In 1910, Osias Berk founded the company that still bears his name. The company was located in Newark, NJ and its customer base consisted mostly of chemical plants along the Passaic River and ethnic food suppliers, such as pickle packers, in the city’s Iron Bound section.
At that time, automatic bottle-making machinery hadn’t even been invented. O.Berk’s main operation consisted of redistributing second-hand bottles and jars (there were no plastic containers at the time), which were collected, washed, resold and distributed by horse-drawn wagons. Because bottles and jars weren’t yet threaded, closures were corks and paper disks, instead of screw tops, pumps and sprays. O.Berk’s competition at the time came from a number of Brooklyn, NY distributors, many of whom O.Berk acquired in successive years.
The 1920s – The Roaring 20’s…
…the decade of jazz music, flappers and finally the start of the great depression in 1929 saw some monumental changes in the O.Berk Company. The automatic glass bottle manufacturing machine, patented on August 2, 1904 by Michael J. Owens, came into wide use, replacing the semi-automatic, mouth-blown glass production methods that relied on heavy child labor practices in glass manufacturing facilities. The advent of automatic glass bottle production revolutionized the glass industry and O.Berk took a giant leap forward.
In 1923, the Owens Bottle Company (the name of Mike Owen’s company until 1929 when the name was changed to Owens Illinois Glass Co., following the acquisition of the Illinois Glass Company), added screw threads to its automatic bottle machine – and the metal screw cap was born!
Isaac Goldstein, great grandfather of current O.Berk President, Marc Gaelen, purchased O.Berk from founder Osias Berk, ushering in a new era of family-based ownership, which now runs four generations deep.
The 1930s – The Depression Years
By 1930, Isaac Goldstein had owned O.Berk for five years and his four sons were working alongside him in the business. At that time, O.Berk was the northern New Jersey authorized glass container distributor for its two major suppliers, the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, with a glass plant in Zanesville, OH and a metal cap plant in Wheeling, WV, and Brockway Glass Company, located in Brockway, PA. Due to government regulations, O.Berk was not permitted to sell outside of this northern New Jersey (franchised) territory.
O.Berk’s primary markets were chemical manufacturers, located in Newark’s Ironbound section and along the Passaic and Raritan Rivers, Standard Oil (now Exxon) refineries in Bayonne and Linden and refineries in Perth Amboy, Dow Chemical in Newark, paint companies and a number of independent chemical companies who used O.Berk’s jars for contents such as varnish and linseed oil.
Standard Oil used O.Berk’s 4 oz. jars for retained samples taken from every tanker and stored for reference (similar to drug lots). O.Berk also sold jars for the printing industry, glass jugs for bleach and glass bottles and jars for food products, such as pickles, dressings and honey. Olive oil processing plants in Carlstadt and vinegar processing plants in Newark also purchased from O.Berk.
The depression years were tough, as they were for many other businesses, but through hard work, determination and a little luck, O.Berk managed to survive. Prohibition was enacted by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 and “bootleggers” were carrying out the illegal production and distribution of alcohol. O.Berk sold paper labels for bottles, closures and other packaging materials for bottles to bootleggers in Brooklyn. After the repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, O.Berk began to sell bottles for bar/tavern supplies, including coloring agents that were added to cocktails at that time.
An interesting fact of the times: During the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, a government anti-trust suit was brought against the glass container industry for price fixing. Thatcher, a glass company that made milk bottles, set the milk bottle price for the bottle industry. Owens-Illinois set liquor and beer bottle prices. The government won the anti-trust suit, despite a challenge by Glass Container Associates (GCA), and the industry was ordered to change its ways. However, Owens-Illinois, known as the “titan” in the bottle industry, continued to influence pricing because other suppliers couldn’t afford to sell for any more or any less than they did.
The close of the 30’s saw the lifting of the restrictions on authorized areas of distribution as the result of an anti-trust suit brought about by the steel industry. Regional representation (franchises) was declared illegal and O.Berk was free to sell without any geographical restriction.
