Tony Dobrowolski: Making changes at Crane
From the outside looking in, Crane & Co. has always appeared to be a model of stability.
Founded in 1801, Crane is one of the county's oldest employers, and also one of the largest. It has supplied currency paper to the U.S. government since 1879, the same year that Thomas Edison demonstrated the electric light, the first artificial ice rink in the United States opened and the first cash register was patented. It's been the government's sole supplier of currency paper for 50 years.
The company had also employed someone with the Crane family name for almost all of its history until last fall.
But even the most stable of enterprises undergoes changes. Crane wouldn't have been able to survive as a business as long as it has without them. Maybe those changes are just more visible now.
The latest occurred on June 5 when Crane agreed to sell its technical materials division to Neenah Paper Inc. of Georgia for $72 million. The announcement of the sale, expected to be completed by early July, came five months after Crane announced it was instituting a voluntary retirement incentive program for 8 percent of its 340 Berkshire County employees in its currency division. Crane said it instituted the incentive program in response to the reduced paper demand from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.
The sale? According to Crane, the industry sector is experiencing significant consolidation around large global players and it was determined that selling the business would allow it to be part of a larger entity with a broader portfolio and the technical resources to accelerate its growth.
Now, the sale only involved 100 workers, all of whom Neenah says will keep their jobs. But the reality is Crane decided to sell a third of its business because the company didn't think it had the resources to grow it anymore.
I'm not going to speculate on whether this was a good or bad decision. I'm not qualified to do so.
What I do know is that running any business requires management to constantly look ahead with an eye on the bottom line. Difficult decisions often need to be made. Unlike a publicly traded company, Crane is privately owned, so it is not subject to the input of its shareholders. But it is a business. Crane's two remaining divisions, stationery and currency, have their own share of obstacles (re: the retirement incentive program). So nothing is set in stone.
Crane came under new management three years ago when current CEO Stephen P. DeFalco replaced Charles Kittredge, a Crane family member, who now chairs the firm's board of directors.
The company now has a corporate spokesman, who is based in Boston, not Dalton. As someone who has dealt with Crane for several years, I can tell you the company has begun to act more and more like a corporation based outside the Berkshires with a county presence -- like General Electric or General Dynamics -- than a Berkshire-based firm that has subsidiary operations in other places.
Is that good or bad? That's management's call, not mine. They are the ones who set the standard. Maybe a more a corporate approach is what the current management team is more comfortable with. But the approach is different. And so are all the changes. Crane will continue to change -- all businesses do. Let's hope the company remains a vital part of the Berkshires.
Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org