Lights dimming for Las Vegas sign maker

Its name is not widely known, but many people would quickly recognize Casino Lighting and Sign’s work, such as the neon-splashed M&M World facade or the subdued directional signs within Bellagio.

But the company has felt the bite of the continuing tight economy, deciding during a one-day furlough on Monday to close its Atlantic City office and lay off approximately 15 people. Mark Johnson, co-owner and president of the Las Vegas-based company, said the work force could shrink from the approximately 80 people now to 65 to 70 in the coming weeks.

While reducing the company’s break-even point by two-thirds through cost cuts, Casino Lighting has sent bids for new work from New York to California and several states in between. The payroll ran more than 200 people as recently as 2½ years ago. More than 80 percent of the shrunken order book now comes from the Las Vegas Valley.

"The sign industry here is surviving on service, not in putting up new signs," he said.

Others, such as the much larger Young Electric Sign Co., have also reduced their Las Vegas presence as construction dried up.

The company, which Johnson and a partner pieced together in two acquisitions more than six years apart, was pulling in annual revenues of about $50 million four years ago, based on the combination of what were then separate entities. Today, he said, that has dropped to about $12 million.

Despite broadening his geographic range, Johnson has eschewed trying to find different types of customers besides casinos or a handful major landmarks, such as the World Market Center’s exterior.

"It is easier to wrap my arms around a single business type and not try to take on dozens of business types," he said. "We’re a specialty contractor, so doing a lot of the same type of sign for someone like Taco Bell, that’s not our thing."

And, he said, having a unionized work force has raised his costs higher than some rivals. As a result, he said, Casino Lighting will stick to projects that require custom design and expertise instead of turning to generic work where lowest cost is paramount.

Reflecting the company’s struggles, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers on Tuesday filed a settlement with Casino Lighting in federal court, in which Johnson agreed he owed $296,000 to different union benefit trust funds and would repay it.

Through predecessors, Casino Lighting traces its existence back three decades, ultimately winding up in the now-defunct Mikohn Gaming Corp. Johnson purchased the exterior sign business for $1.7 million in 2002, according to Mikohn documents.

Another division of Mikohn, which makes decorative displays for items such as slot machines, was sold to different buyers in 2005 for $12.2 million, After it changed hands a couple of times, Johnson bought it in 2009 for what he only described as "a lot less than that."

During its existence, the company has built many signs, with perhaps the largest being the undulating 610-foot-long display on the front of Planet Hollywood Resort.

He hopes the new round of bids will start to reverse the company’s decline. But with the state of the economy and his concerns about the political situation in Washington, D.C., "As far as next year goes, I’m very, very nervous," he said.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5290.

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