BY CAROL ROEHM
DANVILLE — A longtime Danville manufacturer that has experienced unprecedented growth in the last two years will soon get the extra elbow room it needs.
Tucked away at Bahls and Maple streets on Danville’s east side is Watchfire Signs, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of outdoor LED signs and digital billboards.
Watchfire signs are designed, engineered and manufactured exclusively in Danville. Since entering the LED sign market in 1996, the company has created more than 40,000 LED signs for banks, retail stores, schools, places of worship and other locations throughout North America.
Founded in 1932 as Time-O-Matic, the company continues to call Danville home after 80 years.
Watchfire will reinforce its commitment to Danville when it breaks ground Thursday to expand its corporate headquarters at 1015 Maple St.
The more than 110,000-square-foot expansion will provide additional manufacturing space and 17,000 square feet of office space. The expansion, which will result in a 200,000-square-foot facility when completed, is expected to be ready by early 2013.
Watchfire officials say they are looking forward to having all 250 employees under one roof in less than a year from now.
“Currently, we have employees scattered throughout town,” said AnnMarie Cross, human resource manager at Watchfire.
As the company outgrew its headquarters, a few departments had to move out and occupy buildings on Fairchild Street and on Voorhees Street.
The marketing and sales department occupies part of the former Voorhees Lumber building; Watchfire’s small signs currently are produced at the former GE plant; and the color calibration of the signs takes place in a lab behind Genpact on Voorhees Street.
An increase in orders for Watchfire’s signs and a hiring boom are what is fueling the company’s rapid growth.
“This is a result of an increase in orders and where we’ve positioned ourselves in the market,” Cross said.
Watchfire manufacturers LED display signs for two different types of uses: on-premises for use at stores, event venues and car dealerships and off-premises, which are digital billboards.
Hiring also has been brisk, with 43 full-time employees being hired since January 2011.
“We had nine new employees start just this week,” Cross said Thursday.
Those new employees include four full-time, three interns and two temp-to-hire employees, she said.
Watchfire provides temp-to-hire opportunities to workers from local employment agencies, and Cross said about 55 of Watchfire’s regular employees started out as temp-to-hire.
The company also has filled a record number of paid internships and co-op positions in electronics, computer programming, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, accounting and other areas.
With the new expansion, Cross said she anticipates the company will hire another 10 to 15 full-time employees as well as more interns and co-op positions to handle the demand.
Many of the available positions are non-factory production roles suitable for recent college graduates. Job seekers with engineering or technical degrees can expect full-time positions, such as process engineer, field install technician and help desk engineer, which are available now, with additional roles to become available in the coming year.
“You hear about outsourcing, but we’re about insourcing,” Cross said. “We’re hiring great people who are giving their best.”
Internships are paid positions in various departments and require 10 to 15 hours per week, whereas co-op positions are full-time and are designed for currently enrolled students earning college credit.
Cross recruits students from Indiana State University, Danville Area Community College and the University of Illinois to fill intern and co-op positions.
ISU interns take a semester off from school to earn relevant work experience while gaining an understanding of the connection between theory and practice in their chosen field of study. Accounting, quality assurance, programming and computer-aided drafting are just a few of the skills interns can learn and use in their future work.
“They get paid an hourly wage as they spend a semester here and earn college credit while they’re here, too,” she said.
“All of our interns work on real-world projects and design,” she added.
Internships and co-ops often transition into full-time employment. Cross said approximately 19 of Watchfire’s regular employees started out as interns.
“As we expand, we will grow these college programs,” she said.
Last year two college students were in the co-op program, working in electrical and mechanical engineering. This year there are four co-ops who are working in electrical and mechanical engineering as well as software testing and software quality.
“We try to grow our own through paid internships,” she said of the company’s employees. “They learn how we do things here, and we hope they come back here after college for a full-time job.
“We also have a culture of promoting current employees. Our engineering and technical interns have been hired in full-time roles, like repair technician and field engineer,” Cross said.
“Top former interns now hold positions such as inside sales manager, production manager, help desk engineer, software design engineer, accounting manager and field sales manager,” she added.
About 20 percent of Watchfire’s employees have had at least two promotions, which helps make more full-time positions available for former interns and other new hires.
“Ben Cahill is our poster child for this,” Cross said. “Just show us where your interests are and we’ll guide you there.”
Cahill, a University of Illinois graduate, interned for a year in Watchfire’s engineering department. He was promoted from the help desk to the repair department and then to an inside sales management position in just under four years of beginning a full-time job at Watchfire.
“We very much want to hire local talent,” Cross said. “A lot of them go off after college, and we like to draw those people back.
“Trying to find that local person with the specific skills we’re looking for is challenging sometimes,” she acknowledged.
Many of the company’s employees are Danville area natives who returned home after a family member saw a Watchfire job posting and encouraged the loved one to apply or because of an employee referral.
A number of Watchfire’s employees, however, have moved to Danville from quite a distance — such as Florida, Texas and Sacramento, Calif. — to work at the company.
“They’re finding out we’re a great company to work for with cool technology,” Cross said.