U.S. Playing Card cashes in on poker's popularity

By Greg Paeth Post staff reporter

The poker craze, fueled by TV coverage of high-stakes tournaments, has dealt U.S. Playing Card the equivalent of a royal flush in a no-limit showdown.

The 138-year-old Norwood company -- the largest playing card maker in the world -- recorded its best year ever in 2004 when revenue jumped 15 percent to just over $150 million. More winnings appear to be on the way.

U.S. Playing Card will invest $3 million in another production line this summer at its sprawling 600,000-square-foot, turn-of-the-20th-century plant. That will boost its card-making capacity by 15 percent as it tries to keep up with surging demand for cards and just about anything else poker-related.

The manufacturer of the Bicycle, Bee, Aviator and Hoyle brand cards cranks out 100 million decks a year, including the cards used at more than 300 casinos.

The company also is expanding its World Poker Tour line of products, part of a licensing agreement with the tour.

The interest in poker is helping boost the bottom line at fast-growing Jarden Corp., the Rye, N.Y. holding company that acquired the U.S. Playing Card last year. Jarden paid $232 million, plus a $10 million "earn out" based on company performance for the card maker.

Jarden, ranked 19th on Fortune's list of the country's 100 fastest growing companies, has a track record of acquiring companies with brand-name equity. Last month, publicly traded Jarden completed its $746 million buyout of American Household Inc., whose brands include Coleman camping gear, Sunbeam appliances, Mr. Coffee, Oster and First Alert smoke detectors. Its portfolio also includes Ball and Kerr canning products and Diamond matches and toothpicks.

The Jarden buyout and the World Poker Tour agreement reflected Jarden's drive to expand and ushered in a more driven culture at U.S. Playing Card..

"The philosophy changed from one of steady,conservative management to a more growth-oriented culture," said Greg Simko, U.S. Playing Card's president and CEO. Simko took over at the card company in October 2001 after spending six years with Oryx Capital International, a leveraged buyout firm based in Chicago.

It's doubtful anyone could have predicted how the poker boom and Jarden's philosophy would dovetail.

"In June of last year it just caught fire and people began calling us through fall and Christmas and we couldn't keep up with the orders," he said. "They wanted everything we had -- cards, shufflers, poker chips, poker sets."

Since signing the agreement with the tour, the company has added about 40 products -- poker sets, chips, shufflers, green-felt table tops and pricey carrying cases.

While all of the cards, including the KEM brand -- the Mercedes of playing cards at about $14 a deck -- are made in Norwood, poker chips are produced in China, where they are made of a composite material that includes clay, which gives each chip a heft that's distinctly different from inexpensive plastic chips.

Simko said his company's biggest competitors are manufacturers in China, which create generic cards, and Carta Mundi, a Belgium company that is the largest card manufacturer in Europe.

Simko said he's made it clear to his 530 employees in Norwood that playing cards can be produced much cheaper in China. "I have told them that if we don't produce more efficiently and improve the quality someday we might not be here," Simko said.

"We have been focused on just driving down time out of the place," said Simko, adding that productivity has increased by 45 percent in the since he began running the company. "We're doing our best to keep it here."

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