Sitting in the glass-walled office of his recently opened printing studio in a converted factory building on the west side of Mount Vernon, Jon Graber said that most people find the path his career has taken somewhat hard to believe.
“People look at me like, ‘Wait, what’d you do?’” Graber relays with a laugh. “And I’m, like, ‘Yup.’”
That’s because for more than two decades, Graber sat behind a desk and stared at computer screens while working as a government bond trader. His first stint in the banking world began at Lehman Brothers in New York City in 1994, where he worked his way up from trading support to the trade desk.
After the better part of a decade with Lehman Brothers, Graber moved on to Greenwich Capital in 2003. During his time with the company, which rebranded itself as RBS Securities in 2009, headcounts continued to dwindle and new regulations made his job less enjoyable.
“There was no volatility in the market, a very low-interest rate period and I could tell I was starting to lose interest in what I was doing,” the New York City resident said. “Things were getting computerized so you weren’t even dealing with people anymore.”
While Graber was becoming increasingly disinterested in his line of work, his father, Jay Graber, suggested it was time to make a change.
The elder Graber worked as an accountant before becoming a franchise owner with Dollar Rent A Car in the 1970s. In 1986, Jay co-founded Supreme Optical with a family member who had a technical background in the field. The Farmingdale-based company, now called Tri Supreme Optical LLC, runs a laboratory that distributes ophthalmic products.
“He was a great influence on me,” Graber said. “He went from someone who knew nothing about optical to being an expert in the field.”
“For years, he had been telling me, ‘You know, I think you should be looking for your next thing in life. You need a change in your life,’” Graber recalled. “I was fighting him on it. I said, ‘No, no, no, I know what I’m doing.’”
But after years of surviving various cuts and downsizings with RBS, it was finally Graber’s turn.
“It happens,” he said with a shrug of his layoff from RBS in 2013. “I knew it was coming.”
From there, Graber took a job with The Bank of New York Mellon Corp., but after only a few short months with the company, a shift in BNY’s business plan led it to scrap the trading desk Graber worked on.
“After that, I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to do something else,” he said.
But unlike his father, entrepreneurship was never something Graber considered.
“I think it’s very important to know what you know and know what you don’t know,” he said. “I understood I was in the corporate world my whole life. A lot of things are done for you. I knew I didn’t know how to run a business.”
After conducting months of research that included consulting with a franchise broker and seeking guidance from his father, Graber decided to become a franchisee of SpeedPro Imaging, a Centennial, Colo.-based printing company that has more than 150 locations across the U.S. and Canada. The company specializes in a variety of large-format products, including wall murals, vehicle wraps and event and window graphics.
“I was, like, ‘Wow, I’ve spent my whole life playing with imaginary numbers’ and that was the thing that was getting old,” he said. “I wanted to do something. I wanted to make something. I wanted to really produce.”
Graber has invested around $200,000 in his business, including a $50,000 buy-in fee to SpeedPro. His Mount Vernon facility, which opened in June, is equipped with a six-foot-wide latex printer, a flat-bed printer that dries instantly, making the turn-around time much faster, and an eight-foot-wide UV ink printer that is able to print directly onto anything from wood to metal to glass.
But SpeedPro is not solely about printing. Graber said he also works with clients, mostly business-to-business, to come up with unique concepts and design ideas to make their company stand out.
“We don’t look at it like we’re sign makers per se,” he said. “We’re really kind of almost an ad agency.”
While he initially hoped to open his operations in New York City, sky-high rents forced Graber to widen his search to Westchester and Fairfield counties. SpeedPro has other area franchises in Elmsford, New York City and Westwood, N.J., but those locations didn’t deter Graber from opening his business in Mount Vernon.
“We’re in a very densely populated area, so there are more than enough customers,” he said.
Graber said he tells customers, “you’re not just working with me, you’re working with 130 owners who have anywhere from one to 15 years of experience.”
Graber’s SpeedPro is housed in a 4,000-square-foot facility inside the former Ward Leonard factory building at 31 South St. With exposed pipes and original brick, the loft-style building “almost feels like an ad agency.”
“I knew right away,” he said of the building. “I hadn’t even heard the price yet. I was, like, ‘This is it.’”
Taking a page from his father, Graber knew that with his limited experience in the field, it was important to bring on someone who had a stronger background in printing and imaging.
“I understood I needed help. It’s overwhelming to go from what I was doing to what I’m doing now,” he said. “You have to know your limits and what you need help with.”
He enlisted Jerel Fuentes, a production manager with extensive experience working with the hardware and software SpeedPro uses, to run the design and production.
Graber also aims to make sure his employees — he recently hired someone to focus on sales and marketing — are free to be decision-makers and feel as though they’re partners in the franchise.
“I know, coming from someone who’s been an employee all my life, what it feels like when someone empowers you, or when you’re just working,” Graber said.