One of Crain's Secrets to Lasting 100 Years: Impeccable Timing

Starting Ad Age at the Beginning of the Great Depression Was Smart Strategy

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Credit: Crain Communications Inc.

Timing, being in the right place to take advantage of our opportunities, has played a big role in the success of Crain Communications over our 100-year history.

My father, G.D. Crain Jr., who founded our company, even felt his timing was right when he started Ad Age in the beginning stages of the Great Depression.

At the time, Dad was president of the National Conference of Business Paper Editors, and his group met regularly with President Herbert Hoover to discuss the economic health of the country. "We were assured by these authorities that prosperity was just around the corner and the Depression would not last very long," he said. "However, I think I would have gone ahead anyway because I had gotten enthusiastic about the idea." His thinking was that if Ad Age had started under more favorable conditions, other publishers would have been able to counter our limited efforts with more resources.

So timing has always been a key to our success. When my Dad was running his business-news writing service, one of the publications he wrote for was the old Western Underwriter (now the National Underwriter). The paper was edited for agents and brokers -- sellers of insurance -- and my dad thought that the corporate buyers of insurance should have a publication of their own.

He kept his idea on ice for over 50 years, and during the Christmas holidays back in 1966 he asked me if I wanted to become editor of a new insurance publication he had in mind. That's how Business Insurance was born. The next publication, Pensions & Investments, was a spinoff from BI. We wrote about pensions as part of the employee benefits mix in BI, and I realized that nobody was covering the investment side of pensions. We started P&I in 1973, and it's turned out to be one of our biggest winners, thanks to people like Steve Gilkenson, Bill Bisson, Chris Battaglia and Nancy Webman, who just retired after 34 years with us.

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."

Henry also inspired what I consider the best trade ad ever written. Keith knew that Henry was an avid reader of Automotive News, and when he told that to adman Al Ries, whose agency was doing promotional work for AN at the time, Al said "That's your ad." There has never been a more powerful b-to-b ad than: "The trade paper Henry Ford II reads."

Some of our strongest brands -- Crain's Chicago Business, Modern Healthcare, InvestmentNews -- started during my mother Gertrude Crain's tenure as chairman. She took over for my dad when he died in 1973 and served until she passed away in 1996.

Mom was very supportive of both my brother Keith and me when we wanted to expand, but she also grilled us to make sure we were fully committed. When we started Crain's Chicago Business in 1978, I was only half joking when I used to give a talk about how I summoned up my courage and walked boldly into the office of the chairman of the board, saying, "I've got this great idea, Mom."

Timing played a big part in the arrival of CCB. Back in 1977, I was in Houston to give a talk to the local ad club, and afterward Bob Gray, publisher of the Houston Business Journal, was kind enough to take me through his operation and show me how his publication worked and the economics of it. I got to thinking that if it worked in Houston -- and it did -- it would work twice as well in Chicago.

At first, people were a little skeptical about our new paper. Chicago, I found, had a perceptible second-city syndrome. People would say to me, "I think I like it, but if it's so good, why didn't you do it in New York?"

So progress was a little slow until we broke a big story on Sears' 10-year merchandising plans. Newsweek did a story on us calling us "the cheeky young offspring of Advertising Age."

This year also marks the 40th anniversary of when we bought Modern Healthcare. Modern Healthcare became one of our publications because McGraw-Hill had given up on it and wanted to give it to us for free. But since McGraw-Hill was such a good advertiser, we offered $200,000, which the magazine was happy to accept. We changed the emphasis of Modern Healthcare to the business side of running healthcare institutions, and that gave us a distinctive point of view.

So many great people have contributed to our success. In writing about one of them, Charlie Groomes, Sid Bernstein stated that Charlie helped solve difficult, unusual or frustrating problems "always in a manner which ultimately enhanced the company's reputation -- so forcefully and carefully nurtured by founder G.D. Crain Jr. -- for fairness, thoughtfulness, good citizenship, and devotion to a higher order of journalistic endeavor."

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.

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