A humble Omaha business has never inflated its own ego, despite going Broadway in “Spider-Man” and playing a role in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
But the 18-employee, family-owned Signs & Shapes International — which created the inflatable Lil' Red mascot for Nebraska athletic events — does get around. It has sent its inflatable products to 63 countries.
And, yes, with its simple battery-powered air-inflation system, it seems well-suited to withstand cost inflation. Its mascots and other inflatables fill up not on gas — as many do in parades such as Macy's — but on air.
“As helium gets more scarce and expensive,” said Dee Ann Bowen, “we think we'll get to do more things along this line.”
For last year's Macy's parade, the company created its largest mascot yet — an Aflac duck, 35 feet high, designed, cut and sewn just north of downtown Omaha.
“He weighed over 500 pounds,” Dee Ann said Wednesday at the company's energy-efficient facility at 2320 Paul St. “For the final sewing, we had six people standing on tables pulling him through machines. He was so big, we didn't have room here to blow him up. So the Mid-America Center (in Council Bluffs) let us go over there.”
Dee Ann and husband Lee watched the parade in person last Thanksgiving from the VIP section. They also have seen a couple of their inflatables on Broadway in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
The company and the Bowen family make an amazing Omaha story. They were living in Oklahoma in the mid-1980s when their daughter Katy contracted meningitis and suffered hearing loss.
So they picked up and moved to Omaha to be close to the Boys Town National Research Hospital and its renowned hearing center.
Lee, a former New Mexico State basketball player, had run commercial feedlots and owned a country bank. He was looking for something else.
He stumbled upon an inflatable sign business. Eventually, someone asked about creating a lifelike figure. And then in the early 1990s, daughter Tana designed the company's first high-profile sports mascot — Nebraska's toddler-like Lil' Red.
Dee Ann said: “He's been a very good ambassador for us.”
Referring to the inflatables as he and him, as Dee Ann does, might just be an example of how personally the Bowens and their staff take what they do.
“We have so much fun,” she said. “We just never know what kind of thing we'll be asked to do. I just sold 15 WalkAround bowling pins, which are used for parties and parades.”
WalkArounds is the trademark name for the company's cartoonish, inflatable figures. A person inside each one uses straps to do different moves, sometimes even facial expressions. Some of the mascots have been known to stand on their heads or comically “swallow” people walking by.
Scott Bowen, who first helped out in the family business when he was 8, admires what his parents created.
“My dad had a lot of business experience at different levels,” he said. “But this is something that everybody he knew and respected told him not to pursue.”
Now 33, Scott was operating a film production company in Boston several years ago when his parents asked him to return to Omaha. He has no title, he said, but is co-owner.
Standing near the puffed-up Pillsbury Doughboy and deflated but soon-to-be-cleaned mascots for Tyson Foods (a chicken), PetSmart (a dog) and Frito-Lay (Chester the Cheetah, who loves Cheetos), Scott noted that Signs & Shapes itself developed the polyurethane-coated nylon fabric used for the mascots.
A basic WalkAround costs between $4,000 and $4,500, which includes lifetime cleaning. Weekend rentals go for $350, including shipping.
Scott is proud that the Omaha Public Power District last year wrote a letter saying that the company's low level of electrical usage in its 20,000-square-foot building was “unprecedented.”
Energy costs are kept low through geothermal systems and “concrete sandwich” wall panels — layers of concrete with fiberglass in between — as well as through skylights and extensive use of natural light. Insulation sprayed onto the high ceilings absorbs noise, important in a structure where manufacturing and office desks are not separated by walls.
The 1.6-acre site in the North Omaha Business Park, the former location of the Logan-Fontenelle housing projects, also has proved beneficial.
The Signs & Shapes building is surrounded by other businesses as well as by a playground, a park and attractive single-family homes owned by middle-class workers. It is also close to the airport, Interstate 480 and downtown. Next month will mark the company's third anniversary there, after moving from 9988 F St.
Though the company doesn't disclose its sales figures, Scott said: “We're doing really well, but we're still a small company by any measure.”
Growth may come, though. Signs & Shapes works increasingly with the Disney Co., including characters for “Disney on Ice: Toy Story 3.” Wired magazine published a spread on the company in August, so word is getting out — even though it does little advertising.
The company keeps up with technology, soon to go 3-D with computer designs. And it works with people with autism in an offshoot company, the Prevention Group, designed in conjunction with researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Lee and Dee Ann join Scott at work every day. Katy, a former all-conference basketball player at Grinnell College, today is a teacher and coach. Tana lives in Colorado, daughter Beth is in Arizona and son Casey is in Texas, an Air Force physician.
Signs & Shapes has created mascots for NBA, NFL and college teams, as well as minor-league baseball teams. It has worked with hundreds of fire departments and companies around the world. It welcomes ideas.
As its website says: “Any time you find yourself thinking, 'Wouldn't it be cool if ... ?,' give us a call and we'll make it happen.”
The Bowens, who uprooted their family and moved to Omaha for the sake of their child, started a new life and an improbably successful company — and definitely made it happen.
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