Signs point to successful career in graphics manufacturing

Published on February 16, 2021

Blaine MacMillan receives 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award

As president and CEO of one of the largest graphics manufacturers in Canada, Blaine MacMillan has worked with some of the biggest and most recognizable brands in the country, from Coca-Cola to Sobey’s to Canada Post. But he doesn’t take those successes for granted – which is why MacMillan and his company Cowan Graphics remain committed to bringing the highest level of professionalism to every single job they do.  

“We are custodians of the brand,” says MacMillan (Business Administration – Management ’79). “Say your company wants to put your logo on your vehicle. If it’s crooked, that’s a bad reflection on you – and very much on us, too.” 

Deep family roots 

Blaine MacMillan poses in Cowan Graphics offices.

By the time MacMillan first got involved with Cowan, as a 12-year-old working half-days over summer vacation, the family business was already a fixture in the industry. Originally co-founded by MacMillan’s aunt and uncle back in 1945, where they hand- painted silk  ties, bronzed baby shoes and made crests.  
Cowan later pivoted full-time into vehicle graphics with the introduction of self-adhesive decals in the late-50s.  

Vehicle work still makes up roughly 40% of Cowan’s business, but under MacMillan’s watch (he’s had an ownership stake since 1985 and has been the primary owner since 1998) the company has expanded its purview to include retail graphics, architectural signage and a variety of promotional and event-based graphics. Today, Cowan operates out of a combined 15,468 square metres (166,500 square feet), spread across plants in Edmonton, Calgary, and Saskatoon. 

MacMillan cheerfully admits that Cowan is the only job he’s ever had, and his dedication to the company has led him to oversee many high-profile projects over the years. The company has made signage for marquee events like the World Athletics Championships, Super Bowl, Winter Olympics and NHL Heritage Classic. They have also pulled off complex assignments like the 73-metre-long (240 feet) Lexus Ad that’s currently wrapping the administration building at the Edmonton International Airport.  

In 2010, MacMillan secured a seven-figure contract from the Vancouver Olympics to visit each venue and remove or cover up, via solutions like custom black spandex bags, every surface bearing a company logo that wasn’t an Olympic sponsor. It was a meticulous job that earned MacMillan and his co-workers the nickname “the cleaners.” 

“We are all about the finish line. But we will not compromise on quality. Everything we do has an expectation of performance."

More recently, Cowan was hired by PCL and the Oilers Entertainment Group to install all of the wayfinding in Rogers Place, a glass mural running along 104 Avenue and the enormous wall murals of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier inside the building. The biggest challenge, MacMillan says, wasn’t the size of the work, but rather the deadline. Because architectural signage is often the last step of a project, his team had to absorb any other delays from earlier in the process. 

“Honestly, we as a company embrace that,” MacMillan says of the time crunch. “We are all about the finish line. But we will not compromise on quality. Everything we do has an expectation of performance. Wayne’s image cannot fall off the wall. The image on 104 Avenue cannot fade. It has to last for a very long time.” 

Pandemic pivot  

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, MacMillan had to pivot yet again.  

With signage work at a standstill, he reached out to a peer in California and learned that there was a huge demand for protective face shields. And when MacMillan looked at the models currently being produced, he and his staff saw ways they could improve on them. 

“It’s yesterday’s effort that determines today’s success." 

MacMillan decided to buy up enough material for 100,000 shields, which at the time seemed ambitious. Within a few weeks, Cowan had pre-sold 1.4 million of them. At the height of demand, they were producing 50,000 shields per day. 

“He’s a great success story,” says Norm Peterson, retired academic chair of NAIT’s Graphic Communications program, who nominated MacMillan for the 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award. Peterson praised MacMillan’s involvement in the community, donating more than $25,000 for scholarships and keeping an upbeat message whenever he speaks to current NAIT students. “We love having him on board.” 

Cameron Demetrick (Graphic Communications ’14) remembers touring Cowan’s Edmonton facility as a NAIT student, and being impressed at the scale of the operation. “It was very striking,” says Demetrick, who now works for the company as a senior digital print press operator. As an employee, he’s equally impressed at the sense of community MacMillan has fostered in the workplace. 

Yet despite having achieved so much in his industry, MacMillan remains humble. “It’s yesterday’s effort that determines today’s success,” he says. “I’d like to think I’ve attracted like-minded people to the business, and that I’ve treated them as peers, professionals, and an extension of my family. The energy, the talent and the enthusiasm of all of our staff is incredible. I am a very lucky man.” 

Distinguished Alumni Award

Blaine MacMillan received the Distinguished Alumni Award for his outstanding professional accomplishments and leadership within the graphic design industry.  This lifetime achievement award recognizes individuals renowned for their leadership roles, industry expertise and merit.