By: Frank Esposito
December 13, 2012
STREETSBORO, OHIO (Dec. 13, 1 p.m. ET) — A journey through 50 years of plastics packaging began in a 200 square foot garage in Queens, New York.
Those early machines assembled in the tiny garage that adjoined Hershey Lerner’s house literally used sawed-off broom handles as spindles that pierced the sides of a cardboard box. A roll of 1,000 detachable PE bags was mounted on the spindle, with a small electric blower mounted on the box to separate the bags.
In those starting days, Hershey’s wife Ruth would make lunch for the small production staff, which included his daughters Karen and Anita. Most of the firm’s early orders came from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.
A key early addition to APS was Art Gould, who was brought on as a commission-only salesman and would become a partner in the firm. In back-to-back years, Gould undertook 10-week sales trips through western states to grow the business. In those days, he recalled in the book, an order for 25,000 bags “was worth celebrating.”
“One of my biggest problems was that the production process I was pushing was simple – almost too simple,” Gould said “What would you think if some guy walked in off the street and told you he could speed up a packaging function by a factor of 10:1 or more and then showed you a roll of plastic bags, a cardboard box and an air blower?”
A crucial step in the development of APS was its involvement in 1964 with American Packaging Corp. of Cleveland, and executives Ridley Watts and Herbert Crowther. APC - which at the time was one of the largest contract packagers in the country - offered APS 6,000 square feet of manufacturing space at a new plant the firm was building in Hudson, Ohio. APS took the offer and relocated from New York, with APC acquiring a 50 percent ownership stake as well. Crowther would go on to serve as president of APS until 1974.
During the APC era, APS would replace the cardboard box on its machines with a metal container. The Lerners and Gould also survived that first winter while sharing a mobile home near the APC plant.
By January 1965, APS would have a 10,000 square-foot plant of its own in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. Within 14 months, the size of the Bedford Heights plant would be doubled to keep up with demand. In 1968, APS would open a second plant in nearby Twinsburg.
The early core machine for APS was the Autobag H-50, which could seal up to 8,000 bags per shift. Just as importantly, Autobag-brand PE bags made by APS were the only type of PE bag rolls that could be used with the H-50. By 1972, the H-100 line would come along, capable of sealing 45 bags per minute.
Additional plants in Garfield Heights, Ohio — another Cleveland suburb — and Keyser, W. Va., would be added by 1975. The Lerners and Gould also by then had regained full ownership of the company.
One unique move made by APS ownership was the early purchase of 50 acres of rural land near New Philadelphia, Ohio. The land included a farmhouse and fishing and recreation areas that could be used by employees. APS now owns 150 acres at the site.
APS created an ESOP plan in 1997 and the firm now is 55 percent owned by its employees. “We all feel we have a stake in what happens,” Brehm said.
“I’ll always be glad we put the ESOP program in place,” Hershey Lerner said in the 2012 book. “Our people deserved it. They’re what made us a success. Ideas without action go nowhere.”
In 2012, Hershey Lerner at age 92 and Bernie Lerner at age 86 still come into the APS office in Streetsboro every day. Gould is semi-retired and living in Arizona.
“I feel (APS) can survive under many different circumstances,” Bernie Lerner said in the 2012 book. “Our strength always has been our people and our culture. I believe everyone wants the culture to continue, no matter who’s in charge.”
Brehm agreed, saying recently that APS “has a built-to-last mentality, not one for short-term profit.” APS “is an institution that we’re obligated to maintain, even if that means putting people ahead of profit,” he added.
In the 2012 book, Gould also remarked on the changes that have engulfed packaging in APS’ first 50 years. “Before plastics came on the scene, packaging was an afterthought,” he said. “It was something that happened in the back room when the product was finished. Now, packaging is an industry in itself. It’s an integral part of product planning and presentation.”
Brehm continues to give credit where it’s due. The APS culture allowed him to move from the machine assembly shop to helping out with trade shows, to accepting his first sales job on the West Coast. He continued to climb the ranks and was named president and COO in 2010.
“A lot goes back to the original owners,” he said recently. “They made sure that the people they put in management fit their goals and ideas.”
“Everyone here is on a first-name basis. We’re very tight-knit. We’re not perfect, but we do our best.”