Crain Communications, Inc. History

740 North Rush Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611-2590

Telephone: (312) 649-5200
Fax: (312) 280-3179

Private Company
Incorporated: 1916 as Crain Publishing Company
Employees: 900
Sales: $240 million (1998)
NAIC: 51112 Periodical Publishers

Company Perspectives:

Crain Communications is primarily a publisher of business, trade and consumer newspapers and magazines. With over 900 employees in offices around the world, we provide vital, informative publications for industry leaders and consumers ... and are the authoritative source for business and trade. Crain Communications ... where the readers came first, from the first day. Key Dates:

Key Dates:

G.D. Crain begins publishing Hospital Management.
Advertising Age debuts.
Company initiates employee profit-sharing plan.
Gertrude Crain becomes chairman following her husband's death.
Crain buys its first consumer magazine, AutoWeek.
Crain's Chicago Business launched as the company's first local business journal.
Gertrude Crain retires in May, and dies two months later.
1998: garners $1 million in annual advertising revenues.

Company History:

Crain Communications Inc. is an anomaly in the business world--a solid, innovative media conglomerate run with the values of a neighborhood grocery. This small, family operation quietly yet rigorously carved a place for itself among the nation's media titans. Rance Crain has called his family's company 'one of the last bastions of caring and humanity' due to its progressive treatment of its employees in an era of downsizing. Crain is headquartered in Chicago, with 15 offices around the world, and publishes primarily trade periodicals, while also providing subscription, direct mail, and custom printing services. Crain's roster of magazines and news weeklies includes industry heavy-hitters Advertising Age, Automotive News, Business Insurance, Electronic Media, Modern Healthcare, Pensions & Investments, Plastics News, and Crain's Chicago Business. Rounding out Crain's holdings are two 100,000-watt Florida Keys radio stations and new ventures into electronic media, such as the highly successful

Freelance Origins

Gustavus Dedman Crain, Jr. (known as 'G.D.') was born in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, in 1885, the second of three boys. Raised in Louisville, G.D. delivered newspapers as a boy. After serving as editor of his high school newspaper, he accepted a scholarship to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, graduating in three years with a masters degree in English. Returning to Louisville, he signed on as a staff reporter with the Times, developing a powerful instinct for breaking news and frequently scooping his rivals, the Herald and Courier-Journal. While writing for the Times, G.D. augmented his income by freelancing for dozens of business papers. Quitting the Times, G.D. Crain hired a small staff and started his own editorial service, churning out news and features on a daily basis. Still G.D. Crain hoped to achieve more, to receive the copy, edit it, and actually publish it.

In 1916, 31-year-old Crain put his experience to the test and founded two specialized periodicals, Hospital Management (HM) and Class. Later that year Crain moved the company, his wife Ailiene, and daughters Jane and Mary to Chicago, a burgeoning hub of the business world. Setting up shop at 608 South Dearborn Street, in what became known as Printer's Row, Crain founded Crain Publishing Company, which revolved around a simple premise: give readers what they want--factual, fairly-reported news written and edited in a professional manner--and they'd keep coming back. G.D. Crain's unbridled enthusiasm and energy became the cornerstone of Crain Publishing Company and its eventual successor, Crain Communications, Inc., while setting the course for a decades-long career in publishing.

Crain's first endeavor, the 36-page, seven-by-ten-inch Hospital Management, debuted in February 1916. Directed toward medical administrators, managers and decision-makers, HM covered the ever-expanding hospital field, competing with a St. Louis-based magazine called Modern Hospital. G.D. Crain's second venture, the smaller-formatted, 32-page Class was a business-to-business digest covering the industrial advertising and sales field. It was also a convenient way to advertise its sibling publication, HM. To devote himself to selling ads and editing copy for Class, Crain hired sportswriter Matthew Foley as editor of HM. In 1919, Crain's older brother Kenneth Crain relocated to Chicago and soon became HM's general manager. By 1922, Crain Publishing was thriving. Yet the year also brought two disparate occurrences with long-reaching consequences: the first was the tragic death of Crain's wife, Ailiene, leaving his young daughters motherless; the second, the auspicious appearance of a young man named Sidney R. Bernstein. Under Foley's tutelage, Bernstein was given his first writing opportunity and was named HM's assistant editor, one of many titles he would hold over the next 71 years.

