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Friday, March 1, 2024

Keeping Creative

The name of the company recently sold, Clondalkin Group, doesn’t readily reveal the vibrant history of the printing plant begun by a steamboat captain that evolved into a legendary “Mad Men”-era advertising agency, Keller-Crescent Co.

On the occasion of the sale of Clondalkin announced in mid-November for $455 million to Essentra, a British company that makes specialty plastic, fiber, foam, and packing products for customers around the world, we visited with officials at the Dutch company that acquired Keller-Crescent in May 2007 at their offices and manufacturing plant at 1100 E. Louisiana St. We learned the narrative of this influential company in Evansville’s history is revealed in the stories of current and former employees and also stored in a room — the former multimedia sound booth of Keller-Crescent Co. where dozens of storage boxes reprise the company’s history.

The Evansville facility is one of 24 properties employing a combined 2,400 people that Essentra will acquire. This reputation and tradition, which has long been attractive to buyers, can be traced back to 1885 when Captain William H. Keller settled in Evansville and opened a small letterpress printing shop. He advertised himself as a steam book and job printer, bookbinder, and blank book manufacturer. The Keller Printing Company was founded at 24 Sycamore St.

Briefly in that decade, Keller was associated with William C. Paine, and the press became Keller & Paine. Between 1895 and 1896, the Keller Printing Company moved to 216-220 Locust St. According to the Indiana Historical Society, the company employed about 40 people and printed chiefly one-color catalogs but also foreign-language newspapers and product labels, such as the wrappers for Pretty Soap, the brand of a local soap company.

A Merged Force

In 1906, after a labor strike and a fire that damaged the company’s plant, Keller accepted an invitation to continue his business at the facilities of the Crescent Engraving & Printing Company, founded in 1899 by F.W. Cook Jr., a major Evansville businessman and owner of F.W. Cook Brewing Company. Over the summer of 1906, the owners of the two companies agreed to merge their operations.

The force behind the merger could be attributed to Emil Weil, a German Jewish immigrant, who began working for Keller Printing Company as a shipping apprentice and rose to become a traveling salesman. By 1899, he was manager of the Crescent Engraving & Printing Company. By the time of the merger, he owned interest in both companies and later became president of the Keller-Crescent Printing & Engraving Company. He died in 1917 from a heart attack.

The new company moved into the rebuilt facilities of the Keller-Crescent Printing Company at 220 Locust St. In 1920, the company reorganized. August A. Brentano, an Evansville native who had previously been an advertising business manager for the Evansville Courier, joined the company as vice president and general manager.

Ervin Weil, son of Emil, became secretary. Sam, another son of Emil, also joined the company and later helped establish production techniques and schedules still in use in the 1980s, according to the Indiana Historical Society. In 1931, the company outgrew its previous location and moved into the four-story 50,000-square-foot Bement & Seitz Building at 24-28 S.E. Riverside Drive. Alan Brentano, nephew of A.A. Brentano, later became president and CEO. He was with the company from 1932 until he retired in 1973.

The Keller Printing Company would grow and eventually merge to become Keller-Crescent Printing & Engraving Co. and moved into the four-story 50,000-square-foot Bement & Seitz Building at 24-28 S.E. Riverside Drive in 1931. The building is seen here in an October 1957 photograph by Ben Lewis.

Weathering the War

Under this new leadership, the Keller-Crescent Printing & Engraving Company applied mass production techniques to the printing business, a move that enabled it to weather the Great Depression, per the Indiana Historical Society. The company instituted shorter workweeks and staggered vacations, avoiding layoffs. It also developed a loan program for its employees and managed to make only one wage cut during the Depression, which was restored after only six months. All employees were encouraged to inspect the product at all points in the production process. The financial health of its primary customers also was crucial to the stability.

In 1941, the U.S. entered WWII, and Keller-Crescent, like so many companies, changed to government work producing rifle targets and manuals on how to shoot rifles, among other printed materials. With its men at war, KC was left with a sales staff of two.

In 1948, KC formally established an advertising agency. The plant kept two large presses running to produce labels for Igleheart flour barrels, and work for Mead Johnson and Servel, a manufacturer of gas refrigerators, increased during this time period. The creative advertising department and a small art studio were formed at this point to help its customers more fully promote their products. The company added a small advertising department in the 1930s, but in the 1950s, Keller-Crescent Company dropped the printing and engraving title and moved more fully into advertising, according to the Indiana Historical Society.