The 1940s – The War-Torn Years
During the early 1940s, with war raging on two fronts, the government stepped in to regulate glass container production because most bottles and metal caps were needed for the war effort. As a result, the shelves in O.Berk’s warehouse were empty – thanks to the huge demand for any surplus bottles that remained after the war demand was met. O.Berk fared well throughout these years because they could sell every piece of glass they could lay their hands on.
At this point, only two of Isaac Goldstein’s four sons were still running O.Berk, Morton (Moe) and Leonard (Lenny); the other two Albert (Al) and Howard (Harry) had passed away. O.Berk moved from Belmont Avenue to Waverly Avenue in Newark to be closer to the railroad for product shipments. And then, only a short time later, the company moved to another location, with a much-needed larger warehouse, on Brunswick Street.
During the 1930s, when O.Berk was still an authorized distributor, its customers were smaller companies who, because of their size, could not buy directly from the manufacturer (i.e., Hazel-Atlas). Once a customer grew large enough, (i.e., it required a full freight car or trailer for order delivery), the manufacturer had the right to take over that account. In order to retain accounts when they got larger, O.Berk and other distributors needed to establish and maintain congenial relationships with their suppliers.
Owens-Illinois revised its glass prices once a year and, because everyone in the glass industry had to be competitive with one another, within 24 hours every other manufacturer had adjusted its prices as well. O.Berk was able to survive because the company received a 5% functional distribution discount on orders purchased from its manufacturers.
After the war ended, the main delivery vehicle for products started to transition from freight car to trailer truck. However, because 50% of all its supplies were still delivered by rail, O.Berk changed locations once again – from Brunswick Street to Frelinghuysen Avenue – to stay close to the railroad.
In 1947, Moe’s son Norbert, a recent graduate of Penn State University, came to help his Uncle Lenny in the family business because Moe’s health was failing; Morton Goldstein died in 1948.
After his father’s death, Norbert’s older brother Leslie decided to attend medical school. Because of the discriminatory admissions practices of that day, Leslie changed his surname from Goldstein to Gaelen to gain more favorable consideration. The remainder of his family, including Norbert, followed suit.
Because Leonard had no sons – Norbert assumed ownership of O.Berk. And thus began 59 years of O.Berk leadership with Norbert Gaelen at the helm.
The 1950s – Plastic Bottles Take the Country by Storm!
After Morton Goldstein’s death in 1948, his son, Norbert Gaelen, stayed on at O.Berk to help his Uncle Leonard run the business. O.Berk employed six people at the time – Lenny, Norbert, one salesman, and three others who worked in the warehouse or drove one of two delivery trucks. Norbert worked in the warehouse and helped with the customer service aspect of the business.
Leonard Goldstein died in 1951, leaving Norbert to take over the family business. Allan Shoemaker, a NJ-based salesman with Hazel-Atlas Glass, regularly called on O.Berk twice a week. Shoemaker offered to teach Norbert everything he knew about the glass bottle business and so became Norbert’s mentor. At about the same time, Jean Masbach, from Brockway Glass, brought Norbert in to meet Brockway’s President and Treasurer. Both of them promised to continue to supply O.Berk with glass as long as Norbert continued to pay their invoices. They also encouraged Norbert to call them with questions. So Norbert, alone now in the family business, found a safe harbor under the wings of his two top suppliers who had a vested interest in him and O.Berk.
In the early 1950s, plastics arrived on the scene and became “all the rage.” The first products to use plastics were squeeze deodorant bottles, made out of low-density polyethylene (LDPE). Inquiries for plastic containers started to flood into O.Berk. However, there was a problem with O.Berk’s ability to stock plastics; Monsanto, the main supplier of plastic bottles, offered franchises only to Owens Illinois distributors. Because O.Berk wasn’t a distributor for O-I, the company was unable to become a plastics distributor for Monsanto.
Luckily, O.Berk found a plastic bottle company, Modern Plastics in Prescott, Arizona, who was making three basic stock shapes that mirrored glass bottles – Boston rounds, cylinders and ovals. This company said that O.Berk could distribute for them. So, O.Berk started to warehouse plastics which at the time were used for chemicals, kitchen detergents and hand cleaners, and health and beauty products (shampoos).
