It is certainly fair to say that Richard Breen, CEO of Central Ink Corporation, has just about seen it all when it comes to the ink industry. For the past 62 years, Mr. Breen has been involved in the industry, starting with cleaning pots at his dad’s ink company and working his way through technical and manufacturing to sales and management.
Since he became president of Central Ink Corporation in 1985, he has led his company’s expansion from letterpress and heatset inks into the news, sheetfed and UV markets, and without the help of acquisitions, spurred the company’s sales growth from $6 million when he became president to $80 million in 2007.
As a result of his efforts, the Chicago Printing Ink Production Club selected Mr. Breen as its Inkmaker of the Year in 2000.
It was certainly fitting that the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM) honored Mr. Breen with the prestigious Printing Ink Pioneer Award during its annual convention this year.
His colleagues at Central Ink certainly agree that Mr. Breen is deserving of the award, not just for his experience but because of his devotion to the company, reinvesting in his company and its people.
“Richard’s commitment to our company and continuous reinvestment has allowed us to become the respected supplier we are today,” said Gregg Dahleen, president of Central Ink. “We have never made an acquisition, and our sales gains have all been through organic growth. He puts people in place to do things responsibly.”
“Mr. Breen always strives to make Central Ink a better company, and learn how we can produce better and more efficiently,” Doug Anderson, Central Ink’s vice president of operations, said. “He’s been involved in everything we’ve done. He’s been through it all.”
Mr. Dahleen said that Mr. Breen also shares his experiences with his colleagues.
“Personally, he’s been an unbelievable mentor,” Mr. Dahleen said. “I’m a technical guy out of the lab, and he took the time to educate me on manufacturing and the business side. When we’re sitting at a meeting, he’ll take the time to explain the business, which, in a sense, is reinvesting in all of us. ”
“He’s wonderful,” added Mary Dickey, Central Ink’s CFO. “He is heavily invested in his own company, very passionate about the ink industry and proud of Central Ink. He is very protective of our employees, a smart businessman, caring and wonderful. Just a very special person.”
Starting at CEB Inks
Mr. Breen’s career in the ink industry began in 1946, when he took on a part-time job at CEB Inks, the ink company founded in 1933 by his father, Cecil Edward Breen. Cecil Breen had founded his ink business after nine years with Charles Enau Johnson Ink Company; CEB Inks was named after his initials.
“I started working for my father in 1946, between my sophomore and junior years in high school, as a summer job,” Mr. Breen said. After completing his education and serving in the U.S. Army, Mr. Breen joined CEB Inks full-time in 1954.
My father had a great first seven years,” Mr. Breen said. “I recall him telling me he made $50,000 from sales that did not exceed $250,000. Of course this was in the 1930s and the dollar was as solid as gold and business taxes were low. Then World War II hit. The ink business languished during the war years and at its conclusion, my father was 56 years old. Costs of everything, wages, taxes had all increased from the end of the war to early 1960. It was a very difficult time. My brother Vern, five years older than I, returned from the service and married. Shortly after, I also married. We were trying to support three families on a company that certainly was not booming.”
At the time, CEB was located just outside of Printers’ Row just south and west of downtown Chicago. Most ink companies were located in the same area.
“I bet I can sit down and draw a map of the place and put every barrel, tub and mixer on it,” Mr. Breen said.
“There’s a little luck to everything,” Mr. Breen recalled. “In 1962, my dad visited an account, Tri-County Publishing in Lemont, IL, a rotary printer who had put in a Vanguard offset press for newspapers. Prior to this all newspapers were printed by letterpress. This was an entirely new concept. They were having a difficult time with the press and we were fortunate enough to make an ink for him better than anything he had tried. This new concept of printing newspapers by offset really took hold. It wasn’t long before we were selling ink for Vanguard presses all over the country.
“Our new found success allowed us to move out of the Chicago area to the suburbs in 1965,” Mr. Breen added. “We built a 12,000 square foot plant in Broadview, IL, and within four years, we needed to expand once more. Our new product line for offset newspapers was really taking off. We made the decision to move another 30 miles west to West Chicago, IL, at which time we purchased eight and a half acres. We needed a much larger facility and more land. We moved into our new 26,000 square foot plant in West Chicago in 1969. Also at this time we changed our name from CEB to Central Ink Corporation. Through the years and four additional expansions, our original plant has expanded to 160,000 square feet on 20 acres.”
A Changing Industry
Mr. Breen noted that the printing ink industry was very different back when he started at CEB Inks.
“Comparing ink making today from what it was when I first started is like comparing a Model-T to a Lexus,” Mr. Breen said. “Everyone manufactured from dry color as flush color was not a process at that time. Mixing was done on a slow-speed change can mixer followed by numerous passes over equally slow three-roller mills. Some of the larger companies did employ what was called ball mills that allowed for much greater batch sizes, but required about 12 hours to finish a mix.
“Lab equipment for most small ink companies consisted of a lab bench covered with glass, a small balance beam lab scale, the technician and his ink knives, and a flow plate,” Mr. Breen noted. “When the ink was brought in for QC, it was smeared out on the glass and inspected for grind. The usual okay was ‘Give it one more pass, then can it!’ This typically meant the ink had at least five passes on the mill. Tack of the ink was tapped out with a forefinger on the glass or substrate, and adjusted according to the technician’s feel. We felt privileged to have a Vandercook proofing press.
“Frankly, ink making at that time was somewhat of a ‘black art,’ Mr. Breen added. “Information was not generously shared; it was a craft you had to sort of dig out for yourself. Today we literally have a small fortune in diagnostic equipment in our lab, and I marvel at how astute and capable our lab people are at the use of this sophistication.
“Most ink companies were located in loft buildings, usually on wooden floors,” Mr. Breen recalled. “There was no such thing as a forklift truck or any other lifting device. It was backbreaking work. Packaging was done in one-, five- and 10-pound cans, three-gallon and six-gallon steel pails, and 55-gallon chime drums. It was a far cry from our present day packaging in straight side drums, tote bins, tank wagons and other various forms of bulk delivery.”
Mr. Breen said that technical service is also much changed.
“I can recall when a customer called with an ink problem,” he said. “Our usual response was for them to put an ounce to the pound of Crisco in the ink. We rarely visited a customer’s plant to troubleshoot. Now we employ 12 tech service people, whom we call our Mobile Diagnostics team. They fly all over the country evaluating and diagnosing press problems with their high-speed cameras, microscopes, computers and software.”
Central Ink Today
Central Ink has grown tremendously under Mr. Breen’s leadership.
“In 1985, my brother Vern retired as president and I took over that role,” Mr. Breen remembered. “During the years, we had expanded into heatset, then sheetfed and UV, and added a blanket converting business. By 2007, we had reached $80 million in sales.”
Mr. Breen noted that there are plenty of challenges ahead.
“The future of the ink industry is challenging,” Mr. Breen said. “There are few American-owned ink companies of any size. The global economy, the emergence of China and India, the number of offshore products coming into our country at low prices is testing our resilience. The most recent spike in crude oil, along with shortages in raw materials created by some intermediates being sold into more lucrative markets, and certainly the internet has changed the graphic arts industry. We are a mature industry with commodity pricing, not the brightest of pictures. Hopefully, everyone in the industry, inkmakers and printers, will act in a responsible way to upgrade this picture. But I have no regrets, as it has been a good 62 years. As Frank warbled, ‘I did it my way.’”