Gofer to Go-Getter

In 1957, a “part-time gofer” named Thomas K. Smythe started working at Keller Crescent for a couple hours each day after school at North High School and while attending Evansville College (now the University of Evansville).

“My first job at Keller-Crescent Company was in the sales department doing odd jobs while working after school and during summers,” says Smythe. “Little did I know that this was the start of a 50-year relationship that let me see the organization from the very bottom and from the very top. What a ride!”

At this time, Keller-Crescent was located on the corner of Riverside Drive and Locust Street. The company was the largest printing company in the region, and provided complete graphic arts services. The advertising agency was in its infancy — small in size with about 10 staffers. Alan Brentano had recruited and trained a very talented young sales team that would help lead the future marketing and advertising growth. Among that group was young Alan Graf, future Keller-Crescent president from 1972 to 1980. In the late 1950s, the company was growing and running out of space at its Riverside Drive location. A new building was constructed at its current site at 1100 E. Louisiana St. and in 1961, the company moved to the new location.

“The single story state of the art facility permitted the initial integration of the ad agency and graphics departments, and provided much-improved workflow for the printing operation,” says Smythe, who soon became a schedule expediter with his first desk in the new facility. He met the KC receptionist Greta who he later married.

In 1962, he asked to be promoted to the recently-vacated position of scheduling supervisor. He was not granted the position yet, but continued working for it. In 1964, he was promoted to scheduling supervisor.

In the face of a dying traditional letterpress business in the early 1960s, KC instituted a massive retraining program to enter the board specialty business, packaging, and point of purchase, so as to preserve old letterpress jobs and utilize skills.

“From its earliest business model, KC’s leaders always structured the company to satisfy what clients needed and wanted,” says Smythe, who resides in Newburgh, Indiana. “This very basic business philosophy helped the company prosper for over 122 years and along the way provide a broad and fulfilling range of careers for many, many KCers. The company started as an engraving and printing company but always strived to provide clients the other related services — design, graphics, copywriting, photography, etc.”

In the mid-1960s, Alan Brentano led a pioneering change to brand Keller-Crescent as a Total Marketing Communications organization with a broad range of communications services under one roof.

“It was a one-stop shopping communication center for many clients. Business was booming and the revolutionary TMC marketing concept was a huge success,” says Smythe. 

The Sale and Growth

In 1968, Alan Brentano orchestrated the sale of the company to American Standard, Inc. Keller-Crescent became a part of the Graphic Arts Group, which consisted of five other major printing companies located across the country from San Diego to Philadelphia. The group also had other printing based operations. During this period American Standard, known for its domestic and international plumbing business, become a large corporate conglomerate with holdings in real estate development, bank vaults, railway braking systems, mining equipment, office design equipment, and graphic arts and printing services.

American Standard provided much needed capital to fuel the company’s continued rapid growth, says Smythe. Keller-Crescent employees enjoyed improved employee benefits and advancement opportunities within the corporation. However, the most significant KC benefit was the new business opportunities within the American Standard Corp., says Smythe.

“We captured sizable advertising accounts including the American Standard Plumbing business, WABCO, Mosler Safe, Majestic Fireplaces to name a few,” says Smythe. “Becoming a member of a major corporation honed our ability to prepare carefully conceived long-range business plans, and practice sound financial management to help create shareholder value. It’s noteworthy to recall that American Standard fully embraced our business vision and strategy.”

Smythe was responsible for landing Keller-Crescent’s first major packaging account, Champion Laboratories in Albion, Illinois. Eventually Champion Laboratories became the company’s largest account and the first national broadcast account with television spots featuring spokesman and racecar driver Jackie Stewart.

Current Clondalkin and former Keller-Crescent employee Brad Platts recalls his car being used to help shoot the commercial with Stewart and one day looking up from his desk and seeing actor/comedian Danny Thomas standing in his doorway.

“We would just bring in these people and no one would know they would be here because it was so common,” says Platts, who is a controller and has worked at the company since October of 1971. “It was so exciting. They were always cooking up stuff because they were shooting ads for Whirlpool or Magic Chef. It was an exciting time. There was always something exciting going on whether they were going to the Kentucky Derby with clients or the Indy 500.”

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Keller-Crescent expanded and built a three-story office building to house the advertising, marketing, and public relations staffs. It also built a state of the art sound stage and recording studio to round out its in house services. The company was creating and producing radio and TV commercials for local, regional, and network broadcasts. Evansville resident and former Vice President of Market Research and Planning Jim Weitzel worked for Keller-Crescent’s advertising agency during the peak of the company’s growth.

