Navigating Tough Transitions

How to handle elements out of your control so your business can succeed.

In 1993, I founded CR&A Custom. Today, we are a full-service large-format digital print production and visual display company in Los Angeles. I was also pregnant with my oldest son, Chris – I just didn’t know it. Four months in, I thought I had a really bad flu. I visited my neighbor, who was pregnant, and asked her to share her symptoms. As she spoke, I remember saying, “I have that. I have that, too. Isn’t that the flu?” I congratulated my friend and wished her the best during her pregnancy, and then drove straight to the pharmacy. Needless to say, my first year in business was challenging.

There are many obstacles we face as business owners, some of which are completely out of our own control. From personal life changes – like becoming pregnant – to internal and external conditions in your business and in our industry – like adding new offerings to stay relevant throughout the years – there will always be experiences that will test us and our companies. The important thing is to tackle them head-on so we come out stronger than ever.

Finding a Niche – Or Many
CR&A Custom was founded as a custom apparel manufacturer, specializing in sublimation printing. My background is in fashion design and marketing, with degrees from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising and the University of California, Los Angeles. My husband, Masoud, was a fashion designer with a degree from the University of London and became my partner after my first year in business when he saw I made a profit. We designed and produced custom apparel items for clients such as Sony Pictures, Paramount, and Universal, and created thousands of items for many of their featured films, such as “A Beautiful Mind,” “Gosford Park,” “As Good as It Gets,” and “There’s Something About Mary.” My favorite project was creating jackets for Ricky Martin’s “Living La Vida Loca” tour. The ladies who sewed in our factory and I wrote him love notes with our numbers and then sewed them into the liner of his jacket. We are still waiting for the liner to break and to receive his call.

We also designed, manufactured, and engineered motocross jerseys for companies such as Puma, the Corona Racing team, Troy Lee Designs, and Ralph Lauren. Motocross sublimation jerseys are very technical in design; they have stripes and branding that cannot vary in color. The shades of the colors must match, otherwise the chest does not match with the right or left sleeve. The cost for printing and manufacturing sublimated T-shirts was decreasing in the early 2000s, and we began turning down large contracts due to quotes our clients were receiving from manufacturers in other countries. As a manufacturer in the US, complying with all the regulations required makes it tough to be competitive against other countries.

The choice to enter the large-format industry came from many of these external changes in the environment (paired with the fact that it seemed so exciting and interesting). Technology began to have a direct effect on how companies operated during our early years. By 1993, many companies were communicating using AOL, so a design concept could be sent via email at 5 p.m. to a client, who could share the idea with China or another manufacturer outside the US. By the time we woke up, it was a virtual sample. And in 2005, the World Trade Organization abolished textile quotas. This meant that the quote limits in 55 countries no longer existed. So, countries like China could import as much as they could manufacture. We were fortunate to recognize how these changes would affect our industry and decided to shift into a field in which we could continue to serve our clients, but offer another product.

We discussed logistics, technology, how the world was becoming smaller, and how we had global competitors. Our dye sublimation printing background provided a strong knowledge base for the transition. We also developed relationships with vendors who treated us like partners. Our only experience with digital printing up to that point was limited to our Mimaki JV4 machines that produced our sublimation samples, but we knew about textiles. We had a creative design team, manufacturing experience, a background in marketing, and an understanding of the printing process. Our foundation was strong, but the risk was high.

What It Takes
No company can overcome challenges without a very strong culture and a clear understanding of what the leadership is doing. We did not lay anyone off during our transition from a clothing manufacturer to a large-format digital printer. In order to develop a better understanding of what our equipment could print, we had vendors come in and complete workshops with our employees. We didn’t just want the swatchbook; we needed to learn what we could do with our equipment and these new materials. From a marketing perspective, it was fascinating to discover one can work with a broad classification of industries. We found the possibilities were endless, and we were excited to meet new clients. Though the production was in place, landing large contracts took time. It wasn’t always easy to get to the table, but once there, we had the capabilities to perform, and many times, to over-perform. It takes time to win a client’s trust, and sometimes we would print small projects that were not necessarily lucrative just to get a seat at the table.

It also takes a great deal of financial commitment to buy equipment and invest in employees. As our company acquired larger contracts, we partnered with print shops who we felt we could trust not to cross boundaries and reach out to our clients directly. Sometimes this paid off, and other times, unethical behavior did happen, even with employees. But the loyalty of our clients helped us overcome these obstacles. We do have employees who have started their own printing businesses that are not in direct competition with us, and we have helped them grow. Relationships with former employees can be beneficial, as it establishes how we should treat each other as we part ways. Relationships are never broken at the beginning. It’s when changes occur that one’s true colors and values are exposed.

Today, CR&A prints and installs all outdoor advertising media formats throughout the US and Puerto Rico. We are a one-stop shop, from the design process to the finished product. I strongly believe that our clothing engineering experience has allowed us to build and design unique creative printing solutions for our clients. Earlier this year, in celebration of Disney’s Oscar win for “Zootopia,” Inglewood, California’s iconic pastry shop, Randy’s Donuts, was transformed into the favorite doughnut shop of the film’s fictional town, Little Rodentia. It’s no easy task to print, fabricate, and install a printed panel circular fabric within a very limited amount of time and high safety variable, which had to be considered as hundreds of fans arrived early for the reveal. And there’s no room for error when you have television crews arriving to film the installation, and the client is expecting thousands of hungry customers throughout the day.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, I have overcome many obstacles and still face many every day. But, luckily, in our industry, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, or what your gender is. What’s important is that you can perform and offer the best product to your clients – and remember to be yourself in the meantime. I may just be the only print shop owner who has decorated her warehouse with printed cutout chandeliers and uses her finishing table as a buffet table.

Carmen Rad is the founderpreneur of CR&A Custom, a woman- and minority-owned wide-format digital print operation located in Los Angeles, and a member of our Editorial Advisory Board. Follow the one-stop shop on Twitter @cracustom.

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