Work Hard / Play Hard: Tim Donnelly



Tim Donnelly started a company so he could stay in Whatcom County.

Having grown up in California, he moved to Bellingham in 1979 and was interested in real estate, but double-digit interest rates dampened that market. Few other jobs were available, so he decided starting his own company was the best way to land work.

At first, his company focused on car and boat striping. He added signs after moving the business to its current location in 1989.

"What I'm most grateful for with this company is that it has allowed me to enjoy living in the Pacific Northwest," says Donnelly, 62, who runs the business with his sons, Alan and Dave. The company has eight employees.

The sign business has changed significantly the past 24 years. The company no longer has paint in the building; it's all done with computers and printers. The boost in technology has opened the door to creativity.

"The versatility is amazing," says Donnelly, noting they recently put a sign on a basketball court and have looked at putting them on carpets. "It's a fun business to be in because of the limitless possibilities."

A large chunk of Special-T's customer base is local businesses, but the new technology has led to more residential customers. The ability to put sports designs in a children's room, or a faux column design in a living room, is becoming more popular. Special-T also can do fine art reproductions.

The sign business can be a barometer of the broader economy: If businesses are willing to spend more on signs, it indicates they're confident the economy is improving. Donnelly says he's seen a steady upswing in business the past year.

"Our main customers are in industries like construction, auto, marine and real estate, ones that were hit hard by the recession," he says.


Water sports and skiing have been Donnelly's passion, but it was a bike ride in Hawaii that nearly cost him his life. Last November, he was on a 40-mile bike trip on Maui when he hit a sidewalk curb, catapulting himself into a pole. The impact broke his neck in two places.

It was a break similar to the one that paralyzed Superman actor Christopher Reeve. Donnelly wasn't paralyzed, but he had to endure wearing a halo around his head and months of painful, uncomfortable healing. He missed about three months of work. His sons kept the business going.

He says that at the end of June he was about 85 percent recovered, and anxious to return to the sports he enjoys. He learned a lesson, however.

"My new goal is risk management, to not take so many risks," Donnelly says. "I feel very fortunate to have survived. You have to respect what you are doing and be safe."

Lake Whatcom is one of the reasons he fell in love with this area. Over the years he has spent many mornings before work waterskiing on the lake. He also loves scuba diving; highlights include a trip to the Galapagos Islands and to Chuuk Lagoon, the South Pacific site known for its shipwrecks from World War II.

As for snow skiing, Donnelly says he gets up to Mount Baker and Whistler 40 to 50 days a year.

"I'm just attracted to water, whether it's fresh, salt or frozen," he says.

Special-T Signs & Graphics

2206 Pacific St., Bellingham


Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or Read his business blog at or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

Reach DAVE GALLAGHER at or call 715-2269.

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