“We brought in a lot of creative talent to handle all of that growth,” says Weitzel, who worked at the company for 30 years. “The agency is only as good as the creative talent you’ve got — the copywriters, artists — and without them you don’t have an agency. It was an exciting time. If you’ve ever watched ‘Mad Men,’ it was exactly like that. I don’t watch it, because I lived it.”

Weitzel recalls traveling to half a dozen states, arguing with the creative minds of the company over the market research numbers, and Keller-Crescent working with golf legend Jack Nicklaus and his wife Barbara at their Florida home shooting commercials for the Magic Chef microwave oven.
“It was just go, go, go, and there was never a dull moment,” says Weitzel. “It was a lot of fun.”

In an interview for his 50th anniversary at the company, Smythe said that during this time, “we could have sold sand in the desert.” The major strides of the sales force put Smythe on the move upward as he was promoted to vice president, account supervisor in 1974. He was recognized as the first account executive to book $1 million in sales in a six-month period. His upward movement wouldn’t stop there as he quickly rose from group vice president in 1977 to executive vice president of client services in 1979.

That same year, KC was awarded its first CLIO, known as the OSCAR of advertising, for excellence in packaging design. Keller-Crescent also operated an agency office in New York City and in 1980 a full service agency shop opened in Dallas. Keller-Crescent landed national advertising accounts such as Chuckie Cheese, Tony Roma’s, and Rent-A-Center. As the growth of the company continued to climb so did Smythe’s position. By 1980, he was president of Keller-Crescent.

By the early 1980s, the company was the 38th largest advertising company in the nation with annual billings of approximately $85 million and 500 employees. It offered complete marketing and advertising services and produced more than 1 billion printed ads, mailers, and folding cartons per year, says the Indiana Historical Society.

Joan Jackson Shappard, of Newburgh, Indiana, joined Keller-Crescent Advertising as a public relations assistant in 1982 as her second job out of college. She spent 10 years with the company and left in 1992 as the senior public relations manager.

“I worked on automotive accounts primarily and it led to a lot of travel opportunities, traveling to trade shows in California and New York and all over,” says Shappard. “And one year, I practically travelled every week across the U.S. setting up dinner symposiums for Mead Johnson Laboratories. It was really fun because you never knew what you were going to deal with on a daily basis.”

Shappard recalls memories of walking into the agency’s office and seeing a real full grown tiger laying on the floor, which was there for a photo shoot, and one day when she served as a hand model in an ice cream advertisement they were shooting. Because one of the senior employees left during her time there, Shappard was awarded an opportunity and advanced her career in public relations.

“It was a time when women weren’t as advanced at companies, but Keller-Crescent was a company that allowed you those opportunities,” she says. “The head of our media department was female and many of our account executives were female. I made friendships there I still have today. It was one of those places where I really took pride in what I did. It was this huge company that didn’t feel huge. It really felt like a family. The top officers were hands on and working with us on a daily basis.”

In the fall of 1986 American Standard made the decision to divest the Graphic Arts holdings. At the time, Smythe was the vice president of Graphic Arts Group, and Keller-Crescent CEO. The president of American Standard approached him and asked him to buy Keller-Crescent, and in turn Smythe asked fellow top managers to participate in the transaction to take the company private again. The individuals included were Bob Hampel, CFO, Del Graham, executive vice president of production operations, Al Samuelson, executive vice president and creative director, Fred Kitch and Jack Cohen, both executive vice presidents of client services. A merger and acquisition expert Mark Gustafson was included in the ownership group.

“Over the next 20 plus years we were extremely successful in growing the business due in large part to the dedication and support of our talented Keller-Crescent staffers and the confidence and trust placed in us by our clients,” says Smythe. “It was an exciting and fun time for all concerned as we continued to successfully change our business model to promote continued growth and expansion.”

Decade of Change

The 1990s were what Smythe calls “the decade of change.” Computers and the introduction to digital technology changed the landscape of the industry.

“For decades we knew that commercial printing was and would continue to be a price sensitive commodity business,” says Smythe. “We made a decision to exit the commercial printing business except for literature requirements for our agency clients. Our relatively new folded carton business, including graphic and structural design, had grown at a rapid rate. Our unique marketing approach for packaging was twofold — quality and service first and foremost, and second that a carton was not a commodity but rather a form of communications — a client’s sales tool on the retail shelf. This unique positioning was a major point of difference for KC’s packaging services as compared to the huge volume driven packaging firms. The challenge was to build longterm relationships with clients who shared our vision — we did, and this niche business really took off.”

