PE bags mean growth for Automated Packaging

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B. Lerner

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.

That’s where brothers Bernie and Hershey Lerner in 1962 assembled the first bagging machines that would become the foundation of Automated Packaging Systems Inc. Today, the firm is based in Streetsboro, Ohio, and operates nine plants at six locations worldwide. APS makes film that it converts into bags that are sold along with its broad line of bagging and sealing equipment, as well as machinery to make air pillows for packaging.

“We’ve remained very true to our business model of providing machinery, materials and service,” APS President and Chief Operating Officer Cliff Brehm said in a recent phone interview. Brehm himself is an example of that longevity, joining the firm as a machine assembler in 1976.

A 50-year milestone was far from the minds of the Lerner brothers when they were finding their way through the packaging world of the 1950s at various bag-makers and industrial firms throughout the New York area. But even at that point, ideas were forming.

Author Bill Troy revisited those early days in We Celebrate 40 Years: That’s Just the Beginning, an APS company history written in 2003. The book was combined with a new section by author Jennifer McKevitt in 2012 and republished as From Garage to Global: 50 Years of Innovation.

“In their spare time, [the Lerners] hit on the idea of putting preformed polyethylene bags on a roll,” Troy wrote. “If they could do that and fill each bag with product quickly, they believed they could greatly speed up a packaging operation, making it far less labor-intensive.”

Part of the challenge, Troy added, was that in that era, the use of low density PE bags was limited to either huge or tiny volumes. A product manufacturer could install a fixed-floor packaging line that would perform all needed tasks, but the prohibitive cost of such an installation meant that only companies with deep pockets and a huge market commitment for a single product could justify the investment.

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 employee stock ownership 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.”