Now & Then: Cushing & Co.
Not many people would agree that 1929 – the year of the stock market crash and beginning of the Great Depression – would be the best time to open a business. Yet, John Cushing founded Cushing & Co. on October 1st, 1929, a mere 28 days before the stock market crashed. Of course, he had no idea the challenges he would soon face in just four short weeks.
John was a self-made man, who worked as a truck driver delivering blueprint paper around the Great Lakes rather than finishing high school. Though John didn’t necessarily enjoy his driving job, it opened the doors for his future business. Because he was making so many deliveries, he recognized how successful the blueprinting industry had become. At the same time, John was realizing that he’d much rather work with his head than with his hands. Thus, he decided to go back to night school at Lane Tech to study drafting and engineering with the hope of starting his own business in the blueprinting industry.
By October of 1929, John bought his first blueprint machine and founded Cushing & Co. He rented a small space in Union Station and hung up his shingle. When the stock market crashed that same month, John began borrowing money to cover his payroll from a nearby speakeasy. He would pay back his loan and re-borrow it at the end of each week. This is how John was able to stay on his feet during these tough economic times that so much of America was facing.
By the early 1930s, Cushing & Co. was flourishing. John’s first customer was the shipbuilders who built and repaired ships for the Navy on Navy Pier. By the 1940s, Cushing & Co was an established and politically connected business in Chicago that relocated to 10 N Clark Street.
In 1948, John began vetting his son, John Cushing Jr. (Jack), to enter the business and officially make it a family affair. However, there was some pushback from Jack, who wanted to be a lawyer and was not interested in working in the printing industry. Yet, his father was able to convince him to join the business. He worked both as a lawyer and for Cushing for several years, but eventually became more heavily involved in Cushing and left his law practice. Twelve years later, in 1962, Jack was named President of Cushing & Co.
Upon Jack’s integration to the company, he added manufacturing to the business, taking on both the manufacturing and the distribution of blueprint papers. By being involved in manufacturing of the specialty paper and the service of producing blueprints, father and son were able to coexist by working on their own part of the business with much less conflict than if they had shared the same responsibilities. John and Jack purchased a new plant to accommodate the manufacturing side of Cushing on Diversey and Pulaski, an intersection near the Olson Rug factory and an extremely desirable location. Olson Rug was a prominent business in Chicago and had built a park near the factory for employees to relax during their time off. John was certain that would ensure the property that they were buying would always be valuable.
In the 1960s, each of Jack’s eight children began working at the business part-time. The first of his children to join the organization was Cathie, the oldest. Cathie worked part-time in the office at Cushing during the summers and holidays. Eventually the rest of her siblings all filtered through the business in part-time roles. In 1975, Cathie was the first of Jack’s children to join Cushing & Co. full-time after finishing college while she looked for a “real job”. Over the next two years she realized that the family business was indeed the real job she had been looking for.
Just before Cathie came on board, blueprinting was slowly being replaced by diazo technology. In order to remain competitive, Cushing shifted its focus once again and placed the blueprint machine in storage. To the reluctance of John, in 1972 the blueprint machine was sold, thus marking a new era for Cushing & Co.
In 1980, John passed away from a stroke. Unfortunately, John had no will at the time so Cushing & Co. went into probate, forcing the company to use the majority of the profits to pay taxes to the government for five years. This triggered Jack to sell all of his stock back to the business for $100 to prevent his family from ever having to experience this again. Unfortunately, this also meant that he couldn’t sell the business to his children in the future. Luckily, each of the eight children owned the company because of stock that was gifted to them by their grandfather before he passed.
After Jack took over, computer aided drafting (CAD) was beginning to replace manual drafting. This enabled engineers and architects to work on “layers” of a project and then plot the layers together to create the final drawing to be printed. In the early 1980s, auto-CAD was becoming widely used and Cushing acquired the technology to plot and print from those files. This meant that Cushing’s drafting material and coated paper business slowly evaporated. This was a good business model for years until the technology shifted again: the Internet now allows scans to be exchanged for construction documents instead of prints.
A few years later, Jack was taking selling Cushing & Co. into consideration. However, Cathie and her husband, Mike, were invested in taking over the company and they had been joined by Joe Cushing, Cathie’s brother, in 1985. In 1988, Cathie became the next President of Cushing & Co., officially making it a third-generation family business.
Sadly, Jack died suddenly in 1990 as Cushing & Co. was just starting to enter the color imaging business – which was his and Mike’s next great idea in moving the company forward.
This became a challenging time for Cathie as the business entered color printing and she led as President. Cushing also faced an embezzlement issue, which consumed a lot of time and resources. One day, Cheri Sloat of the UIC Family Business Council (FBC) visited Cathie asking her to join. Knowing that Cushing’s bank at the time, American National Bank, was aware of the struggles she was experiencing and also happened to be a sponsor of the council, Cathie assumed they had sent Cheri for her to join because she needed the help. This prompted Cathie to take the leap of faith. By becoming an FBC member, she received a wealth of knowledge and resources from her peers which helped her navigate the business. Even though Cathie learned years later that ANB had not, in fact, recruited her to the council, she was grateful that she did become involved.
How did Cushing & Co. continue to reinvent themselves from generation-to-generation as the industry and technology changed?
NOW: ADAPT, SURVIVE, AND LOOK TO THE FUTURE
The adoption of color digital technology opened up new markets that were interesting at first, but when the construction industry began to slump, became crucial to Cushing’s survival. Equipment that was used to print renderings or illustrate advertising proposals could also be used for banners, posters and billboards. The smaller format printers could print manuals and brochures, marketing collateral, and business cards. Although Cushing continues to maintain preferred provider status in the construction printing world, they have a broader variety of products to offer to a larger audience, and that protects the company, to some extent, from the ups-and-downs in the construction industry.
Today, Cathie (CEO) and her younger brother Joe (EVP), brother-in-law Brian Burke (Treasurer and Purchasing) and nephew Matthew Cushing (Sales) are all active in the business. The family continues to have meetings every three-to-four months to discuss emerging technology and the future of the business. These family meetings drive the staff meetings, which helps with keeping everyone involved – something the Cushings learned early on was important.
Cathie sees the business staying in the family and she wants employees to feel like they’re at a place with a future. There are 27 members of the fourth generation ranging in age from sixteen to forty-two. Six of the fourth-generation have worked at the organization at one time or another, and presently two are employed at the company. The succession plan for Cathie is already in place – with her brother Joe being next in line for CEO and President.
A few years ago, Cushing stopped selling material and sold the factory on Diversey and Pulaski to Primrose Candy Co. (a fellow CFBC member!). Cushing’s headquarters and production shop are located at their current location in River North.
2015 was the first year that construction printing was not Cushing’s biggest business sales category. Color printing now leads Cushing’s sales, and they are committed to continued growth. There are challenges adjusting to this new business model since it is a different market. Construction projects promised printing from groundbreaking to occupancy whereas printing digital graphics projects are shorter in duration and often larger in scope, such as custom vinyl wall graphics. But Cushing continues to lead the evolution in print and digital communications.