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Player's Advantage

Aspinwall firm's growth shows casinos' broad economic impact

| Sunday, June 4, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Carol Philp, founder of CPI Creative in Aspinwall, models a Pittsburgh-centric umbrella her firm designed for Rivers Casino. The underside has images of about 40 Pittsburgh attractions and landmarks.
Carol Philp, founder of CPI Creative in Aspinwall, models a Pittsburgh-centric umbrella her firm designed for Rivers Casino. The underside has images of about 40 Pittsburgh attractions and landmarks.

When Carol Philp started a business in her basement in the mid-1990s, she had three young sons, experience running a small gift shop and confidence in her dream.

“I never thought that it wouldn't work,” she recalls about launching CPI Creative, which provides branded merchandise such as clothing, mugs and specialty items for a variety of businesses. “It had to.”

Upon reflection, she adds: “Whatever was I thinking?”

Back then, she had no way of knowing her client list eventually would include Major League Baseball, Weight Watchers and Lockheed Martin aerospace company. Nor could she anticipate that a Pittsburgh casino would play such a big role in her company's growth.

Since Rivers casino opened in 2009, CPI Creative, based in Aspinwall, has designed numerous items for customer giveaways: a chocolate slot machine in a box bearing a peel-and-reveal sticker for free slot play; a colorful umbrella with images of about 40 Pittsburgh attractions; even a Monopoly game based on Pittsburgh.

CPI has four employees besides Philp, and it contracts with other businesses, such as warehouses, printers, embroiderers and silk-screeners, some in Western Pennsylvania and some in other states. They are among about 350,000 small-business jobs that the gaming industry supports nationwide, according to a recent study done by Spectrum Gaming Group for the American Gaming Association.

The study also found that casinos make more than $3 billion worth of purchases from small businesses each year and support $13 billion worth of pay and benefits for small-business employees. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board says the state's 12 casinos spent $573.7 million in 2015-16 with other businesses.

Philp declined to reveal CPI's annual revenue or what portion Rivers accounts for, other than describing it as “a nice business.” She spoke last year at a “Get to Know Gaming” presentation in Pittsburgh featuring AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman, and she is pictured in the group's small-business report.

She praised Rivers General Manager Craig Clark for helping her navigate the highly competitive world of casino freebies.

CPI applied to work with the gaming industry before Rivers was built but found itself underbid by companies with a long history of providing products for casinos in Nevada and elsewhere.

“They're servicing all casinos, so their pricing is crazy compared to something that I could bring in,” Philp tells Player's Advantage.

“Return-on-investment is huge in our industry,” she says. “If you're buying a bunch of things to promote your company (and) it's something people that people just throw away or don't use, you just wasted your money. So we focus on trends and innovations.”

She says Clark helped her understand the gaming industry and how to make CPI stand out.

Her niche became clothing and American-made products.

Working with casinos means following rules that other businesses do not have. For example, state regulators require casino vendors to be fingerprinted and pass background checks.

“It's not just an overnight thing,” Philp says. “They came out to our facility to interview us, to be sure you are who you say you are.” She also recalls a meeting at Rivers when a young-looking graphic designer, then 28, did not bring a driver's license with her to prove she was at least 21. Security officers wouldn't allow her into the casino, and she had to wait in the car while Philp made the presentation.

Philp says she understands the time-consuming checks are necessary to ensure the transparency of casino offerings. In giveaways that include stickers awarding free slot play, for example, her team helps ensure the prizes are as random as possible. The casino specifies how many of each level will be awarded – say, one top prize of $1,000, a few for $100 and hundreds for smaller amounts. CPI has the stickers printed, counts them twice to make sure they match the order and then randomly applies all of them to the giveaway items. When the stickered items arrive at Rivers, the staff there has no idea which one has the top prize.

“From working with Rivers, we've been able to grow as a business,” Philp says. “We're doing new products and things that we haven't been done before.”

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at

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