O.Berk picked up a rather brisk business with plastics and because metal caps used on glass bottles didn’t work well on plastic containers, plastic caps, initially made out of phenolic material that fit the threads on plastic bottles, were manufactured. Another type of plastic, polypropylene, was injection-molded to form plastic caps. Eventually these replaced phenolic caps because they could accommodate all of the different threads that were available on plastic bottles.
At this same time, a new process, known as blow molding, started to be used to make polyethylene plastic bottles. With blow molding, the plastic is heated and then extruded through a die to form a hollow tube. Next, the two halves of the mold open to accept the tube and then they close around the tube. Air is blown through the hot tube, forcing it against the sides of the mold where it takes on the mold’s shape. In the last step, the two halves of the mold open to release the finished plastic bottle.
Union Carbide, a large plastic bottle supplier located in NJ, took notice that O.Berk was a major metropolitan area distributor and O.Berk coincidentally was looking for a local source for plastics, so the two companies teamed up. O.Berk added another sales person, outgrew the Frelinghuysen address because it was now stocking both glass and plastic containers, and moved to 27-49 Hanes Avenue to acquire a much-needed larger warehouse.
Customer preference saw a slow migration over to plastic containers – with a ratio of roughly 80% glass to 20% plastic in the mid-to-late 1950s.
The 1960s – Corporate Expansion and Another Move
As the 1960s opened, Norbert realized the need for more office support at O.Berk, so he hired Danny Klein as a bookkeeper. Danny had been a bookkeeper for a vending machine company and he was introduced to O.Berk through an employment agency. He quickly became Norbert’s “right hand man” and remained with O.Berk for 35 years until his retirement in 1995.
In 1963, Norbert became a member of the National Association of Glass Bottle Distributors (NAGBD), an organization that was primarily comprised of Owens-Illinois distributors. However, the NAGBD was seeking to expand and Norbert was sponsored by a vendor member; he attended the organization’s first convention held in Montreal that same year. In 1965, the NAGBD changed its name to the National Association of Container Distributors (NACD) because, by then, plastic and metal containers had gained widespread usage and were now stocked by many distributors.
O.Berk moved from Haynes Avenue in Newark to Irvington in 1965, once again for a larger warehouse. Although the new location still had a railroad siding, it was seldom used. In 1966, O.Berk saw its first million dollars in revenue. Bookkeeping evolved from a manual to an automated function, with a billing machine operator, and O.Berk now had three trucks and 15 employees, including four salesmen.
Danny Klein moved into a more administrative and supervisory position while Norbert concentrated on some of the more creative aspects of doing business, such as designing direct mail pieces, setting up catalogs and purchasing. He also handled vendor contact, one of the aspects of his job that he particularly enjoyed.
The 1960s also saw the introduction of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), a rigid type of plastic that found many applications in products used in the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room, such as bleaches and detergents. Many more products made the switch from glass to plastic during this time, using the two types of plastic available – flexible low-density (LDPE) and rigid high-density (HDPE) polyethylene.
At this point, Brockway Glass began to manufacture injection-molded vials for the pharmacy market, and Parkway Plastics, located in Irvington, began to manufacture injection-molded polypropylene jars for general use. O.Berk became a distributor for both.
The 1960s ended on a high note as Norbert Gaelen was elected President of the NACD.
The 1970s – Aluminum, Automation, and Acquisitions
Norbert Gaelen retained presidency of the NACD from 1969-1971. In 1970, Norbert met Hugues Thibaud who had married into the Tournaire family, an aluminum container manufacturer located in France. Hugues was sent to the U.S. to assess overseas opportunities for Tournaire’s expansion. After living in Westport, CT for a few months, he realized that it would be too difficult to start on his own, so he began to look to container distributors as the solution to Tournaire’s expansion.
Norbert had a customer who was interested in purchasing aluminum, so he contacted Hugues to see if O.Berk could become a distributor for Tournaire. Hugues agreed – but only if Norbert was willing to stock aluminum containers for Tournaire’s NJ customers in O.Berk’s warehouse. This began a profitable venture between O.Berk and Tournaire, with O.Berk servicing Tournaire’s NJ customers. In 1971, O.Berk co-sponsored a booth at the annual American Manufacturer’s Association (AMA) show at the Coliseum in New York City, along with Tournaire and its other North American distributors.