A New Ad Age in 1930

In 1927, Class (revamped in the early 1920s as Class & Industrial Advertising) was now called Class & Industrial Marketing and grew from pocket-sized to a more accepted 8.5-by-11 inches. Also during this time, G.D. Crain, longtime friend Keith Evans, and other colleagues helped create the National Industrial Advertisers Association to address the collective and individual problems of industrial advertisers and marketers. In the months before Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, G.D. Crain finalized details for a news weekly called Advertising Age. On January 11, 1930, without knowing the full extent of the nation's financial quandary, he published the premiere issue of Ad Age, promoted as the 'national newspaper of advertising.' With no advance notice, 10,000 copies of the 12-page edition appeared on the desks of professionals selected from the Standard Advertising Register. Its premise was to print all news related to advertising and marketing and, moreover, to cover what the industry's bible, Printer's Ink, deemed unimportant. Many thought Crain made a crucial mistake with the precipitous launch of Ad Age; not only was Printer's Ink a well-established and respected business periodical, but the risks were phenomenal. However, G.D. Crain's passion would not be quelled, and years later he admitted he probably would have gone ahead with Ad Age despite even the worst financial forecasts. (His risks paid off handsomely--Printer's Ink folded in 1967 and Ad Age has been considered the 'publication of record' for decades.) In the lean years of the Depression, the previously healthy Class and HM suffered losses and wavered in red ink. To the credit of Ellen Krebby, who was hired in 1921 to handle the office and accounting, Crain never realized the tenuity of the company's financial status. In 1933, rather than sacrifice Class altogether, it became a special section of Ad Age until ad sales and circulation could recover.

Ad Age was not profitable until 1934, four years after its birth. In the interim, Sid Bernstein was named assistant to the publisher in October 1931, and Ad Age grew to average 16 pages with a circulation of 9,000, an increase of nearly 1,400 over the previous year. G.D. Crain's younger brother, Murray Crain, became Ad Age's managing editor, and the three brothers made Crain Publishing Company a family affair. In January 1935, tragedy struck when Matt Foley suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 44. Unable or unwilling to run HM without Foley's guidance and verve, Crain sold it. Oddly enough, HM would eventually return to Crain after its buyers neared bankruptcy. Though the medical magazine would be sold again in 1952, the company would once again delve into the medical field by purchasing Modern Healthcare from McGraw-Hill in 1976.

In June 1935, Class reemerged from Ad Age as Industrial Marketing, then underwent its final name change to Business Marketing in 1936, its 20th anniversary. Amidst a flurry of retail and advertising agency growth in the area, Crain relocated north to 100 East Ohio Street. This year was also pivotal for G.D. Crain personally: while meeting with a sales executive of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in New York City, he met a 25-year-old woman named Gertrude Ramsay, a secretary at NBC's offices in Rockefeller Center. After a whirlwind courtship, the two married, and Gertrude was whisked off to Chicago. The company, meanwhile, known as Advertising Publications, Inc., opened an office in Washington, D.C. in 1939, and Crain relinquished his status as Ad Age editor-in-chief by appointing Bernstein (then director of research and promotion) to editor, while moving managing editor Irwin Robinson to New York full-time in 1940. As the United States became embroiled in World War II, Crain declared, 'There are many essential services which advertising is called upon to perform in wartime,' and set about fulfilling this obligation. On the homefront, Gertrude had given birth to sons Rance (1938) and Keith (1941).

