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Photo Courtesy of DCL (Fabricator), Design by Poulin+Morris
Photo Courtesy of DCL (Fabricator), Design by Poulin+Morris

Henry Arthur Brown Jr: Founder of Colite Industries

Posted: 12/09/2020

In the early days of the sign industry, Henry Arthur Brown, Jr.,  was quite the successful salesman. In fact, he was so effective that he could sell in a month what it would take his employer a year to build.

But given that he didn't get paid until the company built and installed the sign—and collected the fee—he knew he needed to help his employer grow. Brown and a business partner purchased Hite Sign Company and set out to expand. In the 1950s, they merged with Colonial Sign, meshing the names to form Colonial-Hites, the predecessor to Colite Industries.

Mr. Brown passed away November 11, 2020, just a few days shy of his 99th birthday. He left an impact on his community and the broader sign, graphics and visual communications industry.

As for his influence on the International Sign Association, Mr. Brown was president in 1970, playing a key role in opening a Washington, D.C., office of what was then the National Electric Sign Association (NESA), a change that had broad impact.

"In the 1960s, when the Highway Beautification Act was passed, the sign industry was lumped in with the billboard industry," his son Roger said. "NESA had no presence in Washington in any shape or form and felt they were being penalized by the act. That started the discussions that we needed a standalone industry."

A few years after that move, when the oil crisis of 1973 struck, energy mandates attempted to require sign owners to turn off their signs. "Because NESA was in Washington, they were able to lobby against this. That really helped introduce our industry to political leaders," his son Henry said. Henry was president the last year the organization was known as NESA before launching ISA.

Transformative Visionary
Brown had sold newspaper ads before getting into the sign industry. One of his newspaper customers tried to recruit him to sell life insurance instead. "He told them, 'I never thought I could sell something that wasn’t a necessity,'" Roger said. "At that time, life insurance was a luxury. But people who owned businesses needed people to know where they were, and he could sell that."

Colite grew and Brown kept a keen eye on what was good for the overall industry. At one point in the 1970s, the three American manufacturers who produced electronic transformers were bought out.

"He had the idea to bring in a number of suppliers, so that the sign industry wasn't being gouged by companies who were capitalizing on the lack of competition," Henry said. "Most people would say, 'It was in his best interest.' You can't separate that, but he also was asked the question, 'Is this good for the industry?' In his view, if it's good for the industry, it should be good for him and vice versa. I don't think he would have done anything if it hadn't benefited the industry."

By the late 1970s, Colite Industries was the eighth largest privately held sign company in the United States in sales volume, Roger said. At one point, the company had 435 employees and sales offices throughout the United States.

International Growth
Colite Industries was an early player internationally, with its first project in Africa, at the Addis Ababa Airport in Ethiopia. Other major projects followed, with a particular emphasis in the Middle East, a region he was introduced to by a former classmate, John C. West, who had been South Carolina governor and later ambassador to Saudi Arabia. That connection helped him bid on projects in the Saudi kingdom.

From that point, “the projects just started rolling in,” Henry said. And not just internationally. Major airport projects in the United States—including Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport—followed. The company also landed a number of stadium projects like the Houston Astrodome, Met Stadium and the Superdome.

“We were number one in those two fields,” Roger said. “Nobody else really worked in those areas.”

Despite running a busy company, Arthur always found time to go to the local grocery store where he collected food for the needy.

“He would clean out the Kroger, filling up the cart and figuring out a way to get that food to people,” Martin said. “That kept him busy for a long time.”

Somehow, people in the community knew to meet Arthur in a designated spot at a certain time the food drops, his sons said.

Running a successful international operation while making time to meet local needs was in line with his formative years in small-town South Carolina. “It was a luxury town because of the horse training in the area,” Roger said. “People would come down and spend the winter. He went half the year with well-to-do kids and half with local kids. That time with wealthy schoolmates showed him what was possible. But he also remembered his background and how hard things were. If people needed a helping hand, he was always willing to help them out.”

The same was true for his employees in the sign company, many of whom had only worked in the farms and fields. “They had no skills,” Roger said, “but they wanted to learn. They wanted to do something different than what they had grown up with. He would always say, ‘People don’t know the potential they have and they’re scared to try. Your job is to help them get past that.’”

Family Run
At age 68, Arthur officially retired and sold a portion of the company to an investment group. His sons Martin and Peter incorporated Colite Industries as Colite International, Ltd., in 1992, which they still manage today.

Arthur turned his attention to a vehicle export company, which shipped cars to the Middle East initially and later domestically. Cars sold locally often included a free loaf of bread. And when someone was in need, it often wasn’t just the bread that was free.

That later passion for the auto business was a natural outgrowth of his time at Colite, where the company offered a perk for executives. It was rather unique for the industry at the time. Executives received a company-owned car, free gas and maintenance. “He thought that was a great perk,” Martin said. “But he would get mad at people if he drove up and found their car was dirty.”

At one point, everyone in the Brown family worked at Colite, including Arthur’s wife Dorothy, who had been in payroll at a munitions plant during the war. She used those skills to be the company’s first paymaster, unpaid though she was. All eight children worked there, too, where Arthur “instilled a solid work effort,” Martin said. “Whatever you were doing, he made sure that you learned a lot of different techniques.”

“It was his idea of making you realize there was no job too big or too small,” Henry said. “Being his son didn’t mean anything except the expectation that you would work harder than anybody else.”

To read Mr. Brown’s obituary, click here.