LEWISTON – In 1955, New Jersey businessman Ray Geiger moved his family and his company, Geiger Bros., to Lewiston.

He came to Maine to escape strained labor relations and the inner-city blight of postwar Newark, N.J.

Gieger’s sons Peter and Gene, who now run the company, say it was the right move.

From its headquarters near the Androscoggin River here, Geiger has grown into a leader in the promotional products industry, a segment including firms that sell branded corporate merchandise. At the same time, Geiger has continued to publish its “Farmers’ Almanac,” a promotional product dating to 1818.

“One of the real benefits of moving to Maine has been the quality and dedication of our work force,” said Executive Vice President Peter Geiger.

Peter’s brother Gene, the company’s CEO, describes the family firm as “primarily a wholesaler and distributor of any kind of thing that can carry a logo.”

“We are in the business of helping clients define and communicate their brand,” he said.

Promotional products are those that companies typically give away to customers or employees for free, such as branded coffee mugs, T-shirts, rain jackets, paper pads, hats, umbrellas, luggage, day planners and corporate awards.

Peter Geiger said there are some 800,000 types of products in the $18 billion industry.

Geiger manufactures promotional products in Lewiston. But the company makes most of its money distributing merchandise and other companies’ products.

Geiger has a non-unionized work force of some 475 employees, including 370 in Maine, and a contract sales force 500 strong.

Chip Morrison, president of The Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce, called Geiger a “stalwart” of the community.

“They are one of those organizations the community turns to. … When you need something, you can call them,” said Morrison. “Their employees speak highly of them. When they have to do cutbacks in work force, they do it as respectfully as they can.”

Peter Geiger said the recession forced the company to cut 40 to 50 staffers, but has since added about 25 jobs as the economy improved. Geiger currently lists a number of open positions on its website.

Industry trade publication Counselor named Geiger the eighth-largest promotional products distributor in the country, based on 2010 North American revenue. Peter Geiger said the firm is the largest that is family owned and operated.

The magazine said Geiger had sales of $155.7 million in 2010, up from $134.3 million in 2009. Peter Geiger said he expects 2011 revenue to beat 2010.

He said that through Geiger’s profit-sharing program, the company gave roughly $1 million back to staffers in April.

Geiger’s competitors include Framingham, Mass.-based Staples Inc., Ohio-based Proforma and Washington state-based BDA, among other companies.

In 1878, Andrew and Jacob Geiger launched Geiger in their father’s two-room print shop in Newark, N.J., initially selling paper fans, calendars and greeting cards. In the early 1900s, the next generation took over the business. By the 1930s Ray and Frank Geiger, the third generation, came on board.

Geiger struggled in the post-war years, operating from what Gene Geiger called a dilapidated building in a “combat zone” area of Newark. Worse, the company had strained relations with its unionized work force.

Ray Geiger chose to relocate the company, which then had about 50 staffers, rather than let it fail in New Jersey.

But where to go? He searched up and down the East Coast for a city with a manufacturing base and skilled work force.

At the time, Lewiston was seeking businesses and jobs to supplement those lost to the shrinking shoe and textile industries. Ray Geiger chose Lewiston after the city agreed to build Geiger a 60,000-square-foot production plant on Mount Hope Avenue, said Peter Geiger.

The company later repaid the city.

Peter Geiger called his father’s decision to relocate “tricky and gutsy.” Gene Geiger half joked that their mother, accustomed to big-city life, “cried every day for a year.”

But the brothers said Lewiston fit Geiger, and the community welcomed the company.

Today, Geiger operates from a 140,000-square-foot headquarters, which includes a manufacturing plant where the company primarily makes paper promotional products, like calendars and journals. On a recent day the plant cranked out day planners branded with the logo of New York-based Coach Inc.

Like shoemaker New Balance, which also operates plants in Maine, Geiger has adopted so-called “lean” manufacturing techniques, which help companies match production speed to the rate at which products are sold and shipped. Peter Geiger said the process has boosted efficiency, eliminated waste and reduced overtime hours. It also requires less inventory.

Geiger color-coded tools and machines and has cross-trained employees in different tasks, which Peter Geiger said provides flexibility during times of heavy production.

Geiger also publishes the “Farmers’ Almanac,” which Ray Geiger edited from 1934 until he died in 1994. He even edited the book while fighting in the Pacific during World War II.

Today, Geiger produces some 4 million copies annually. They are primarily promotional products: Geiger prints clients’ logos on the books, and clients give them to customers.

The “Farmers’ Almanac” contains tips, notes and articles about farming, fishing and hunting, and predicts the best days for those activities based on cycles of the moon. It also includes average frost dates, sunrise and sunset times and weather predictions — for this long Memorial Day weekend, the almanac calls for showers through New England.

The largest part of the business is distribution. Geiger buys promotional products from other manufacturers and sells them to clients nationwide, like Idexx Laboratories, Unum Group, the American Automobile Association, Bayer Group, the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation of America and many others, including small, local companies.

Geiger’s largest client is Delta Air Lines. Peter Geiger said Delta’s orders have surged recently as the company integrates recently acquired Northwest Airlines.

Gene and Peter Geiger attribute Geiger’s growth to their employees and their father, Ray.

Ray promoted the almanac on New York radio and television shows, including David Letterman’s show, the “Today” show, “CBS Morning News,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and Art Linkletter’s “House Party.”

“In addition to talking about the ‘Farmers’ Almanac,’ he would promote Maine (and) Lewiston,” said Peter Geiger in an email.

The brothers say their dad earned the respect of the community through fair treatment of employees and by donating to such charitable groups as the United Way.

Lucien Gosselin, president of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, called Ray a “pillar” of the community, and one of Lewiston’s “biggest cheerleaders.”

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

[email protected]