Hal and Diana Stevenson, owners of Grace Outdoor, began their business partnership the same day they began a much more important partnership.
“When I asked Diana to marry me, I asked her to go into business with me,” Hal explained as the two took time out of a very busy week at their billboard company to chat with Midlands Anchor. Diana said yes to both, of course, and three decades later, they are thriving as husband and wife and as business partners, with two of their children having joined the family firm.
The Stevensons moved back to Columbia, Diana’s home, when they started a family in 1987. “We decided we were going to put our stake in the ground,” Diana said. “We started something here and we’ve been here ever since.”
Diana stepped back from the business to be a full-time mom for years, but returned when the circumstances seemed right, and now handles the management and advertising side of Grace Outdoor while Hal focuses on new ideas to move the company forward. “She makes sure the trains run on time,” Hal said, adding that she also often reins him in. “She doesn’t tell me no, she just says ‘not yet.'”
Grace Outdoor has thrived as the Midlands’ only locally owned billboard company partly by staying ahead of changing times and trends and technology. They were among the first to begin using digital billboards, and Hal said that move is paying off now. “People are really starting to get it,” he said. “It’s a new medium. It’s a cross between radio and billboards and online digital.”
The digital billboards can be changed easily and almost instantly, opening new options for customers and for the Stevensons. “You can change your message as often as you want,” Diana said, adding that news organizations are among those taking advantage of that. “As you’re sitting in traffic heading to your office, you can get some headlines while you’re sitting there.”
“The idea of screens is to be where there are eyeballs out of homes,” Hal said. Smaller digital billboards can be, and often are, placed indoors, and are sometimes called “the fifth screen,” reflecting their addition to tv, movies, computers and phones/tablets as a source of information. “The focus of the future is on digital,” Hal said. “You have to go where the technology takes you.”
The flexibility has also allowed the Stevensons to use their billboards to support the community of which they have become an integral part. Hal currently serves as president of the Vista Guild, and both he and Diana are among Columbia’s biggest cheerleaders.
Hal said he thinks the efforts to preserve Columbia’s older buildings have made a big difference in the growth of the city’s center. “That gives us a character. It’s got some of that historical quaintness that Charleston has. It’s also the center of government. There’s a major university. There are a lot of things in downtown that are driving people to come in,” he said. “There’s just a sense here, a diversity that is just right for folks who are looking for a great community to live in.”
“I think it’s very important to promote community life, to find common ground, to be able to work with different people in the community you may not always agree with,” he said. “We feel like the signs give us the opportunity to promote different things that are going on in the city….That’s very much a part of what we feel like our responsibility is, to be in the community and to be active in the community and continue to bring people together.”
Diana, who grew up in Columbia, said the change in the city in recent years has been remarkable. Moving back in 1987 after years spent in larger cities, she said she sometimes questioned the decision, but “Now I love it. There’s so much to do.” She agreed with Hal about the importance of not only being part of the community but also helping build it.
“We have all three ballet companies on our signs, and they like it. This is where you want to be. These are the people you want to know,” she said. “We do have nonprofit rates and we work with a ton of nonprofits.”
Hal said faith is a big reason for the responsibility he and Diana feel, mentioning the Biblical command to “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…” (Jeremiah 29:7). “The name of the company is Grace. For me, grace is a one word summary of the Bible,” Hal said. “Nothing that we do is earned. It’s all the grace of God that we have to acknowledge.”
The Stevensons and Grace Outdoor plan to continue in Columbia, looking toward the future with optimistic eyes. “I’m very optimistic and excited about our future…There’s so much here,” Diana said. “For the last several years, I’ve only bought Christmas gifts at Soda City Market… I really love it, knowing I’m supporting local businesses, local artists in what they do. They’re spending that money here.”
More information on Grace Outdoor and the billboard services they offer is available here.