In 1943, Advertising Publications implemented an unheard of concept--an employee profit-sharing plan--fully funded by the company and the first of many employee benefits programs. When World War II ended, Crain and Bernstein rethought priorities in preparation for a postwar society. In a January 7, 1946 editorial, Bernstein announced 'Advertising has emerged from the war with a new stature, new tasks and new duties. It will never again be confined only to the sale of goods and services.' This year also marked Ad Age's foray into agency profiles, breaking the industry's silence on billings. The 1950s brought the addition of a features section and the launch of the yearly 100 Leading National Advertisers poll; by the end of the decade, circulation hit 48,400 with the purchase of rival Advertising Agency. Once more outgrowing its premises, Advertising Publication moved into a remodeled warehouse at 200 East Illinois Street, its home until April 1962 when operations moved to 740 North Rush Street.

New Endeavors in the 1960s-70s

New developments in the 1960s included the debut of Advertising Requirements (later Advertising & Sales Promotion then Promotion before merging into Ad Age and shutting down in May 1974), and what many termed a changing of the guard in 1964. Nearing 80, G.D. Crain stepped down as publisher of Ad Age, a post he had held for 34 years, naming Bernstein president and publisher while assuming the newly-created position of chairperson. The next several years marked both growth and loss: a publication for college students, Marketing Insights, would fail after a few semesters, but Business Insurance, first published in October 1967, and the acquisition of American Drycleaner, American Laundry Digest, American Co-Op and American Clean Car substantially increased the company's holdings. To better represent its diversity, Advertising Publications became Crain Communications Inc. and created an American Trade Magazines subsidiary with offices at 500 North Dearborn Street, in Chicago.

As Rance and Keith Crain grew up, curiosity in the family business gave way to genuine interest. Generally considered opposites, Rance and Keith familiarized themselves with Crain Communications through years of Saturday office visits and nightly dinner conversations with their parents. Yet as Rance and Keith chose their divergent paths up the corporate ladder, each faced the daunting task of proving himself to be more than the boss's son. After studying at DePauw University in Indiana for two years (he later received an honorary degree in 1987), Rance Crain attended Northwestern University to study journalism, becoming sports editor of the Daily Northwestern. His tenure at Crain began as a cub reporter for the New York and Washington, D.C. bureaus of Ad Age, where his peers gave him little support and less chance of succeeding. However, Rance Crain persevered, doggedly tracking stories and proving both his mettle and writing skills. His management expertise and sagacity would prove paramount to the success of his greatest personal triumph, Crain's Chicago Business, as well as the continued prosperity of Ad Age. 'Ad Age would have been bland and faceless had Rance not been there,' commented Niles Howard, a former Ad Age reporter. Lou DeMarco, a former vice-president and retired Ad Age publisher, concurred: 'Rance's enthusiasm is limitless; you can't satisfy his hunger for new ideas.'

In 1978, Rance Crain channeled his energy in a new direction. After meeting Bob Gray, publisher of the Houston Business Journal, he decided a business weekly about the Chicago area 'would be twice as successful' as the Houston endeavor. Marking the first public use of the Crain family name, Crain's Chicago Business seemed blessed by fate; the Chicago Daily News was going under, and several staffers including Dan Miller, Sandy Presman, and Joe Cappo jumped ship to the new Crain publication. The rest, as they say, is history--though not a smooth one. Just as Rance Crain's drive and enthusiasm pushed Ad Age and Crain's Chicago Business to the forefront, there were misfires as well. Neither Thursday (a jazzy, mid-week edition of Ad Age), The Collector-Investor nor Crain's Illinois Business generated sufficient interest, and Crain's New York Business faced an uphill battle after its founding in 1985. Yet Rance Crain stated unequivocally that he'd never give up on Crain's New York Business, believing it would someday be to the New York area what Crain's Chicago was to the Midwest.

