The reinvention of CR&A Custom Inc.
By Carmen Rad
It was the right place at the right time. Looking back, it seems a bit surreal to even qualify that moment as such, but it is true. We were starting to develop relationships with some of the larger hospitals in the Los Angeles area, so I was in a meeting completely unrelated to what would end up being a seismic event that would change everything for all of us.
The buyer I was meeting with was called away, so I ended up getting pulled into another meeting filled with environmental specialists staring at a bunch of pieces of papers on the wall with numbers written on them. Every area of the small room was covered with names and numbers and notes. The information they were trying to decipher related to the supply chain channels in each country—and how fast, if at all, these channels could get items like swabs, alcohol sanitizer, masks, etc., to the U.S.
It was the beginning of what would become a race to score supplies in the initial frontline defense against the global pandemic. Nearly six months before the top came off of everything, I had a front row seat to the impact COVID-19 would have on all of us. What I remember most from the experience is the fear in each of their eyes.
Everything was about to change.
With a background in promotional products, I knew that my presence there was important, even if nobody else knew it quite yet. After leaving the meeting, I did a quick assessment of what I could do and called the buyer back.
“Companies change course every day. The smart ones are constantly refining, changing and altering their mission statements to meet the ever-changing demands of the spaces they work in.”
“I found 10,000 masks,” I told him. “I am going to bring you some samples.”
Upon my return, I met with several environmental specialists. They pored over the masks, taking them on and off, and sifting through every part of how they were constructed. They checked every detail—things like the little metal pieces and spaces for ventilation.
One of the specialists handed a mask back to me and asked, “Can you get me a million?” We got them the masks but it required a different level of commitment.
In between wrapping my brain around the intrinsically complex process of having to ship masks halfway around the world, there also was the matter of being able to fund the endeavor. To make this happen, I would have to risk everything. I went into my personal funds after going back and forth with my bank, which said they needed a copy of a purchase order to allow me to secure funding. I had been in business for 26 years—more than two decades of a perfect record of business. I even had an $800,000 line of credit that I never tapped into.
Companies change course every day. The smart ones are constantly refining, changing and altering their mission statements to meet the ever-changing demands of the spaces they work in. But this was different. CR&A Custom Inc. was a sign company. For decades, we created banners that have been visible across the greater Los Angeles area.
When the pandemic hit at full force, we employed 41 people operating in a family-like atmosphere in close proximity to one another from a 26,000-square-foot facility that handles design, printing and finishing. We had to furlough more than half our team in March 2020, and gradually started bringing people back as production increased. In addition, we needed to take great precautions conforming to the changing policies. Today, we are increasing our team as the event industry starts to open back up. Our hope is to be back with a team of 41 by the end of 2022.
During COVID, while working at a hospital, I received a call from a mom who was working in the emergency room. We had just installed a large “Heroes Work Here” sign. She called me on a Wednesday and said she needed a sign by Friday. Her son was about to graduate and she wanted a graduation-themed yard sign for him.
She was so busy working long hours that she didn’t have time to prepare for his graduation. She lived just a few miles from my home, so I suggested she come by and pick it up. She was so excited that she sent me a photo as soon as she returned home.
I thought to myself, “Maybe others might want one, too.”
So I listed the service on my Etsy store. A few minutes later, I was receiving requests from all over the country, including one from Japan. Orders were coming in almost every seven to 14 minutes. In total, we processed 900 orders from May to June, which helped us keep many of our people employed.
When the graduation season ended, we began creating banners for everything from birthdays, baby showers, anniversaries, wedding-themed valentines, medical graduation, etc. Since May 2020, we have created more than 147 collections.
COVID opened up a whole new industry for yard sign and balloon decorators. Women from all over the world created small businesses out of their homes, building backdrops and balloon decorations for their friends, families and clients. I love working with them, helping them to share their sentiments and elevating their services via large format printing technology.
Entrepreneurs know how to live in the moment—to live for the moment. There are just certain things in business and life that you know. We are risk takers and gamblers. Entrepreneurs are supposed to see things—and to think—differently. Deep down I knew this was a risk worth taking.
From ground zero
Encompassing five departments, CR&A Custom Inc. designs, prints, manufactures and installs an array of visual products, including banners, flags, signs, building wraps and fleet graphics. I started the business in 1993 from my home in San Gabriel. I was 26. I had a telephone, a computer, a file cabinet and my mother as my only employee.
There was no outside funding or equity partners. No loan to secure. It was just my mother and I working from an extra bedroom. With a background in fashion, having studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, I started out making custom clothing, promotional items, and embroidery work, networking with contacts I made as a multi line rep. One of the first items I made was Madonna’s Down Under jackets in Australia. The suede jackets were sprinkled with bedazzled jewelry.
“Being a minority, a woman, an entrepreneur and a leader are roles I take to heart. With each step, I understand the balance I must continue to take.”
My first entrepreneurial pivot came in 1995, when after a series of changes to international textile and apparel trade took hold, I knew we could not compete anymore. The eventual elimination of quotas that opened the U.S. to more imports ripped a hole in our company strategy.
Teaming with my husband, Masoud, who had joined me as my COO, we transformed CR&A into a large-format digital printer. The strategy was to offer different products to the same customers.
As a Latina woman, I have been proud of the exceptional brand we have built in the large-format digital printing and outdoor advertising sectors. Today, CR&A Custom is among only a handful of these types of businesses in the country that are minority (Hispanic) and woman-owned. Located in the heart of downtown LA, our team is a full-service company capable of designing, manufacturing, printing and installing commercial signage and outdoor advertising formats. That includes billboards, building wraps, trade show exhibits, wall/window/floor graphics, point-of-purchase displays, vehicle wraps and fleet graphics, and more.
Examples of the CR&A brand can be found around the world, from the oversized banners at Staples Center and LA Live entertainment campus, as well as in the work for major brands in the United States, Puerto Rico and Dubai.
“Reinvention is the key to sustainability. As long as we can continue to keep that door open, we will get our opportunities.”
I was born in Puerto Rico. My family moved to the Bronx, New York, when I was two years old, where we lived until I was 11. We moved to California. I came to Los Angeles when I was 18. Over the years I have been surrounded by lots of mentors on a wide variety of leadership levels. Being blessed by these relationships has helped me grow into the leader I aspire to be. A part of those aspirations is to continue to give back to the industry, community and networks I serve; organizations like the National Association of Women Owned (NAWBO-LA), where I served as president in 2014 and 2015.
Being a minority, a woman, an entrepreneur and a leader are roles I take to heart. With each step, I understand the balance I must continue to take, knowing that nothing is ever going to be given to me (or anyone else). All I have ever asked for is a seat at the table, and opportunity to go through the door and make my way.
The entrepreneur spirit is alive in me—alive in our industry. As long as we continue to build and maintain relationships, and embrace creativity and innovation, we will prosper.
Reinvention is the key to sustainability. As long as we can continue to keep that door open, we will get our opportunities.
Carmen Rad is the principal founder and CEO of CR&A Custom Inc., a large-format digital printer in Los Angeles that produces and installs all types of signage, from retractable banners, wall murals, vehicle wraps and billboards. With an award winning, in-house design team and the latest state-of-the-art equipment available, the LA-based company assists customers from concept to manufacturing and installation, serving all 50 U.S. states, Canada and the Caribbean.