Monday, July 14, 2014

Transcendence in an Envelope Factory

After I saw the open door last Thursday, I knew I ‘d eventually enter. The odor, the noise and the heat not only took me back to a summer 46 years ago but also provided a transcendent experience beyond a walk through an envelope-production plant.

 Side door, Cenveo (formerly Garden City/American envelope companies)

The envelope phenomenon actually pre-dates my birth to 1937, when two South Siders, Marvin Nachman and Leslie Weil, became Phi Epsilon Pi fraternity brothers at the University of Illinois. They would remain friends, living on the South Side after World War II and starting families. John Weil was two years older than my brother and me and Craig Weil was born six months after us. Both families moved to the same North Shore suburb, and Frank and I attended junior high school and high school with Craig.

 Phi Epsilon Pi, 1937-1938
My father is 1st on left, 1st row, Les Weil is 1st on left, 3rd row

After working in the coal industry, Les joined American Envelope Company in the early 1950s, building it into one of the leading companies in the industry. He held patents on several innovative products, including the foil-lined envelope. At one time, American was the largest supplier of envelopes to Hallmark, an account Les handled directly. After buying out his partner in 1963, he needed a top-level executive to run the financial end of the business. He chose my father, who became the chief financial officer after a career in public accounting.

 American Envelope Co., 3100 W. Grand (2009)

The business prospered under their leadership, including acquired companies in Baltimore and Washington. The Baltimore company was purchased from a gentleman involved in the move of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore in 1954, and it retained season tickets in the first row behind the Orioles dugout. Les and dad found October 1966 to be an ideal time to check out the company’s operations and, by the way, watch the Orioles complete a four-game sweep of the Dodgers. Both games took less than two hours.

 World Series ticket, game 3, 1966

Having studied diligently during the second semester of my college freshman year after pulling a dismal 2.1 the first semester, I neglected to look for a summer job. Returning home without one in May 1968, I went to work at American Envelope. My jobs were varied: clearing cutting tables (putting the die-cut envelopes on pallets and moving them to machines for final production), assembling cartons (using an electric paper-tape dispenser), running the string-and-button envelope assembly machine (a project requested by the plant manager to show my father how unprofitable these jobs were (, operating a lift truck and driving special-delivery jobs. I was a particularly skilled deliveryman, striving to complete my trips as quickly as possible in the bald-tired station wagon with a misaligned steering wheel. Ed Signature, the head of the shipping department, requested I stay on the rest of the summer; later dad told me the regular drivers usually stopped for a beer or two on the way back.

 The plant at 3100 W. Grand Avenue was not air-conditioned, and the fires atop the machines keeping the envelope glue liquid didn’t help matters. It was hot, stuffy and noisy from the constant din of the machines. The odor was a combination of oil, glue and sweat. My allergies kicked in again, after stopping shots before taking off for college. The shots resumed that summer, which resulted in my meeting a beautiful young woman with long red hair while waiting in the university clinic for shots in March 1971. We’ve been married 41 years.

 I still remember the cast of characters: Cecil Thurston, the janitor who had worked there for years; John Ruggerio, the operator of the P-2 press; Louis Turk, the waste-paper baler; and Frank Bukowski, an assembly man. As a prank, John Weil had all of the walls of Cecil’s broom closet removed, leaving only the door. Sure enough, after arriving early the next morning, Cecil pulled out his key chain and unlocked the door. The P-2 was a small, antiquated press at the front of the plant, but John ran it so efficiently that the company elected to retire the machine the day John retired. Turk, as everybody called him, had a son, James, a pitcher signed by the Cardinals who quit after one season in 1965 because of the terrible racism encountered in the Florida Rookie League. Turk was shot to death a few years later. Frank was a quiet man who assembled cartons, a job I performed for a short time. We both reached for a hand truck to move our pallets at the same time, but he grabbed it away, muttering, “I want ta woik too.” One morning I found him lying on his back on the floor and figured he was resting and beating the heat. I didn’t want to disturb him but soon found he had suffered an epileptic seizure. Luckily, he was o.k.