Keller-Crescent moved operations completely into producing pharmaceutical packing and labels from 1989 to 1994. In the mid-90s, Smythe says the company determined that its future rested with its ability to focus on two core businesses — pharmaceutical/healthcare packaging and creative advertising services.

“This decision proved to be highly successful and in less than a decade we became the largest independent pharma/healthcare packaging company in the country,” says Smythe. “We had the good fortune of building strategic alliances with many of the world’s largest pharma/healthcare companies. With Evansville as headquarters as well as a major packaging production facility we expanded our capabilities and capacity by opening facilities in St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Charlotte, North Carolina. We added printed labels and inserts/outserts to the pharma product mix and once again provided many clients with the ‘one-stop shopping’ concept for printed packaging components.”

Smythe had his opportunities to sell, but didn’t. He was waiting for the right one, says Platts.

“Tom Smythe is an extreme visionary,” says Platts. “He would never be looking at next month, he would be looking at where things would be in five to 10 years. He was the most senior employee when he left. He put the company up for sale and pulled it off. Prior to that, he had opportunities to sell it, but he got concerned about the employees and what may happen to them. He wasn’t just out to grease his pocket. I remember when things were really slow and him saying, ‘I can’t cut people.’ They were his family and that’s how he looked at everything.”

Keller-Crescent determined in order to serve its global pharmaceutical packaging clients in Puerto Rico and Europe, a strong business partner was needed. Keller-Crescent selected the Clondalkin Group because of its focus on the pharma/healthcare industry and its existing facilities in North America, Puerto Rico, and in Europe, says Smythe.

“Clondalkin was impressed with KC’s business model and our ability to attract quality driven pharma clients,” says Smythe.

The sale of Keller-Crescent was completed in May 2007. In the following months Clondalkin acquired additional packaging companies and consolidated the various companies under the Clondalkin banner, such as those of Pharmagraphics. Keller-Crescent transitioned from having three locations to having six with the headquarters moving to the Greensboro, North Carolina, facility.

Jim Hummer, director of operations at Clondalkin, says the acquisition then made Clondalkin more attractive for purchase as a whole.

“Overall, it was part of a larger invest in healthcare packaging,” says Hummer. “Clondalkin bought not only Keller-Crescent, but also bought three other companies and molded it into a group. We as the company had the largest U.S. presence in healthcare packaging, which in turn, is why people are interested in buying us now.”

The year 2007 also meant a milestone for Smythe, who celebrated 50 years with Keller-Crescent and retired that year. Bill Mitchell, who previously served as president of Cardinal Health Packaging Services, replaced him. Changes also would come to Keller-Crescent Advertising. Peter Weber, the advertising agency’s president, purchased the ad agency from Clondalkin. The deal closed Nov. 10, 2010. He said the agency did not fit in with the Clondalkin Group’s core business of packaging. The company took on a new name of 10 Over 12 Creative, which is a typesetting and design term that refers to the type of printed words (10-point type) and the spacing in between lines (12 points’ worth of space.) While 10 Over 12 Creative still has a presence in Evansville, its headquarters and operations have moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Looking Back

Seven years after retiring from Keller-Crescent, Smythe still recalls the spirit of the company and how it can’t be found elsewhere.

“There was a spirit about Keller-Crescent that you didn’t find anywhere else. Everyone was energized, passionate, and excited about doing one thing — helping our clients grow,” says Smythe. “A key element in our success was our extraordinary sales and marketing talent. Our account managers built strong business relationships with key clients and served as consultants in helping clients scope out business problems and opportunities so that the advertising was targeted and successful. We established sound business relationships, made lifelong friends, and loved every minute of it.”

Through our research on Keller-Crescent Co., we discovered one of the most influential companies in Evansville’s history is stored in a single room (above) — the former multimedia sound booth of Keller-Crescent, which is shut off in the building occupied by Clondalkin. The room stores old computer equipment, photographs, newspaper clippings, advertisements, and artifacts of a brilliant time in the company’s history. We would like to thank Clondalkin for allowing us to dig through these archives and use these pieces for this story. We also would like to thank all those at Keller-Crescent Co. for sharing memories and guidance. 

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