through the alphabet to find letters for a sign) to an electrician’s assistant (tight roping his way along an LED billboard hundreds of feet in the sky).
“There were moments I wondered if I’d made a bad decision,” Jeff says of agreeing to participate in the show. “It’s reality TV after all—not known for having your best interest in mind.” Usually, an episode features a boss bumping up against at least one employee who unwittingly airs their grievances about the company—and sometimes even the leadership. Ultimately, Jeff says his level of confidence in YESCO and the happiness of his employees compelled him to take the plunge…notwithstanding his bundles of anxiety as to how it would all turn out when the show aired on television.
“At one point during filming,” Jeff says with a laugh, “I thought, what would happen if I walk out of the hotel tonight, get in a taxi and just run away?”
In the end, though, Jeff says he was overwhelmed, “in a good way,” when the episode aired. The century-old company’s staying power is rooted in family and the mentality of safeguarding YESCO for the next generation and their employees rather than just cashing out and moving on.
“We’re a company with heart, we really care about people, and that came through in the show,” he says. “Not only are we a family-run company, but we also have lots of families within our ranks, too.”
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