Peoria was once home to the largest printer of product labels in the world.
Printing operations in Peoria date back to the 1830s, with bookbinders and printers producing newsletters and small publications. In 1844, Simon DeWitt Drown published the first city directory, a useful reference even today. It noted the existence of Printers’ Alley—below Washington Street, between Main and Liberty—where numerous printing houses and book binderies existed within close proximity.
When Edward Hine Co., a printing business since 1880, closed in 2011, its officers cited overseas competition, changing technologies and a lagging economy. The firm once produced high-resolution brochures and booklets for big clients like Caterpillar, John Deere and the University of Illinois. Press runs of 400,000 or 500,000 copies were not uncommon. At one time, Hine even produced local high school yearbooks.
But it wasn’t only technology that impacted what was once the world’s largest label printer—located right here in Peoria, once known as the Whiskey Capital of the World.
A New Peoria Printer
Fleming-Potter was founded in 1933, just as Prohibition was ending and Hiram Walker & Sons was coming to town to build the world’s largest and most modern bourbon distillery. The timing couldn’t have been better for Theodore Fleming and Harley Potter. When the two men convinced Hiram Walker to use their printing services for its whiskey and other product labels, the company went from basic business printing—letterheads, reports and the like—to become the largest producer of labels in the world.
Eventually f-p, as it came to be known, produced labels not only for whiskey bottles, but for wines and other liquors, as well as salad dressing, beverages and food products. Clients for their gummed labels included Publishers Clearing House, Easter Seals and Boys Town.
What began on the first floor of the building at 1028 SW Adams grew to take over the entire 45,000 square feet. In 1962, Fleming-Potter expanded into two buildings across the street at 1100 and 1106 SW Adams. The new buildings added 21,250 square feet to the business and grew its production of booklets for financial institutions, businesses and industrial firms; disposable foil ash trays; and award-winning lithographic, printing and embossing in multiple colors. The company was considered among the very best lithographers on foil in the country—printing 1.2 billion labels per year.
Diversification and Expansion
In 1963, recognizing an opportunity, Fleming-Potter developed a retail shop on Bryan Street, a subsidiary known as Fast Printing. By 1967, a franchise opened in Joliet, joining shops in Chicago, Chicago Heights and Rockford, with plans for even more locations. A few years later, f-p bought the Ohio-based Print-Kote company, moved it to the building at 1016 SW Adams, and renamed the new subsidiary Web-Kote Inc.
The 1979 closing of Hiram Walker’s Peoria operation posed a major challenge to the company, but f-p had already begun diversifying. The company evolved into Fleming Packaging Corp., with subsidiaries by 1984 in Indianapolis, Indiana; Oak Brook, Illinois; Louisville, Kentucky; Orlando, Florida; San Francisco, California; New Jersey; Canada; and Puerto Rico. They were printing labels; developing tamper-proof packaging; and distributing samples, catalogs, brochures and fundraising stamps.
In 1986, a decision by CILCO (now Ameren) to reduce energy rates for companies that were expanding helped convince f-p to invest in a $2.8 million press for its main building. At that time, the company had five plants in Peoria and two in California; it was producing 10 million food and liquor labels per day. Of its 850 employees, 600 worked in Peoria.
A Tangled Decline
The following year, however, difficult salary negotiations resulted in the loss of about 100 jobs in graphic design, copywriting, custom letter mailings and label production. A contract with the American Lung Association had to be canceled due to these cutbacks.
In June 1988, fp Mail Systems closed following the failure of negotiations with the Graphic Communications Local 523S. Founded in 1971, that subsidiary served as f-p’s direct mail marketing unit. Another subsidiary—General Methods Corp., with its 30 employees—was sold.
In 1991, Fleming Packaging began preliminary discussions to sell the company. At that time, the company—by then a Delaware corporation—was termed the leading supplier of labels for the liquor and wine industries, the largest printer of promotional stamps in the U.S., and a major printer of food and personal care labels and coupons. On September 3, 1992, the company announced that confidential investors—who would eventually become known publicly as Goldfarb Corp., a Toronto-based holding company—had bought out second-generation owner Ted Fleming’s interests.
In 1998, the company—which included Fleming Packaging, fp Label Co. and fp Estate Inc.—rejected an offer to sell for more than $100 million. At that time, the Peoria operation still employed some 500 people. By 2001, the company had 11 plants in three countries.
Goldfarb regularly sold off its assets, including what became fp Packaging, Inc., incorporated in California. On April 25, 2003, PROPACK purchased certain assets of Fleming Packaging Corp. for just $387,805—an amount paid directly to Bank One, which held a lien on all remaining assets owned by Goldfarb. Eighteen days later, Goldfarb filed for bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy filing meant that some 290 employees lost their pensions; Peoria printer Leonard Unes, once an f-p apprentice, was among them. On December 23, 2003, Renaissance Mark, Inc. acquired the assets of Fleming Packaging Corp, the original company was dismantled, and the creditors were left behind. Today, Unes Printing and Wayne Printing are the only two union printers remaining in Peoria.
A Lofty Future
In July 2015, the Peoria City Council approved a redevelopment agreement to convert Fleming-Potter’s former main building—the 96-year-old structure at 1028 SW Adams—into 44 upscale residential lofts, with a ground-floor commercial unit and 50 parking spaces. In August, the Becker Companies announced the $5 million Persimmon Lofts project, which will utilize federal and state historic tax credits. Work should begin in 2016 in this historic building in Peoria’s Warehouse District. iBi