From dressing singer Ricky Martin to dressing King Kong, it’s been an interesting 25-year journey for Carmen Rad, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based CR&A Custom and the country’s only woman founder and Latina running a large-format printing company.
Working out of a renovated 112-year-old warehouse outfitted with $5.5 million in state-of-the-art equipment, CR&A Custom’s 43 employees can produce, daily, more than 130,000 square feet of graphics. Think oversized banners, pop-up displays, billboards and exterior signage, like the giant L.A. Kings T-shirt her crew put on King Kong at Universal CityWalk Hollywood during the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. And building wraps like the ones Rad’s firm installed around the parking structure of the FBI’s San Diego field office.
CR&A Custom works with some of the biggest brands, including Coca-Cola, the NBA, Staples Center and The Walt Disney Company. But it’s a drastic shift from what Rad envisioned when she launched her company in 1993.
A well-laid plan
An alumna of Los Angeles’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Rad imagined a fashion career much like that of her husband Masoud, a fashion designer with a degree from the University of London and now CR&A Custom’s chief operations officer. Wanting to avoid the high capital investments and the enormous excess inventories his former upscale fashion line entailed, Rad structured her business as a specialty embroiderer, producing limited-run jackets, shirts, totes and novelty-branded items.
In 1997, she expanded her services to include sublimation printing, which offers superior resolution and precise color-matching on fabrics, such as those used for motocross jerseys. Over the next eight years, CR&A Custom steadily added A-list clients like Sony Pictures, Paramount and Universal Studios and several films, including “A Beautiful Mind,” “As Good as It Gets” and “There’s Something About Mary.” The company also produced specialty apparel for a host of top entertainers like Ricky Martin. (Rad confessed: sewn inside the lining of Martin’s “Living La Vida Loca” tour jacket are the names and phone numbers of the women who made it, hers included.)
But in 2005, the firm began to struggle. By abolishing international textile import quotas, the World Trade Organization flooded the U.S. market with cheap apparel. Stringent U.S. regulatory requirements made business more expensive for domestic textile producers. And because of the Internet, customers could undercut American suppliers by sourcing the lowest-priced customized apparel from anywhere in the world. It was time to pivot.
A better game plan
Rad had already begun transitioning operations to digital printing and visual display production. Servicing existing apparel customers while investing in a new product line was a smart but high-risk strategy that stretched the bottom line. (She gave up seven months of salary to avoid cutting staff.)
“We had strong printing and manufacturing capabilities, a creative design team, marketing experience and familiarity with special events,” said Rad. “And clients wouldn’t be going overseas to buy printing services.”
Transparency with its customers went a long way during the company’s 1-1/2-year transition. “They understood and supported what we were doing,” said Rad, a former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners’ Los Angeles chapter. “Still, we were uncomfortable asking customers to pay up front. It was not the way we did business but when you’re trying to survive, you need to let go of your ego.”
The journey continues
CR&A Custom not only survived but has become the only certified minority-and woman-owned firm of its kind in the U.S.—and in an industry that’s stubbornly male-dominated.
“In our business and industries like construction, men are given the benefit of the doubt about their capabilities while women have to prove them,” she explained. “But women see things from a different perspective, which can be a competitive advantage.”
Rad has had to compete on another front, too. As a Los Angeles Latino Chamber of Commerce board member, she is leading efforts to level the playing field for minority businesses seeking to work with prime contractors. “A lack of transparency and lax compliance has enabled some prime contractors to game the City of Los Angeles’ contracting system. We’re working with city managers to improve their policies so that all businesses have a better fighting chance.”FBI San Diego»
It’s the kind of moxie that promises to keep the Bronx native in business for another 25 years.