 The Weil brothers both worked for American, but after John expressed the wish to move on after college, Les sold the company to a small conglomerate in 1970. Problems started soon thereafter. American had moved that year to a larger facility in an industrial park at 4400 W. Ohio Street. An 11-month recession, loss of government contracts because American lost its small-business classification and the acquisition of a competitor, Mills Envelope, adversely affected operations. My father, who was working under a contract, found the new owners were seeking to fire him for cause and hire a low-salaried bookkeeper. The stress, I believe, led to his fatal heart attack at his desk in the office on March 29, 1973. John, who had rejoined American, rode in the ambulance with him and was the one to break the news to me. Les handled almost all of the arrangements, as well as ensured my mother would receive a death benefit the company claimed was not due.

 American Envelope Company, 4400 W. Ohio Street
The sign is still there, 2013

In 1978, CC Industries, a conglomerate owned by the Crown family, bought what was now Mills-American Envelope. My mother had been stuck with illiquid stock in the pervious owner, so the acquisition was “found money.” John moved on to other endeavors, including coincidently working for Marty Lewis in New York, Janet’s cousin’s father-in-law. CC Industries brought him back to be the company’s president and CEO in 1982, after which he proceeded to build it into the nation’s largest independent envelope company, consisting of 13 companies in 12 states, with 50 sales offices. One of the companies was Garden City Envelope in Chicago, and the combined Chicago operations moved into Garden City’s plant at 3001 N. Rockwell Avenue. in 1989.

 The roll-up craze hit the envelope industry in the 1990s, as larger players gobbled up smaller ones in hopes of achieving higher profits through operating efficiencies. CC Industries put American Envelope up for sale and two buyers emerged: Mail-Well Inc. – its major division was a former Georgia-Pacific subsidiary – and McCown De Leeuw & Co., private-equity firm that would have kept John as CEO. Mail-Well won the bidding in 1994, and John headed to Phoenix for a job with McCown De Leeuw. Mail-Well shortly thereafter had its IPO, listing on the New York Stock Exchange. I tried to persuade management to hire our agency for its investor-relations consulting but they used a local Denver firm. John sadly passed away at age 57 after a brave battle against cancer in January 2005. Les died one month later and his wife, Carlyne, a month after that, leaving Craig to call me and say, “Freddie, I’m an orphan!”

 I’d passed the Cenveo (as Mail-Well is now named) plant several times over the years while driving on N. Elston Avenue. Having not shot photographs in the Avondale neighborhood, I set out last Thursday figuring to shoot the building at the end of my photo walk. The plant stretches a city block east along W. Wellington Ave. from N. Rockwell Ave. Halfway down the block, I noticed an open door leading to the plant. Because the sun was still in the east, I walked further down to take the photos, all the time hearing the clattering of production machines. At the end of the block, I spotted the waste-paper bales, ready for shipment. After walking back and hesitating slightly, I walked through the door.

 Cenveo (formerly Garden City/American envelope companies
3001 N. Rockwell Ave.

A woman and man stood at one of the machines as I peered in. I waved and approached, figuring my best introduction was, “My father and John Weil’s father were partners in the old American Envelope.” The man, who had started there in the Garden City days and worked under John, took me to the front office to get permission to walk through the plant. He introduced me to Chip Schmidt, the plant manager, who had begun at American in 1985 and knew the entire Weil family. In fact, he used to drive Les’s car to Florida, after which Les would insist he stay down for a few days and play golf. We talked about Les – what a mensch he was – and John’s great leadership abilities and sense of humor. 

During my wandering, I noticed the business obviously had changed over the years, as it appeared all of the paper was fed on large rolls, not sheets. I didn’t see cutting tables or fires burning atop converting machines. One couldn’t, however, miss the noise at decibel levels making it almost impossible to converse. The floors looked the same, concrete with worn varnish, and the heat seemed almost as oppressive as it was when I hauled pallets of die-cut envelopes 46 years ago. The waste-paper baler was idle, with no latter-day Turk in sight but his spirit was there. So were those of Thurston, Ruggerio and Bukowski.

The flashbacks, as noted, were not confined only to my summer in the plant. They were to my father informing us he was leaving his CPA firm to work with Les, thus allowing us to see him from January 1 to April 15; the phone call from the plant manager that my father had been rushed to a hospital I’d never heard of; John handing over an envelope containing my father’s personal effects, out of which his religious-school confirmation ring rolled out across the table; and John coming back to build American Envelope into an industry leader, then losing the company and, valiantly, his life. Even as a photography enthusiast, I don’t regret skipping shooting inside the plant. The images in my mind will always be more vivid than any I could capture with the E-5.