Here at Rest Less, we write a lot about over 50s career changers; people taking big, bold leaps in later life to pursue something that they’re passionate about.
But, what we don’t talk about enough – and what’s equally as impressive – are the people who’ve been steadfastly committed to their craft over the decades. And 79-year-old Gerry Corlass from Southampton is a perfect example.
Ever since he left school at the age of 14, Gerry has been a dedicated signwriter. Now, as he approaches his 80th birthday, he’s celebrating 65 years in the business and showing no sign of slowing down.
We caught up with Gerry to find out more about his long career, how he’s adapted over the years, and what his plans for the future are…
“While I was growing up, I used to go with my father on signwriting jobs and help out with different things, but from the age of about 10, he started to really get me involved”
Gerry wasn’t the first Corlass to get into the signwriting industry. In fact, it was a family business, and he learnt a great deal of what knows from his father, Ken…
Gerry says, “When my father left school in the 1920s at the age of 14, he began working for a company that made paint – and while he was there, they got involved with making signs. So he became a signwriter. And this was something that he continued to do for the army when he was conscripted at the beginning of the Second World War.
“When the war came to an end in 1945, my father decided that he wanted to work for himself and establish a signwriting and poster work business. So, he rode his bicycle to the local cinema, asked if they needed any work done, and they became his first client. I still have the descendants of that business as my clients to this day.”
Eventually, Ken Corlass grew his signwriting business into a go-to brand in Southhampton, but not without the help of his young son, Gerry…
“While I was growing up, I used to go with my father on signwriting jobs and help out with different things, but from the age of about 10, he started to really get me involved. From that time onwards, I learnt my trade. I started full time at the age of 15 in 1957 when I left school.”
“We worked for most of the cinemas in town doing front of house posters, advertising celebrities like Tommy Steele, Bill Haley, and The Beatles”
Gerry explains that living in Southhampton in the mid-20th century was an ideal place for him to cut his teeth as a signwriter. Known as the ‘Gateway to England’, people from all over the world came through the city by ship. This meant that some of the most well-known celebrities and entertainers would grace the stages of the local cinemas and theatres. In fact, one of Gerry’s earliest jobs was helping his father write posters for the Laurel and Hardy show.
He says, “We worked for most of the cinemas in town doing front of house posters, advertising celebrities like Tommy Steele, Bill Haley, and The Beatles. This experience was a very good grounding because it taught me how to produce signs that really made the public take notice.
“We also did traditional signwriting. I used to go with my father to companies that wanted a truck sign written or a shop front done by hand. I would watch him all the time, and gradually he would get me to do a little bit. From there, I’ve seen the industry develop all the way up to modern day. Now the majority of signwriting is done by computers, cutting vinyl.”
Gerry worked alongside his father until he passed away at the age of 82. He believes that as well as teaching him how to write signs, Ken also passed on his admirable work ethic…
Gerry says, “The day my father went into the hospital, a couple of weeks before he passed, I called the doctor to ask if I could go in and see him. She said yes, he’s here at the hospital showing me how to write signs.”
“When a salesman came to give a demonstration of the machine, my father decided to have a race with it”
Combined, Gerry and his father have dedicated over a century to the signwriting industry. And as technology has advanced and clients’ needs have changed, both of them had to stay flexible and adapt…
“Because I’m one of the few people who writes signs by hand, it’s a dying trade, really,” Gerry explains. “I remember, back in the late 70s or early 80s, an American company came out with a machine that could cut plastic signs. My father thought it looked interesting, so we took a look.
“When a salesman came to give a demonstration of the machine, my father decided to have a race with it. He put it on one workbench and set himself up on another. They set a target and wanted to see who’d reach it first; my father wrote the signs by hand on paper and the machine cut them out of plastic. My father ended up beating the machine.
“Afterwards, we talked and laughed about it. My father said, ‘Why would we buy it when I can work more quickly?’ And the salesman replied, ‘Yes, you can work more quickly, but this machine can work 24-hours a day.’ And that’s what sold it to us.”
“While I was there, one of the chaps came along and asked me what I called myself. So I said, a little cheekily, ‘I’m On the Spot Signs’”
Once Gerry and his father incorporated machinery into their signwriting business, it opened up a whole new range of opportunities; one of which was making vinyl signs to go on the sides of aircraft. Though, Gerry’s business would still evolve a great deal over the next few decades…
Gerry explains, “Back then, I used to cut the signs in the workshop and take them down to the airport, which was 25 miles away. Then I’d stick them onto the aircraft and come back. But nine times out of 10, they’d want something else while I was there. So one day, I took the machine with me so that if they wanted something else, I could do it there and then.
“While I was there, one of the chaps came along and asked me what I called myself. So I said, a little cheekily, ‘I’m On the Spot Signs.’”
It was then that Gerry realised that he didn’t need a workshop at all, and that his van could be his workshop. By turning his and his father’s signwriting business mobile, he could be much more flexible.
“If you take a plumber, for instance,” Gerry explains. “He buys a van for his business and wants a sign written on it. He has to give the van to a sign company, and they have it for four or five days before he can start working.
“If I bring the factory with me, the plumber can be working at a job – say he’s installing someone’s sink – and I can be outside putting the sign on the van. If he finishes his job and I’ve only done one side, then I can follow him to the next one and do the other side there. And that business model became a big hit.”
“One day [...] one of my franchisees rang me up and asked if I could come and see them. When I got there, he was in tears”
Once Gerry’s mobile signwriting business began to take off, he decided to do what lots of people with a great business idea choose to do: turn it into a franchise. He got the idea from attending a franchise exhibition in 1989, and, by 1991, he had 12 franchisees signed up…
“I’d train them up for two weeks – teaching all the basic techniques and tricks of the trade – and the last job they’d do would be to sign write their own vans.” From there, Gerry would send them off into the workforce, always being on hand to help them out or offer some advice.
“I ran the franchise for about ten years. And because all of the franchisees were doing so well, it eventually made sense for them to strike out on their own and become independent. Plus, I wanted to spend more time making signs myself. But overall, it was a rewarding experience.”
“One day during that time,” Gerry says. “One of my franchisees rang me up and asked if I could come and see him. When I got there, he was in tears. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘Gerry, I’ve worked all my life and nobody has ever appreciated what I’ve done. But today, these people came out and said how wonderful it was and how much they enjoyed it.’ It really moved him.”
It’s experiences like this, as well as the fond memories he has from his own long and rewarding professional life, that have inspired Gerry’s next mission; to encourage people to consider signwriting as a career…
“Learning to write signs is something that you can literally do from your kitchen table [...] I think everyone’s got an artist in them”
“I don’t know how many years I’ve got left, but I like the idea of spending them helping other people. Learning to write signs is something that you can do literally from your kitchen table – that’s how my father started. And almost anyone can do it – you don’t have to be particularly good at drawing. I think everyone’s got an artist in them.
Whether you’re interested in setting up your own signwriting business or side hustle, or you’d just like to learn to explore your artistic side, Gerry, like his father before him, is passionate about passing his skills on to the next generation of signwriters. So much so, that he’s written a manual designed to give anyone all the information they need to go out, buy some materials, and start signwriting from their kitchen table.
If you’re interested in finding out more about signwriting and how you can get your hands on Gerry’s how-to manual, you can contact him by email at [email protected].
Gerry says, “I’ve been involved with all areas of the sign industry, from pub chalkboards to aircraft. I’ve even put letters on the side of a boat while in a rubber dingy – that was challenging! I’ve had so much experience and learned so much. So, now I’d like to pass it on to other people.”