This is a big year for us: 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of our family company, Crain Communications Inc. I've been with our company for over half of those years (yikes!), so I've had lots of time to think about how we got to this very special place.
If I had to name one thing, it would be enthusiasm. My father, G.D. Crain Jr., who founded our company, was a very enthusiastic guy. Dad started Advertising Age in the beginning stages of the Depression, but he said even if he had known how bad things would get, he still would have gone ahead because he had gotten enthusiastic about the idea.
Another important characteristic that got us here is having a distinct point of view. All of our publications — from Automotive News to Crain's Chicago Business, from Pensions & Investments to Modern Healthcare — did things differently from the other guys, and so gave readers new information they hadn't seen before and advertisers new opportunities.
Also high up is to treat your people with respect — nobody has the right to make people feel bad about themselves, and we have always made it clear that such bad characters aren't welcome. While you're at it, make your place a nice place to work and your good people will stay for a very long time, as many of our people have. And by all means have fun — what's the point of all the hard work without enjoying yourself? If you're having a good time, so will all your people and what a great place to work that will be.
If it weren't for a book, “Advise & Consent,” about the machination of Washington, I may not have become a reporter in the D.C. office of Ad Age. I have often wondered if I would have ended up at our company if I hadn't happened to read that novel. It was never cast in stone that I would end up here.
My career at Ad Age began in 1960 after graduating from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. (I was sports editor of The Daily Northwestern when the Wildcats football team ranked No. 2 in the nation after winning its first six games of the season; unfortunately, we lost the last three.) I didn't wait around for the graduation ceremony — I took off for Washington in the green Ford Falcon my parents bought me, and went to work for the Washington editor of Ad Age, Stan Cohen, my first boss and my best boss.
I hope if we're respected for one thing during our 100 years, it's for hiring exceptional people who stay with us for most of their careers. Stan Cohen had a profound impact on Ad Age during his 44 years with us, and so did legendary people like Sid Bernstein (when you received one of Sid's notes telling you what a good job you were doing, it was your proudest moment).
Sid started as an office boy — he got the job when the guy we first hired didn't show up the next day—then served as editor and publisher of Ad Age and became president of our company.
Sid was the guy my dad relied on most, next to my mother, Gertrude Crain, who played an extraordinary role in building our company and making sure it had all the attributes of a family company. My mom took over as chairman after Dad died in 1973, and before that she served as secretary-treasurer, handling our investments and getting a great return on our money. Mom got the job after Dad set up one of the first profit-sharing plans in 1941. Mom asked him how he was going to invest the money and he said, “Why don't you do it?”
Mom, who died in 1996, played a tremendous role during her tenure as chairman. She loved to celebrate with our people, and she worked effortlessly and naturally to make everyone feel appreciated and part of our family. And she also presided over some terrific growth years for our company, during which we started or acquired a half-dozen publications, including Crain's Detroit Business, Rubber & Plastics News, Crain's Cleveland Business and Crain's New York Business. When my brother Keith or I wanted to expand, she made sure it made sense and we were totally committed to the project's success.
I had a chance meeting with Ernie Zielasko, the founder and editor of Rubber & Plastics News, at an American Business Press management conference in 1975. We had coffee and agreed to exchange publications. A month or two later, I wrote Ernie and asked if he and his partner Chris Chrisman would be interested in selling. He said no.
Four years earlier Ernie, backed by a handful of other investors, formed Heer Publishing Co. to start RPN from the rubber capital of Akron. Chris joined six weeks after the first issue as vice president of sales. The publication became profitable in 1973 and had gotten 80 percent of the market from two competing magazines.
My brother Keith and I were very impressed with RPN's performance, and we went to Akron to make an offer. But Ernie and Chris turned us down because, as Ernie said, “We were afraid of losing our editorial independence. I had heard horror stories about small trade books being forced to compromise their editorial integrity after being sold to larger publishing houses.”
But we kept up our pursuit, and finally Keith asked them to name their own price. They did some research and came up with a number that Keith accepted on the spot with the proviso that both Ernie and Chris stay on. Both men agreed, and it was a purchase that worked out well for both sides. It led to the founding of Tire Business in 1983, and Ernie and Chris also were involved in the early years of Crain's Cleveland Business. In addition, Chris was the original publisher of Plastics News, which we started publishing in 1989.
Dad was always very astute about putting the right person in the right place at just the right time. When Automotive News came up for sale in 1971, Dad wouldn't have been interested if it hadn't been for my brother Keith. Keith loved cars, and my dad knew that appointing him publisher of Automotive News would give our new publication the best chance for success. When we bought it, it was losing a half-million dollars a year. Six months later, it was breaking even, and now it is our biggest and most profitable publication. Keith quickly got to know all the important movers and shakers in Detroit, and he was the first journalist to find out that Henry Ford II had fired Lee Iacocca. When he called Lee at home, his first words were, “Say it isn't so, Lee.”
So many great people have contributed to our success. That's the legacy, nourished by people who cared deeply about what they were helping to create, that has endured for 100 years.
And I'm betting we have what it takes to burnish that legacy for at least another 100 years. Chris and KC, my brother Keith's sons, are playing important roles in the business as exec VPs. My daughter Cindi serves on our board of directors, and my granddaughter Candace has just been promoted to senior events manager at Ad Age.
Thanks to all of you for your support, and we pledge to work hard to continue to be worthy of it.
Rance Crain is president of Crain Communications Inc., which publishes Plastics News, along with about two dozen business publications and related digital properties.