Midway through the 20th century, the Chicago area was the home of countless small family-owned ink operations specializing in letterpress inks. Today, the landscape is much different in the industry, as letterpress has long since been eclipsed by offset and large corporations dominate the market. The vast majority of these small family-run ink companies have disappeared.
Still, a few of these companies are thriving, having evolved over time. The most obvious example is CEB Ink, now Central Ink Corporation, a West Chicago, IL-based heatset and non-heat specialist. In 2001, Central Ink’s annual sales grew more than 30 percent to $73 million, placing it as the seventh-largest U.S. printing ink manufacturer.
When Richard Breen took over as president of Central Ink in 1985, the company’s sales were $6 million annually. Considering that, Central Ink has come a long way.
Central Ink’s Start
Central Ink’s beginnings date back to 1933, when Mr. Breen’s father, the late Cecil Edward Breen, founded the company. He used his initials for the company’s name.
“In 1933, my father started CEB Ink,” Mr. Breen said. “He had been working for Charles Enue Johnson, one of the larger ink manufacturers, whose corporate offices were in Philadelphia. He had a brother-in-law who was successful in sales at International Printing Ink, another major printing ink company. He thought that perhaps a career in printing ink would be rewarding. He worked for Johnson for eight or nine years, became sales manager in Chicago and then left to start his own business.”
Like so many others, Cecil Breen set up shop near his customers. “All of the printers were in the city, as were the printing ink makers, in an area just south of downtown Chicago called Printers Row,” Mr. Breen said.
Inks in the first half of the 20th century were much different than they are today. When veteran ink manufacturers talk of the art of ink making, they clearly refer to the way ink was made back then, more of a craft than a science.
“In the early days, employees of print shops were mostly people of German descent,” Mr. Breen said. “None of the inks were press ready, as they are today, because those people loved to apply their personal trademarks, usually an additive they felt would improvetheir press performance – their own ‘black magic.’ At that time, all the inks were pretty much manufactured using pigment and linseed oil or some variation of a vegetable derivative. It wasn’t until the early ’50s that the advent of quick-set vehicles became part of ink formulations. Gel varnishes were soon to follow.”
Joining CEB Ink
In the summer of 1946, Mr. Breen began working at CEB, joining his father and older brother Vern, who had preceded him in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II.
“I was 16 when I started with the company,” said Mr. Breen, “and I worked every summer during high school and college, then two years in the Army before becoming a full-time employee in 1954.
“It was a wonderful experience to work together with my dad and brother for many, many years,” Mr. Breen said. “In 1975, my brother Vern and I bought my father’s interest in the business. Vern became president until 1985,when I purchased his half-interest in the company.
“During those beginning years,” Mr. Breen recalled, “you’d get one week’s vacation, six holidays, there was no such things as sick days or personal days, and medical insurance didn’t exist. I recall that my goal was to make $100 a week, saving half of it, to age 65 and ‘live happily ever after!’
“In the ’40s and early ’50s, we were still using dry color, as flush color was just coming on the scene. The dry color came in wooden barrels lined with crepe paper. We’d use scoops to dig out the pigment. Our idea of environmental safety was to have a paint cap on our head, the collar of our coveralls pulled up and buttoned, and a shop towel tied around our face. Our original factory consisted of 8,000 square feet in a loft building – wooden floors, poor lighting and windows that hadn’t been washed in years. There were no mechanical lifting devices; everything was manually lifted, tugged or pushed. A session at work was like lifting weights for eight hours a day, but my brother and I were young and strong, and we saw all this lifting as a great benefit.
“The lab was a lab in name only, as there was no laboratory instrumentation at all,” Mr. Breen added. “Viscosity, grind and tack were all judged visually and and manually. Viscometers, grind gauges and inkometers were not standard equipment at the time, at least in the small family-owned ink company.”
Mr. Breen came to the industry with a thirst for knowledge, and he sought out as much information as he could on the technical side from vendors, his dad and the company’s one lab employee, John Geary.
