Jim Teal, president of Ortwein Sign, assumed ownership of the 97-year-old company in 2007.

In business since 1923, Chattanooga, TN’s Ortwein Sign Company has thrived by servicing a mix of local, regional and national clients across real-estate development, retail, hospitality, healthcare and other diverse industry sectors. Jim Teal, who purchased the company in 2007, came into the industry with a unique perspective. He didn’t have a traditional executive background or cut his teeth in the sign industry; he arrived at Ortwein with a background in large-scale food manufacturing. This deep knowledge or production methodology prepared him to alter his shop’s fabrication and installation process to ensure worker safety.

“For example, in our channel-letter plant, we maneuvered our equipment, tools and worktables so that there was 6 ft. or more between our crew at all times,” Teal said. “And, on two-person installations, we’re sending installers out in separate vehicles, and training them to keep their distance from each other and customers.”

Ortwein has taken the necessary steps of sanitizing all surfaces twice a day, and moving all nonproduction employees to remote work. However, as some supplies became inaccessible, the shop had to improvise.

“Isopropyl alcohol is pretty standard for cleaning metals prior to painting, and a few weeks ago, we found that we weren’t able to order any,” Teal said. “We weren’t sure how to get our paint crew what they needed. We realized we’d have to buy some yeast and sugar and make our own prep solution. These are strange times, and you have to think outside the box.”

Live music has predictably been one of the biggest casualties of sheltering in place. On the campus of the legendary Chattanooga Choo Choo site, Songbirds is a 14,000-sq.-ft. live-music venue that features this iconic sign built by Ortwein.

Ortwein has taken on the production of these sandwich-board signs to help foodservice businesses adjust to a carryout-and-delivery model.

Ortwein has pivoted its product offerings to include vinyl-clad, sandwich-board signs. These types of signs are a lifeline to restaurants forced to adapt to carry-out only business. When some partners of Ortwein couldn’t produce signs because of pandemic restrictions, they were able to jump in to help them work with them to help them deliver for their customers.

“I think we’re going to be mindful about how well we communicate with our partners going forward,” Teal said. “Relationships are more important than ever.”

The company has been fortunate enough to retain all of its employees during the pandemic, and although restaurants and most retailers have been shuttered, several businesses that Ortwein serves, such as gas stations, grocery stores and storage facilities have persevered.