Passion to assist veterans reunites childhood friends after 15-year gap
Childhood friends from elementary school (Canton’s Hulsing) through their early years at Canton High School, Russ Bruner and Brian Vella’s lives drifted apart when Vella’s family moved to Dundee prior to his junior year in high school.
Post-high school, Bruner enrolled at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration (and later a master’s degree from Walsh College); Vella joined the United States Marine Corps, for which he served from 2005 to 2011.
In 2019, the duo reunited at an event hosted by Folds of Honor, a national organization that assists spouses and children of military veterans and first-responders who are killed or disabled in the line of duty.
In a plot ripped from the script of a compelling movie, they are now business partners at United Image Group, a full-service graphics company based in Ann Arbor that specializes in building brand identity from the design phase to installation.
“It’s fitting that Russ and I reconnected because of Folds of Honor because as a veteran, I’m obviously dedicated to its cause, and Russ has been a supporter of veterans’ causes for a long time,” Vella said.
Multi-faceted branding services
Vella purchased the former Steve’s Custom Signs in 2019 and subsequently renamed it. Bruner was named UIG’s vice president of operations in 2021.
“If a company or organization has a logo, we can help them with their branding and promotion,” said Vella. “We do everything from embroidering logos onto apparel to creating high-end, illuminating signs.”
If you live in metro Detroit, you’ve probably admired UIG’s work without even knowing it. The company has created the eye-catching signage for three companies (The Joint Chiropractic, Me So Selfie Pix and Dreambox Boutique) in the Canton Corners shopping complex near the intersection of Ford and Lilley roads; and recently completed perhaps its most dazzling signage yet: a neon-lit display that grabs passersby’s attention to the Zo’s Good Burger in Garden City.
“Before UIG, both Russ and I were part of the process of creating products, but we were rarely involved in the end result,” Vella said. “Now, we get to see everything through from the design concept to the installation.”
Initially, Vella’s acquisition of the 20-year-old sign company in 2019 appeared jinxed as just a few months later the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head, creating a massive hurdle for all businesses.
But he remained positive and — with a boost from Bruner’s business acumen — turned the company into one that offered services to businesses within a 100-mile radius of Ann Arbor to one that serviced businesses across the United States.
“When COVID first started spreading, my first thought was, ‘Oh my goodness, I just risked everything to buy this company and now I’m going to lose it all’,” Vella recounted. “While it was a horrible, terrible thing for a lot of people, the pandemic pushed us to adapt and overcome the changing business climate.”
As of early-February, UIG has its work displayed in 37 states.
“I recently heard from a business owner in Georgia who loved one of our signs in Tennessee, so he reached out to us,” Vella said. “A lot of our growth can be attributed to Russ, who has been key in taking things to another level.”
Focused on helping veterans
Bruner has had an interest in helping military veterans for as long as he can remember. When he heard about Folds of Honor and its mission, he decided to turn his passion into action. Folds of Honor’s primary purpose is to provide educational scholarships for family members of killed or disabled military veterans and first-responders.
“Five or six years ago, I called Folds of Honor’s national headquarters and asked them how I could help raise money,” Bruner said. “They told me some of the most effective fund-raising events for them were golf outings. I had never organized a golf outing, but I got some family and friends together and we put on our first outing at Fox Hills in Plymouth in 2017.”
The inaugural event raised $30,000, Bruner said.
Four-plus years later, the Bruner-organized outings have raised $650,000 for Folds of Honor.
Bruner, who serves as president of the southeast-Michigan chapter of Folds of Honor, was also one of the catalysts for the creation of an annual Folds of Honor Gala, the second of which is set for March 11 at the newly-renovated Saint John’s Resort in Plymouth Township.
Details for the gala can be found here.
The organization’s mission hits close to home for Vella, who lost 23 comrades during his years of service in Fallujah, Iraq.
“One of the nice things about Folds is that most of the money raised in southeast Michigan goes to families in southeast Michigan,” he said. “Whatever isn’t used here goes to the national headquarters and used wherever it’s needed.
“It’s obviously a cause close to my heart and Russ’s heart as well.”
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