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The world according to Cram.

Despite their devastating fury, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other destructive natural phenomena have made only minor scratches in the Earth's 57.29 million square miles of land during the past quarter century. But keeping pace with worldly changes wrought by the hand of man--and the whims of a fluctuating market for cartographic products--has been an earth-shaking experience for the George F. Cram Company of Indianapolis.

"Virtually everything has changed," says Cram President William L. Douthit of his 25 years in the mapmaking business. In 1963, Cram sold more than 85 percent of its products to schools. Today, commercial sales represent almost half of the company's business. But the sales force, which calls on 140,000 schools throughout the United States and Canada, has almost doubled during the same period. Cram's total business has tripled since 1983, and Douthit says last year's sales were nearly 30 percent higher than in 1987.

"Our growth has really been dramatic during the past several years," he says. "The school market has been especially strong, and 1989 will be another good year."

Douthit calls Cram's major new product introduction of 1988--a primary map that blends landscape and activity panels--the "fastest-selling new idea we ever had." An anticipated 18-month supply of the new maps produced last October already has been depleted, and the company is hurriedly printing more to meet demand.

Corporations and consumers also have shown renewed interest in cartographic products recently, spurring the growth of Cram's commercial division. "Globes have becom much more of a staple in the retail market," Douthit says. Newer specialty stores have joined traditional retailers in selling globes and maps. (During a recent visit to a major Indianapolis shopping center, Douthit found nine stores that stocked globes.) Increasing use of the company's products in corporate gift and bonus programs also has fueled its growth in the lucrative premium and incentive market.

Cram's redoubling prosperity follows a period in which the raison d'etre of its products dramatically fell out of favor with the company's principal customers. During the 1960s and '70s, geography lost its status as a core subject in many schools. In some instances, it was reduced to one-seventh of the social studies curriculum. On the heels of a generation accused of not being able to read, there was another that couldn't distinguish between south-of-the-border Brazil and Brazil in Clay County.

"From a positive standpoint, a lot of people saw the need to do something about it," Douthit says. He applauds the National Geographic Society for spearheading a nationwide campaign to address geographic illiteracy through in-service trainings for geography teachers. Douthit's brother, Jay, vice president and manager of Cram's educational division, has participated in such in-service programs along with teachers in Indiana, Maryland and Missouri.

The company, in addition, has initiated a $2,500 annual scholarship program through the National Council for Geographic Education to encourage greater geographic literacy. "We feel a responsibility to be part of this effort," says Bill Douthit. "You get paid back for what you put in."

Douthit credits increasing parental awareness of geographic illiteracy as a primary factor in the contemporary growth of his business. "Mom and Dad read the papers and see that it's a problem, that educators are placing renewed emphasis on geography. That motivates parents to buy globes and maps."

Despite vacillating levels of enthusiam for geography at the academic level, mapmakers have never suffered from a lack of popular interest in their products. Cartography originated with the prehistoric depiction of hunting and fishing territories, and Ptolemy's pioneering delineation of a spherical Earth in the second century set a pattern for generations of mappers. James Wilson, a farmer and self-taught engraver, made and sold America's first globes in a Vermont village during the early 1800s.

Cram traces its beginning to a Massachusetts merchant, Rufus Blanchard, who prospered by selling globes, maps and books. Eventually, he moved his enterprise west to Chicago and enlisted his nephew, George Franklin Cram, as a business partner. In 1869, Cram, said to have served as a topographer under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, opened his own map shop. The enterprise succumbed in the great Chicago fire of 1871, but its principal quickly resurrected the business as the Cram Map Depot.

In 1898, Cram and his then-elderly uncle produced Blanchard's Chicago Street Guide, a publication that proved sufficiently popular to be updated and republished as the Cram Street Guide through the late 1930s. Cram sold the business to the National Map Company of Indianapolis in 1920, eight years prior to his death at age 86.

In the late 1930s, Loren Douthit, a southern Illinois school teacher, sold Cram maps as part of a summertime school-supply business. Liberating itself from its previous dependence on educational-supply dealers, Cram hired Douthit as its first salesman to schools. By 1966, Douthit became president and majority shareholder. Sons Bill and Jay worked in the factory during summer vacations before assuming territorial sales positions in the 1960s. In keeping with family tradition, their own college-age sons, Jeffrey and Eric, followed suit last summer.

"It's quite a specialized business," says Bill Douthit. "There are fewer competitors now than in the past." In the educational market, Cram competes with Rand McNally & Company and A.J. Nystrom of Chicago, but only one other U.S. company, Replogle (another Chicago-based firm), makes globes.

Cram has helped to deplete the number of companies in the field through acquisitions. Last January, it purchased American Geographic, a Michigan-based manufacturer of large-scale state maps and specialty products. The company also acquired Visual Craft, an Illinois manufacturer of overhead transparencies, and Starlight Manufacturing, an Indianapolis metal-spinning and stamping business that now supplies parts for Cram globes.

During his tenure as president, Bill Douthit also has orchestrated the company's move to its current 85,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on Indianapolis' La Salle Street--a double coincidence: The street name is not only the same but it also is the name of the 17th-century French explorer who charted much of what is today the U.S. Midwest.

The recent resurgence of interest in the company's products has taxed its ability to warehouse globes at La Salle Street, a point of concern in a facility capable of manufacturing 3,500 globes each working day. Cram's more-expensive globes are made by hand, a labor-intensive enterprise that diminishes the interests of would-be competitors in the business. The company also produces thousands of machine-formed fiberboard globes, but those also must be assembled manually. Prices range from $19 for a preformed, 9-inch globe with a stamped pedestal to hundreds of dollars for handmade, illuminated models mounted on elegant wooden stands.

Elsewhere in the La Salle Street plant, floor-to-ceiling cases hold maps depicting such wide-ranging topics as newly emerging Third World nations and the distribution of Indian populations in Florida. But, despite the company's need to stay abreast of geographic and political change in an increasingly better-acquainted, global society, Cram's production department has yet to embrace contemporary technology. "Most of what we do is very traditional," Douthit says. "So far, there's not much opportunity to use computer-aided design." Most of the company's wall maps are produced on a two-color, 77-inch press; older letter-presses remain on hand for die-cutting duties.

"While there is a strong market for geographic materials in general, what we sell best is what we know about," says the man whose company sells a half-million globes annually. "We're commited to that market. There's a lot of room to grow in both the educational and commercial divisions."

Cram markets its products in all 50 states as well as in Canada and Mexico, which has prompted the firm in recent months to initiate production of French- and Spanish-text globes. Douthit acknowledges that opportunities for export may be out there. But," he says, aptly reflecting his line of work, "there's plenty to do in this hemisphere at the moment."
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Title Annotation:George F. Cram Company of Indianapolis
Author:Stewart, William B.
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 1989
Words:1308
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