'A sign let's you know you've arrived': Phil Bolduc has mastered signs

·5 min read

Jul. 14—LEWISTON — Phil Bolduc has clients all over the country and across the state of Maine.

So, when he was looking for a bigger space to house his nascent company in 2015, after buying out partners Paul Lessard and Peter Murphy, he could have located anywhere. He chose to stay in Lewiston and he is fiercely loyal to the city he has called home since his early days growing up in Rumford.

Neokraft Signs doesn't do banners or letter trucks, as Bolduc states proudly, "we make big signs." You've no doubt seen many of the signs made by Neokraft, including Portland's time and temperature sign, Poland Spring Resort, Oxford Casino and many, many more. While you could say he's a jack-of-all trades, Bolduc is clearly a master at fabricating signs.

From his early days as a machinist in the U.S. Navy, Bolduc learned multiple trade skills over the years that all play a role in his daily routine as owner, president and problem-solver. He's a licensed electrician, welder, mason, equipment operator, and he learned how to do auto body work from his father's business.

"How many people get to wake up and do a different job every day? I go out and get my hands dirty," Bolduc said with a smile. "You'll never see me in a suit and tie because I don't own one."

Signs remain an integral part of business and marketing, working in tandem with social media and all the digital platforms available to businesses today. It's more than just letters and lights on a platform.

"A sign is an expression of an individual business," Bolduc said. The owners have spent money creating a logo, creating an image.

"You take McDonalds. If you didn't see the arches you wouldn't know they were McDonalds," he said. "A sign let's you know you've arrived."

Neon signs were big once, now they're reserved for boutique or nostalgic-themed business, primarily due to costs and environmental and safety concerns. They've largely been replaced with LED lights. Not to mention finding a glass bender is not an easy task today. Bolduc remembers working with neon signs and still has the equipment to make them, there's just not much demand these days.

There is still significant demand for signs, though, and the industry remains very viable and has a bright future, according to Bolduc.

"I've worked across the United States and I know a lot of people in this trade," he said. "We're all in the same boat, we're all busy."

Busy makes him happy. It's partly what drove him to buy out his partners after years of struggling to find direction.

Bolduc said he didn't change much at the company after he moved into his current space by the Turnpike. He gave up his prime spot on Main Street.

"I wanted the highway with our road crews and our vehicles, Bolduc explained. Sitting in traffic and cutting through town cost his business time and money. "We were in a place with high visibility, a high traffic road which served zero purpose to us because we don't do walk-ins."

What he did change was the equipment, which his new and expanded building is full of.

"I've always focused on equipment, having the right tools for the job," he said. "In this day and age you have to invest in almost the latest. I can have four guys do this job or I can have one guy do this job. Now I can take these other three assets and put them on these jobs. And that's what my employees are — they're all assets. The equipment's useless without your employees. I'm seeing that these days more than ever."

Neokraft was founded in Lewiston 1947 by Alexander Lobozzo and has remained here ever since. For the company's 75th anniversary this year, Bolduc wanted to do something special for the city, his way of giving back to the community. He wanted something that screamed Lewiston and he found his inspiration in the city's history.

Pineland Lumber, or at least the remnants of the former company that still sit on the Androscoggin River, used to have giant letters on top of one of the buildings, directly facing Auburn. By the way, Bolduc hates it when people refer to it as Auburn-Lewiston.

"It's always been Lewiston-Auburn!" he stated emphatically.

Neokraft started doing business with renowned artist Charlie Hewitt, fabricating signs for his Hopeful Project. Bolduc drew some inspiration from that as well, saying he thought some big, bold letters would look really cool. Letters it was — 10-foot high letters.

He approached Lewiston Regional Technical Center and convinced them to let welding students help fabricate the letters. The students' names are engraved in the sign, along with the names of former owners and current employees at Neokraft. Besides, what city would say no to a gift of the largest free-standing letter sign in the state? Commissioning such a project would set you back some $200,000.

When Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque got wind of the project, Neokraft got a call saying he would love to see some 10-foot-plus sized letters on his side of the river.

Bolduc said he's considering obliging, but indicated they'd have to be much smaller.