When the pandemic hit, CR&A’s projects got smaller but no less impactful.
In the spring, when Covid-19 first started taking a toll on Los Angeles, founder and President Carmen Rad, 54, designed lawn signs for multiple Kaiser Permanente campuses in Southern California that spelled out “Superheroes at Work Saving Lives Here.” The installations, which doubled as photo backdrops, included cutouts of stars and hearts with symbols representing various hospital departments, from janitors to respiratory therapists.
When the Baldwin Park campus requested a Las Vegas theme, Rad said she rushed to Walmart, one of the few stores open at the time, and bought adhesive gems and glitter fabric. As she helped install the sign in April, she said, “I saw a tremendous amount of joy.”
Before the pandemic, CR&A Custom employed 41 people and generated $6.2 million in annual revenue.
“We were able to keep the majority of people staffed until the first week of December, then we had to let half of our team go,” Rad said. “Today, we have a total of 30 (employees). We’ve been calling people back in stages, two at a time, but I don’t have the capacity of work to bring everyone back. Not today.”
Across its five departments, the company designs, prints, manufactures and installs an array of visual products, including banners, flags, signs, building wraps and fleet graphics.
It also has a separate division and website created in 2012 called HashtagCutouts.com where it sells themed or word signs to be displayed in meetings or at parties, “so it’s clear what you want people to hashtag.”
“Large-format or digital printing is really exciting because you can work with anyone,” Rad said. “We have clients that could be a local mom-and-pop liquor store to Coca-Cola. … It’s an industry that’s always evolving. There’s new technology that comes out, new applications.”
The company is headquartered at a 26,000-square-foot facility where it handles design, printing and finishing. It also has a smaller warehouse for its laser cutters and Colex flatbed machine, which makes intricate cuts.
The business started in 1993 from Rad’s home in San Gabriel.
“I was 26 years old,” she said. “I had a telephone and a computer and a file cabinet that I still own.”
Initially, Rad, who studied at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, founded the company to make promotional clothing. She tapped contacts she had made in her previous job as a multiline rep, then expanded to movie studios and beyond.
“We made Madonna’s ‘Down Under’ jackets in Australia. They had bedazzled jewelry on sueded jackets,” Rad said.
But in 1995, the first in a series of changes to international textile and clothing trade kicked in, including the eventual elimination of quotas that opened the United States to more imports.
“I knew we couldn’t compete anymore,” Rad said.
She and her husband, Masoud Rad, who had joined the company as chief operating officer, turned CR&A into a large-format digital printer.
“I figured I could offer different products to the same clients,” Rad said.
Over the years, Rad, who was born in Puerto Rico, said she took advantage of every opportunity to meet potential clients looking to diversify their vendors and attended lots of seminars and conventions.
“By no means do I believe that because I’m a minority woman I should get a project,” she said. “But if there’s an opportunity to sit at the table, that’s a door I’m going to enter through,” she said. “And to me, ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no’ forever. There are clients who have taken three years to develop. The hospitals happened to be one that I was working on.”
Rad is confident those relationships — and her creativity — will keep the company afloat.
“As long as we’re reinventing ourselves, we’ll have other hits,” she said.