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Creps United Publications: Fire Kindles Insert Printer's Spirit to Rebuild

May 2014 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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It was a calm, beautiful morning on Oct. 23, 2012, as Amy Creps enjoyed breakfast on the back porch of her home in White Township, Indiana County, Pennsylvania. The porch looked out toward the cluster of buildings that comprised Creps United Publications, of which Amy's husband, Howard, and his cousin, Jake, are managing partners.

The Wednesday morning turned from pleasant to horrifying in the blink of an eye as Amy Creps screamed out, "Oh, my God!"

Howard Creps, who had his back to the porch, turned to see the fireball that flashed through the building. Instinctively, he rushed to the scene, where he found the fire had started inside a press. The blaze didn't remain there for long; it soon spread throughout the facility.

Actually, since the weather had been so gorgeous, a number of the doors were wide open. "Once the negative air pressure caught that, it just took the fire clear through the building," Howard Creps recalls. Within 5-7 minutes, the facility was fully involved.

Miraculously, none of the 50 employees on the floor at the time of the fire were injured. But it took a dozen fire departments from three Pennsylvania counties roughly five hours to extinguish the blaze, which filled the skies with black smoke so dense and billowing that it could be seen for miles. Walls and ceilings buckled under the intense heat, which one firefighter said eclipsed the 1,200-degree mark at the roof.

It took less than a day to obliterate what took 64 years to cultivate. One of the nation's leading providers of grocery and other retail advertising inserts, POP signage and digital printing sat in ruins. Roughly 250 people would be out of jobs, and luck. But, outside of a few minor burns, everyone was OK, physically. People, unlike buildings, cannot be rebuilt.

Fast forward to 2014 when, due to the commitment by ownership to rebuild and with the help of local government and the outpouring of community love and support, Creps United Publications is back in business. "It's been like Christmas every day, with something new in here," Howard Creps enthuses. "Seventeen months from the fire, and here we are, completely rebuilt."

Between the first sight of the fireball that might have brought Creps United Publications to its knees, and the final touches on the new 100,000-square-foot facility with modern amenities, not to mention newer and highly efficient web offset presses that allow the company to do more with less, lies a tale of hope, determination and focus. It's a reminder to any business owner that the Phoenix can rise from ashes, sometimes stronger than ever before.

The one aspect that just might have kept Creps United Publications from drawing its last breath is that its business offices and various functions (prepress, graphic/creative design, photography, sign printing) were located at the company's Water Street facility. The main printing facility lay in ashes, but it was critical that Creps could maintain its headquarters and begin down the path of rebuilding.

"The first thing we did was call our customers and other printers, in order to get their jobs placed," Jake Creps says.

Just one small issue...a week later, Hurricane Sandy struck and, suddenly, printers by the dozen were looking to get their own work placed elsewhere. And, since November and the holidays were just around the corner, capacity was at a premium. But with the help of some coldset newspaper printers, they were able to place the work, even if it meant Creps had to pay a little more for the printing or postage. As far as Creps' customers were concerned, their deliveries were still seamless, and as-promised.

Most of Creps' competitors were understanding, and offered their help. Other businesses circled the skies above Creps and went after their customers directly. As a testament to the company's ability to serve its clients, all but two of Creps' customers stuck with the hampered printer—not a shabby attrition rate.

One of the other essential ingredients in the rebuild was the hiring of a public adjustor to represent the printer from the insurance claim standpoint. That freed the Creps management team to focus its attention on the recovery process as opposed to finagling with claims.

"Looking back, there is no possible way we could have done this by ourselves," Howard Creps remarks. "These guys documented everything, down to the number of paper clips that were in someone's desk drawer."

The rebound wasn't without its painful moments. Virtually everyone from the production side, except for press operators, shift supervisors and those who worked at the Water Street building, were laid off, about 150 in all. The pressmen and supervisors were kept on even though there really wasn't any work for them, because the company couldn't afford to lose such critical, skilled employees. So they were rotated in and given busy work.

"It might have been the toughest thing we ever had to do," Jake Creps says of the layoffs.

Fortunately, the Indiana (PA) community was able to rally around the displaced employees. A Creps family friend orchestrated a fundraising campaign through local banks, providing the workers with needed money, especially with Christmas approaching. Another drive, through the Salvation Army, helped to get the workers back on their feet with money to pay for groceries and bills.

"It was very touching and gratifying to know you live in a real tight-knit community that cares enough to do that type of thing," Jake Creps observes.

The local and county governments also played a role in helping Creps United Publications with the necessary permits and in securing tax abatements. On the latter count, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Indiana County Development Corp. aided the printer in obtaining a Keystone Opportunity Zone property, which provides a 10-year local and state tax abatement.

Actually, Creps United Publications almost rebuilt on its old site, but a misquote on the size of new equipment prompted ownership to look elsewhere. Instead of remaining on 3.5 acres, the company now boasts a sprawling 9.5 acres, with the tax benefits sweetening the pot even more. The layout stresses efficiency, and skylights offer ample ambient lighting.

"It turned out to be a blessing in disguise," Howard Creps exclaims.

If there's one upshot to enduring a fire, it's the opportunity to do a reboot with newer, more modern equipment. With only its salvaged Goss V-30 and a folder acting as incumbent equipment, Creps installed a trio of new Goss Sunday insert web presses: a pair of Sunday 2000i (57˝ width) models and a Sunday 3000i (66˝ width). Automated, closed-loop color controls grace all three new presses, and their fast plate loading and plate changing capabilities are important in an age where shorter, more targeted runs is critical.

Jake Creps notes that some of the new technology on the Sunday presses enables the operators to spend more time helping each other as opposed to baby-sitting a press. Howard Creps also points out that since the presses do not rely on a standard drive train—instead, individual servo motors—it means the operators can change all plates simultaneously, and that noise and heat levels are considerably less than with the older gear.

There is great cause for optimism at Creps United Publications. Ten days before the fire, arch rival Vertis, known for being the low-cost provider, went under and was acquired by Quad/Graphics. Creps has developed relationships with a number of printers in the past 17 months, and they've developed partnerships with them that can provide an alternative to regional and national retailers.

"There may be more of an opportunity with regional and national retailers than there has been in the past," Jake Creps notes. "With this new equipment, our quality is phenomenal. In addition to grocery inserts, we'll be able to compete very well with high-end furniture work."

Creps also aids retailers with their online presence, providing templated solutions for electronic advertisements, as well as assist in setting up online ordering systems, particularly for grocery stores. Its AdSketch software enables clients to help automate ad production processes and sign creation. In-store signage offers exciting possibilities going forward, and Creps offers a full assortment of options, including danglers, banners, window clings, shelf tags, aisle and display signs, and floor graphics.

Most importantly, the company is 100 percent back from the blaze, in a bigger and better facility, with newer and more efficient equipment. A lion's share of the employees are also back in the fold.

"I still have to pinch myself sometimes," Howard Creps admits.

It may seem like a dream now, but at least the nightmare has ended. PI


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