The year 1973 was a big one for O.Berk. Because of O.Berk’s success as Tournaire’s NJ distributor, Norbert asked for and received their NY distributorship. That year also saw O.Berk’s first acquisition – J.W. Wilson Glass Company on April 1. Wilson Glass, originally located in Brooklyn, opened a Newark warehouse 1971 and, only a short time later, moved both their headquarters and the Newark warehouse to Linden.
At the time, Norbert and Griffin Crafts, owner of Wilson Glass, were members of the six-company Metropolitan Glass Distributor’s Association. When Norbert discovered that Wilson wasn’t faring well in its new location, he approached “Griff” with an offer to buy Wilson. Griff accepted and Norbert walked into Wilson Glass on April 1 and announced, to a very surprised staff, that O.Berk was their new owner.
Within a year, this formerly failing acquisition was once again profitable. O.Berk integrated the warehouse operation between Linden and Irvington and moved the executive offices and sales department to Linden, while the accounting function remained in Irvington.
Shortly after this acquisition, Hugues Thibaud accepted an offer to work at O.Berk and, with this move, O.Berk became the exclusive distributor for Tournaire throughout all North America. In1974, O.Berk set up a separate company, O.Berk International, with Norbert as President and Hugues as General Manager to oversee Tournaire’s North American aluminum distributorship. O.Berk International resided in rented space on Milltown Ct., where it steadily grew into a million dollar business.
During that same year, O.Berk automated and began to use the “punch card” system. The cards were punched onsite and then processed at an East Orange insurance company in which O.Berk had rented computer time. This arrangement continued until 1976 when O.Berk took a major technology leap and converted to a “Business Basic 4” custom distribution system, which automated and integrated the accounting, inventory, and scheduling functions, bringing O.Berk into the “computer age.”
April 1975 saw O.Berk’s second acquisition, United Bottle Company, from owner Sol Bendow. Norbert kept United Bottle intact in its Brooklyn location with O.Berk oversight, until the Brooklyn building was sold in 1977. And, at that point, the operation moved to Farmingdale, Long Island, as a full-service O.Berk branch location/warehouse facility.
Norbert’s daughter, Meryl Gaelen, joined O.Berk in 1979, shortly after her graduation from Dickinson College. To learn the business, she was mentored in purchasing glass and plastic containers and closures. She remained with O.Berk until she relocated to Connecticut, following her marriage to Ron Japha.
As of the late 1970s, O.Berk was operating in three locations, Farmingdale, Linden and Union, as it continued to grow and prosper.
The 1980s – Supply Lines, PET Commercialization and Fourth Generation Family Involvement
The maiden issue of Supply Lines, a quarterly publication for O.Berk’s suppliers, customers and employees, debuted in March 1980 as a black and white four-page printed newsletter. Through the years, it evolved into a six panel, full-color newsletter; the print version was retired and replaced by a digital e-newsletter in 2010.
In September 1981, Marc Gaelen left the law firm in which he had been working to join Norbert in the family business as legal counsel, who along with his sister Meryl ushered in the fourth generation of family involvement in O.Berk.
Company growth and expansion led to another move in 1983, from Linden to Union, for larger space and a warehouse that more than tripled the size of the one in Linden. Additional area was required to accommodate the co-location of O.Berk International and its need to stock aluminum. The building was renovated for O.Berk’s occupancy with a sizeable addition, more windows and a kitchen. The brother of long-time employee, Bob Kuhn, served as architect on the renovation project.
Henry Kols, founder and owner of KOLS Containers located in Baltimore, MD, was Norbert Gaelen’s good friend. After his son Brian graduated from college, Henry brought him into his business; tragically, however, Brian died from cancer at an early age. Henry was too heartbroken to return to the office he had shared with his son, so Norbert purchased KOLS Containers, a distributor of predominantly plastic chemical and pharmaceutical containers. Norbert sent a senior-level employee down to Baltimore to provide oversight of KOLS operations and sales functions.