As Rance Crain's newshound instincts had propelled his career, so Keith Crain's abiding interest in cars was the backbone of his own career. A car enthusiast since his teens, Keith Crain attended Northwestern University then sold ads and worked on a variety of Crain publications before heading to the company's offices in Detroit to indulge his passion. In 1970, on Keith Crain's behalf, Bernstein bid on the downtrodden Automotive News (AN), a 46-year-old weekly tabloid based in Detroit. Keith Crain was not only familiar with the internal workings of cars, but soon demonstrated an innate sense of how a trade magazine about vehicles should be written, edited, and marketed. Publisher of AN at the age of 30, the often brash, always pertinacious Keith Crain won over Detroit's plutocracy and solidified a place among them. Keith's first AN issue came out on June 7, 1971; within six months, it was breaking even and eventually secured a 100 percent paid circulation. As the Detroit office boomed, Keith purchased Akron-based Rubber & Plastics News in 1976, stipulating that editor and publisher Ernie Zielasko and Lowell (Chris) Chrisman, vice-president of sales, come along. Rubber & Plastics News's first issue under the Crain Communications banner appeared in April, signifying an important venture into the Akron/Cleveland area.

In 1977, Keith Crain led the company into virgin territory with the purchase of AutoWeek, Crain's first consumer periodical in 61 years of publishing. Overhauling the tabloid into a glossy magazine, management saw AutoWeek's circulation soar from 25,000 to nearly 280,000. Zielasko and Chrisman, the dynamic duo of Rubber & Plastics News, were also the driving force behind the formation of Crain's Cleveland Business in 1980, which overtook its competition, the Northern Ohio Business Journal, to become the area's definitive news weekly. In May 1981, Keith Crain was named vice-chairman, overseeing Crain Communication's daily activities with Rance Crain. Taking over Keith's former duties as secretary-treasurer were his wife, Mary Kay Crain, as treasurer, and Rance's wife, Merilee Crain, as company secretary (both women, along with Gertrude, Rance, and Keith made up Crain's board of directors).

Gertrude Crain began her own pivotal role in the company when the boys were in high school. A graduate of secretarial school in Manhattan, Gertrude's business interests were put aside to raise her sons. Beginning part-time and progressing to full-time, Gertrude Crain mastered a myriad of tasks that included representing the company at conventions worldwide, overseeing the company's extensive benefits program, monitoring expense accounts, scouring accounts payable invoices, and even signing checks. As the 1970s progressed, Gertrude, Rance, and Keith confidently plied their trades, and Crain Communications hit several milestones. G.D. Crain's pet project, Ad Age, commemorated its 40th anniversary and reached a circulation of 65,000, while the Crain think-tank developed Pensions & Investments in July 1973.

On November 7, 1973, G.D. Crain was felled by a stroke. Though he recovered temporarily, the ebullient patriarch died December 15th at the age of 88. The loss did not send the company into a tailspin, however. In January, Gertrude Crain became chairman of the board; Keith Crain assumed her former duties as secretary-treasurer; Bernstein was named chairman of the executive committee; and Rance Crain became president. Though Gertrude Crain often downplayed her role at the company, under her influence the company more than quadrupled its number of publications, generating revenues of $160 million in 1993, a steep climb from 1974's modest $10 million.

In October 1975, G.D. Crain was posthumously inducted into the American Advertising Federation's Hall of Fame. Fourteen years later, Sid Bernstein, known in the industry as 'Mr. Advertising,' was finally given his due as well, inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame on March 28, 1989. Gertrude Crain, meanwhile, was busy too: in 1986, at age 75, she rode shotgun with NASCAR racer Tim Richmond, hitting 185 mph; for her 77th birthday, she went parasailing in Key Largo. She was recognized not only for her spirit of adventure, but for her professional accomplishments as well. In 1987, she was inducted into Working Woman's Hall of Fame; named Chicagoan of the Year by the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago; and selected as one of the Top 60 Women Business Owners by Savvy magazine. In 1988, she received Mundelein College's 'Magnificat' medal. In 1992, she was inducted into the Junior Achievement Chicago Business Hall of Fame, and in 1993, she was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Magazine Publishers of America. Gertrude Crain also served on the board of directors for several organizations, including the International Advertising Association, the National Press Foundation, and the Advertising Council of New York.