“Herbert J. Wolfe’s fifth edition of “Printing and Litho Ink” was my bible,” Mr. Breen said. “Some of the vendors who were major influences wereWalter Durlach of Stressen-Reuter, Jerry Counihan of Chemetron and Bill Magie Sr. of Magie Bros. Oil.”
“His quest for knowledge about our industry is part of what makes him successful,” said Doug Anderson, central Ink’s technical director, who has been working with Mr. Breen for the past 11 years. “He is a very good design and manufacturing person.”
A Growing Company
By the early 1960s, CEB Ink had completely left the letterpress business, and was specializing in news ink. It had outgrown its Printers Row facilities.
“What really got us out of Chicago was news ink,” Mr. Breen said. “Newspapers began printing offset in 1963, and we had a product that worked for us. We moved to a 12,000 square foot building in Broadview in 1965, and then to West Chicago in 1969, where we built a 26,000 square foot facility.
“When we moved to West Chicago, we decided to change the name of the company. Our news ink business had increased dramatically, and we were selling kits and drums of black and colors all over the U.S. At that time, we just had the one plant in West Chicago, and we tried to overcome the handicap of a one-plant location by focusing on the central location in the U.S., from which was born the name of Central Ink Corporation.”
By 1971, Central Ink reached the $1 million mark in annual sales for the first time. In 1978, the company expanded into the heatset market and had also gone into the blanket business, cutting and converting blankets. “When one of our sales reps was selling blankets to a heatset customer who was adding a press, he was able to get our first order for heatset ink also,” Mr. Breen said. “Fortunately, working with some of our very knowledgeable vendors, we pieced together a formula for this first heatset order that worked like a charm.”
In 1985, Vern Breen decided to retire, and Richard Breen became sole owner and president of Central Ink. “By then, the company had annual sales of $6 million,” Mr. Breen said. “Heatset had become the predominant product line but, unfortunately, pricing for four-color heatset dipped dramatically to what was thought of then as ‘commodity pricing,’ but nothing compared to what it is today.
“There are certain times you look back on as important to the history of your company, and the heatset challenge was one,” he said. “If we’re challenged, we’ll step up to meet it.
“What you see is what you get with Central Ink,” Mr. Breen said. “Our plan is simple: make a quality product consistently well at a price that’s fair, at a level that earns us the business.”
Mr. Breen is always on the lookout for ways to improve Central Ink, and continually puts the company’s profits back into the business.
“There’s no question that he always finds a way to be a winner,” said Mr. Anderson. “He has not pulled out the profits. He’s very good at putting money back into the company, which is why we’re doing as well as we are.”
“He’s a survivor,” said Jeff Ryder, Central Ink’s vice president, who has been with Central Ink for 16 years. “He keeps his hands on the pulse of the ink business, and he puts the profits into new equipment, technical reps and other business needs.”
Changes Over the Years
Central Ink Corporation is a very different company today. The 26,000 square foot building in West Chicago has grown into a 182,000 square foot facility, as the company expanded yet again in 2001 by acquiring an eight-acre parcel, including a 45,000 square foot building, adjacent to its present location.
At this time, Central Ink has branches in Milwaukee, WI; Minneapolis, MN; Carlisle, PA; and Atlanta, GA, and has 130 employees.
As Mr. Breen looks at all Central Ink has accomplished, he still thinks back to those early days on Printers Row, and how far Central Ink has come in its manufacturing processes today.
“I can still smell the oil and varnishes we used for letterpress,” Mr. Breen said. “The ability to produce the volume of product is tremendous. The equipment is so fast and sophisticated today. The amount of ink we can produce in a couple of hours would have taken us a year to manufacture in the old days.
“I’d give anything to have my father and his sidekick, John Geary, here today to walk through our facility and see how far we’ve come, and all the changes that have taken place in the industry. We never had more than seven or eight people back then. It was so different. They’d never believe it.”