The 80s also saw the commercialization of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that provided clarity to plastic, giving it a more glass-like appearance. The chemical properties inherent in PET were superior, in certain areas, to HDPE; it provided good oxygen and moisture control, making it more suitable for certain foods, oils and alcohol. Because of PET’s enormous popularity, all distributors “jumped on the band wagon” to sell it.
An economic turndown in the mid-1980s led to the elimination of many suppliers’ sales offices and the termination of non-essential employees, including Quality Control (QC) staff. As a result, O.Berk received an increasing number of complaints from its customers, including short counts and defective merchandise. O.Berk salespeople started to spend more time on problem resolution than sales, prompting O.Berk to hire its own QC person to address quality assurance issues exclusively. O.Berk was the first distributor with QC packaging engineers who conducted inspections and worked with vendors to eliminate problems.
The 1990s – A Decade of Growth, Expansion, New Product Lines and Specialized Staff
In 1990, O.Berk experienced a corporate reorganization; Norbert Gaelen assumed the position of Chairman and CEO, while his son Marc took over the role of President and COO.
Sales continued to increase year over year and every year’s first issue of Supply Lines boasted “The Best Year Ever,” referencing the previous year’s sales!
In 1993, O.Berk instituted a totally new integrated computer system, joining the ranks of many other major companies who were ushering innovative automated solutions in with open arms – mainly because of their effect on streamlining operations and efficiency.
Monsanto approached O.Berk about signing on for a NY distributorship because the company had become increasingly dissatisfied with their current distributor, J. Rabinowitz & Sons; O.Berk agreed to become a Monsanto distributor.
Soon after, O.Berk was approached by Savonette, a bath and body company, who was looking for a unique bottle for its customer, The Limited. The Limited was looking to incorporate a bath and beauty line into its offerings. O.Berk showed Savonette the “Tombstone” shaped bottle, supplied by Innopack (Monsanto’s new name). Ultimately, O.Berk built a full set of molds for Savonette’s use with The Limited products.
Meanwhile, Rabinowitz, the major metro area distributor, headquartered in Elizabeth, sold to an investor group. The investor, who had no experience in distribution, began to manufacture plastic for the cosmetics industry. However, they were unsuccessful in this venture and shortly after the business was put up for sale.
Norbert contacted the owner, negotiated a price and Rabinowitz became O.Berk’s newest acquisition in 1994. O.Berk had a sizeable presence in the cosmetic market, and with the acquired growth, Marc Gaelen developed the vertical marketing concept. This concept advocated specialized salespeople, by industry, because it was difficult for any one salesperson to know all there was to know about every available container in every market sector. At this same time, the Marketing Department was established as well to coordinate the promotional efforts of all O.Berk companies.
In 1995, The Cosmetic Packaging Group was the first of four specialty markets that O.Berk instituted. The creation of the Healthcare, Food, and Commercial and Industrial packaging groups wasn’t far behind – each staffed with salespeople who were specialized in those individual markets.
In 1995, Norbert Gaelen was awarded the distinction of being named that year’s NACD Person of Achievement, only a short time before the celebration of his 50th anniversary with O.Berk in 1997.
The decade ended with two more acquisitions, Feldman Glass out of New Haven, CT, which was renamed O.Berk Company of New England, and Apex Bottle Company in Baltimore, MD, which became part of KOLS Containers.
The New Millennium, 100 Years and Counting…
The new millennium brought continued prosperity to O.Berk, beginning with a 9.5% increase in sales in the year 2000 over the prior year’s sales figures. The following year, O.Berk Company of New England doubled its size with the acquisition of Great Age Container, a company that specialized in providing packaging solutions to the healthcare industry.
In an effort to accommodate customers who wanted smaller quantities of a particular product at a competitive price, O.Berk launched BottleStore.com in 2001, an e-commerce website that effectively met the needs of these customers. In the aftermath of the tragic circumstances of 9/11, while there was a great deal of economic uncertainty worldwide, O.Berk continued to achieve growth and prosperity.