Called 'as near a perfect example of a specialist magazine as is possible to produce' by British journalist Eric Clark, in his book, The Want Makers, Ad Age celebrated its 60th anniversary by unveiling a spiffier look and new logo. Rance Crain, after years of commuting, finally moved east to be near Crain's New York offices. On May 29, 1993, another Crain legend, 86-year-old Sid Bernstein, died. 'Sid Bernstein has always served as the editorial conscience of our company,' Rance said in a tribute published in Ad Age shortly after Bernstein's death. The company carried on, expanding in the memory of both G.D. Crain and Bernstein. In 1994, in a joint venture with America On-Line, Crain's Chicago Business and Crain's Small Business were hooked up to Chicago On-Line. In the fall, Crain staffers laid the groundwork for two new publications, Franchise Buyer and Waste News, set to debut in the spring of 1995.

In the mid-1990s, with Gertrude Crain well past traditional retirement age, the industry was rife with speculation about who would take the reins of Crain when the time came. 'If you ask my mother about succession plans,' Keith noted, 'she'd probably wonder about how to replace Rance or me, because she plans to outlive both of us.' Though Rance and Keith had taken Crain's interests to new highs, some critics had found fault with the brothers' unusual brand of decision-making, such as choosing ventures based on interest and convenience rather than profit. When Gertrude Crain was asked in a 1987 interview what the biggest problems facing the company were in the near future, she quipped 'Rance and Keith.' One thing was certain: Gertrude, Rance, and Keith would always be united in perpetuating G.D. Crain's vision. As Nancy Millman, who wrote a family profile for Chicago magazine in 1993, pointed out: 'The last time a Chicago media empire passed to two brothers with very different personalities and interests, Marshall and Ted Field ended up selling the Chicago Sun-Times to Rupert Murdoch--a spot of history that isn't lost on the journalists at Crain.'

New Frontiers in the Late 1990s

The increasing globalization of the auto industry spurred Crain to launch Automotive News Europe in February 1996. The new sister publication to the 70-year old Automotive News was based in London. In the United States, local city magazines were receiving declining support from national advertisers, making them less viable as stand-alone publications. In the fall, Crain announced plans to incorporate Detroit Monthly as a supplement to Crain's Detroit Business.

Gertrude Crain retired as chairman in May 1996. In her 22 years in the role, the company's annual sales increased from $10 million to nearly $200 million. Keith Crain attributed this success to her ability to spot and nurture talent. She was also remembered for bringing a sense of family to the company as she guided it to tremendous growth. She died on Cape Cod on July 20 at the age of 85. Her sons pledged to keep the business family-owned.

Also that year, American City Business Journals bought CityMedia, reducing the number of large players in business journals to only two. Most were locally owned by small, independent operators. American City, owned by Advance Publications and a sister company to Random House, held 34 after the acquisition, six of which had been CityMedia's, while Crain owned four, in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York.

Keith Crain became the company's third chairman in February 1997, while Rance Crain remained president. During this time, Keith Crain was known to preach about the importance of maintaining editorial integrity on the lawless World Wide Web. Nothing else could win reader loyalty in the long run, he maintained. The company's own local web sites were sometimes criticized for simply skimming the content of the print products they represented. Still, billed $1 million a year in advertising revenues in the late 1990s; the timeliness of the content was a key selling point. Ad Age also sent out stories via a fax service as well as on the profitable Daily World Wire, a subscription-based service for corporate clients. The site also registered 200,000 new subscriptions a year for the print product.

