Back before regulators grappled with the issue, Jim Kelly switched to water-based from solvent-based inks for flexographic printing on plastics. Seeing the change as a sound environmental idea, Kelly began ink trials in the mid-1980s and converted totally to water by 1990. He anticipated that regulators would force the switch.
In 1981, Kelly encouraged development of a breakthrough production process to slice small c-cuts in plastic film, allowing lettuce to breathe and stay fresh longer. The innovation, by manufacturing executive Troy Watson, created a breathable plastic and attracted new customers including Bud of California, now Dole Food Co.'s fresh vegetables division.
In a career recognition, the California Film Extruders & Converters Association presented Kelly with its 1996 Leo Shluker Award. Kelly, chairman and chief executive of family-owned Emerald Packaging Inc., accepted the award at the group's Sept. 10 dinner meeting in Norwalk, Calif.
Kelly was born in New York in 1930, a Depression-era child of Brooklyn working-class, Irish immigrant parents. He graduated from St. John's University, where he lettered in track. An Army posting on Staten Island allowed him to attend New York University, where he received a master of business administration degree.
Celanese Corp. hired Kelly in 1956 to sell plastics, sent him to Los Angeles in 1958 and promoted him to western regional sales manager in 1961. Kelly balked, however, on accepting an East Coast assignment in 1963 and, instead, chose to join upstart Alaska Converting.
Bill Temple and Del Hawkley owned the business, which employed five and converted unprinted baking-industry bags in a 5,000-square-foot Berkeley, Calif., warehouse.
Kelly acquired a stake, in part with about $10,000 he borrowed from his wife Rosaleen's mother. Temple retired in 1971, and Hawkley in 1976. The remaining partner, Larry Ullmann, entered the business in 1964 and retired in 1993.
The converter added equipment, adopted the Emerald Packaging identity in 1968 and focused on cultivating business with produce growers in Salinas Valley and, eventually, 11 Western states.
``We've never lost sight of our one mission - to serve the customer,'' Kelly said.
In 1993, the company moved to a 50,000-square-foot facility in Union City, Calif., leaving its 30,000-square-foot Berkeley home. Now, Emerald Packaging employs 100 and operates four presses, two slitters and more than a dozen high-speed bag machines.
The produce industry accounts for about 85 percent of the company's sales of more than $15 million. Customers include Dole, Grimmway Farms primarily with carrots, and Tanimura & Antle with lettuce.
Along the way, Kelly earned a reputation as a smart buyer, learning how to structure deals with polyethylene film manufacturers.
In recent years, he has worked with Blessing Corp.'s Edison Plastics Co. division and Outlook Packaging's Barrier Films Corp. division to develop new substrates for packaging fresh-cut produce.
He seeks films with oxygen transmission rates matching those of the vegetables being packaged and an agent that prevents fogging inside a bag. Currently, Emerald Packaging is testing a water-based, anti-fog agent.
At age 66, Kelly takes a family approach and encourages service, scheduling flexibility and quick response. Son James M. Kelly is president, daughter Maura Kelly Koberlein is vice president and son Kevin Kelly joined the company in February after nine years as a Business Week correspondent.