The following year, 2002, was noteworthy for several reasons. Norbert Gaelen retired from “active service” in the day-to-day operations at O.Berk; however, he retained his position as Chairman of the Board. During that same year, the Healthcare Packaging Group was created to provide specialized attention and packaging expertise to the pharmaceutical/healthcare markets. Tom Bohner, a long-time O.Berk sales representative, was named manager of this marketing sector. And…Marc Gaelen was named President of the NACD, a position his father held from 1969 – 1971.
In 2003, Norbert Gaelen was inducted into the Packaging Hall of Fame by the NJ Packaging Executives Club (NJPEC). O.Berk sold its 50% interest in O.Berk International to its partner, Tournaire, signaling the end of O.Berk’s involvement in distributing aluminum. As a result, Tournaire changed its name to ElementAL Container Company.
Supply Lines celebrated its 25th birthday in 2005, having grown from a quarterly four-page, black and white publication into a full-color, six-page publication. As a packaging information source as well as a showcase for O.Berk awards, trade show participation and employee honors and milestones, Supply Lines continued to be a signature publication in the packaging industry.
In 2006, Norbert Gaelen announced his formal retirement from O.Berk, ending his 59 years of service and transferring company ownership to his children, Marc and Meryl. Marc continued in his role as President and CEO of O.Berk, and as steward of the company, he assumed the position of carrying forward the legacy created by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. Meryl Japha was named Executive Vice President.
The mid-2000s saw a re-launch of both the O.Berk corporate website, with the inclusion of an electronic product catalog, and BottleStore.com.
When the “green” movement started to gain momentum, consumer demand for more sustainable packaging options prompted O.Berk’s addition of “green” products, made from post-consumer regrind (PCR), to its popular packaging lines in 2009.
The decade closed with a major rebranding for O.Berk, which debuted in 2009 at the HBA Expo in New York’s Jacob Javits Center. As a leader in packaging solutions, O.Berk’s new theme was “How can we help?” This rebranding prompted the incorporation of a modern visual brand identity into all online and offline company communications. O.Berk also unveiled a new proprietary package selection process, OptiMatchSM. And after 30 years as a print publication, Supply Lines was converted to a digital online format because of the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of reaching suppliers, customers and employees through the Internet.
What’s in store for the future of the O.Berk Company? With Norbert Gaelen’s four grandsons, the likelihood that there will be a fifth generation of O.Berk ownership and involvement is more than probable.
Integrity, hard work, and perseverance have been key to O.Berk’s 100-year success and they will continue to be integral qualities that will guide O.Berk’s progress through its next century of service.
A Look Ahead…
One hundred years of history is an incredible accomplishment for any company. The opportunity to be an integral part of the rich history of a century-old company is both an honor and a privilege. I am fortunate to have this opportunity as the fourth generation of my family to have a leadership role in O.Berk.
O.Berk has continued to grow and prosper through the Great Depression, two World Wars and the economic roller coaster of the last several decades. While we haven’t been spared our own unique challenges, we have persevered when others have fallen because of our determination, knowledge, expertise, and dedication to our customers and our suppliers.
Our future challenge will be to continue to provide unparalleled problem-solving expertise to our customers. Although this may not seem like a novel idea, without working hard and challenging ourselves to be better today than we were yesterday, we can’t possibly expect to please our customers every day.
Additionally, as we move forward into our next century of service, we need to remain mindful of the following:
- The need to stay current with new technologies
- Our duty to provide, in-depth, in-person consultative services to guide our customers through the myriad of possible choices in rigid packaging
- Our mission to expand our product offerings with existing and new vendors
- Our obligation to remain relevant through changing times
I consider myself a steward of O.Berk; I am charged with continuing to grow the company and then passing it on. Constant growth has been an integral part of our longevity – growth built on values like honesty, integrity and service. And, while the dynamics of working with family can sometimes be difficult, what makes it difficult is also what makes it work.
In terms of family succession and my outlook on the possibility of a fifth generation of O.Berk leadership, I believe that it is certainly a possibility.
My sincere hope is that O.Berk will see at least another century of service, and it will by remaining true to the principles instilled in it by my great-grandfather and carried forth, in turn, by my grandfather, my father and myself.