Crain launched the weekly InvestmentNews in September 1997. Its audience included investment advisers, financial planners, and attorneys. Another new quarterly was Automotive Global Quarterly, the official magazine of the International Federation of Automotive Engineering Societies, which debuted the next year. Crain bought Media International from Reed Business Information in March 1999, and the London-based monthly, which had been started in 1974, was soon incorporated into Advertising Age International.

Crain grew fast in the late 1990s, prompting a series of hirings and promotions. The company fostered an entrepreneurial outlook in its editors, whom it saw as most responsible for capturing readers' interest. According to one executive, the editor-as-salesperson could lead the ad sales force to a new level. As it approached a new millennium, Crain was relocating its New York offices, where it employed 200 staffers. Keith Crain told Folio that integrating the Internet into the company's traditional publishing remained its largest issue.

Principal Subsidiaries: Crain Associated Enterprises Inc.; Crain Broadcasting, Inc.; Crain Communications Europe LLC.

Principal Competitors: Advance Publications Inc. (American City Business Journals); The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.; Primedia Inc.; VNU N.V.

Further Reading:

  • Bernstein, Sid, 'A Little Book of Proven Truths,' Ad Age, June 8, 1992, p. 19.
  • Borden, Jeff, 'A `Quiet Trailblazer' Is Remembered,' Crain's Chicago Business, July 29, 1996, p. 1.
  • Crain, Rance, 'A Good Idea Can Take Time to Bear Fruit,' Pensions & Investments, October 19, 1998, p. 52.
  • ------, 'If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em,' Ad Age, May 25, 1992, p. 28.
  • ------, 'Mom Knew: Treat the Staff Like Family,' Ad Age, May 27, 1996.
  • ------, 'New Course in Adopt-A-School,' Ad Age, October 27, 1986, p. 58.
  • ------, 'New Worlds to Conquer,' Ad Age, January 21, 1991, p. 34.
  • ------, 'The Conscience of Our Company,' Ad Age, June 7, 1993, p. 22.
  • ------, 'The Daredevil of Publishing,' Ad Age, July 19, 1993, p. 17.
  • ------, 'Wear-Down School Prevails,' Ad Age, February, 4, 1991, p. 24.
  • 'Crain Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from Magazine Publishers,' Automotive News, August 1989, p. 22.
  • 'Crain Remembered by Friends, Family,' Ad Age, July 29, 1996, pp. 1, 24.
  • Danzig, Fred, 'Sid Bernstein Leaves a Legacy of Ideals, Progress,' Ad Age, June 7, 1993, p. 1.
  • ------, 'Triumphs and Failures: Six Decades of Marketing's Roller Coaster Ride,' Ad Age, June 18, 1990, p. 50.
  • Goldsborough, Robert, The Crain Adventure: The Making & Building of a Family Publishing Company, Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC Business Books, 1992.
  • Love, Barbara, 'A Stepping Stone for Editors,' Folio, November 1, 1993, p. 10.
  • ------, 'What Are You Doing to Develop Your Editors as Entrepreneurs?' Folio, Folio: Plus, July 1998, p. 9.
  • Millman, Nancy, 'Two Crains Running,' Chicago, April 1993, p. 73.
  • 'The 1987 Working Woman Hall of Fame,' Working Woman, November 1987, p. 107.
  • Silber, Tony, 'Business Title Targets Detroit's Foreign Visitors,' Folio, June 1991, p. 21.
  • Stell, Jennifer F. 'Challenges for the New Year,' Folio, Outlook 2000, January 2000, p. 92.
  • Tannenbaum, Jeffrey, 'Franchise-News Junkies,' Wall Street Journal, September 28, 1994, p. B2.
  • Wilkinson, Stephan, 'The Keeper (and Stoker) of the Company Flame,' Working Woman, October 1987, p. 70.
  • Yakal, Kathy, 'Read (Not Quite All) About It!,' Barron's, January 20, 1997, pp. 54, 56.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 35. St. James Press, 2001.