Weber Display & Packaging: A Storied Past, A Determined Future
By AICC Staff
March 21, 2022
COMPANY: Weber Display & Packaging
JOINED AICC: 1992
LOCATIONS: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
OWNERS: Jim Doherty III
The roots of Weber Display & Packaging grow deep into the fertile industrial history of the city of Philadelphia. Founded by the entrepreneur David Weber in 1893 at the corner of Fifth and Locust Streets, the company first made wooden boxes. Later, in a partnership with machine manufacturer Samuel Langston, Weber developed the first single-facer to produce single-faced corrugated paper, primarily for the men’s hat industry, which was prominent in the Northeast at the time. “Our first product was for a company called Stetson Hats,” says Bob Doherty, executive vice president of sales for Weber. “Every man wore a hat back in the day, and our company produced the single-face wrap that protected the hats in shipment.”
Expanding with the Philadelphia industrial landscape, in 1925, Weber built a 110,000-square-foot plant at the corner of Richmond and Tioga Streets in the northeast quadrant of the city. “David Weber started making corrugated boxes here and developed a number of different patents all around the world for single facing. He built the business from there,” Doherty says. “It’s certainly a great story about a company that has been in one industry and one location since the late 1800s.”
The David Weber Co. was considered “a very high-quality” manufacturer of corrugated boxes. Weber served a 100-mile radius in and around Philadelphia, including the produce and seafood industries of southern New Jersey. It was, in some way, shape, or form, run by members of the Weber family until the 1950s, when the family sold portions of it to Chesapeake Corp. and Interstate Container Co. Chesapeake later bought out Interstate’s shares and became the sole owner of the plant, and it remained in Chesapeake’s control and operated under the Chesapeake name until 1991. It was during these Chesapeake years that the Doherty brothers, Bob and the late Jim Doherty Jr., were involved—Bob as sales manager and his brother, Jim, as an independent broker.
As Bob tells the story, Chesapeake had made the decision in the late 1980s to close the plant. The company had faced a prolonged labor strike, and the basic infrastructure of the plant was beginning to wear. Jim was brokering a lot of business for the plant, and out of concern for the company’s employees and customers, he attempted to delay Chesapeake’s decision. “At the time, Jim thought that we could help employees get other jobs, get customers resituated,” Bob recalls. “But in the end, the conversation started flowing toward, ‘Are you interested in selling?’”
After what Bob calls three to four weeks of “Wharton [Business] School-style” negotiations, Jim assumed ownership of the plant in January 1991 and began operations on August 1 of that same year.
Today, Weber Display & Packaging is a $95 million company, employing 190 people on three shifts, and last year producing 720 million square feet of board out of its four facilities in the Philadelphia area: its main 110,000-square-foot plant on Richmond Street; an 80,000-square-foot co-packing facility; a 67,000-square-foot just-in-time warehouse; and a recently opened 30,000-square-foot printing, die-cutting, and finishing site on nearby Ontario Street. Weber also owns a small semipermanent display division to serve its point-of-purchase customers who frequently require permanent fixtures in their product merchandising.
It’s All in the Name
Jim Doherty III, the son of Jim Doherty Jr. and now the president and CEO of the company, remembered that his father, when buying the company, wanted to keep the name Chesapeake Display and Packaging, but the sellers refused. “So my father went back and said, ‘Well, if I can’t have that, I want the David Weber name back,’ and they agreed,” he says.
The Weber name, says Bob Doherty, had a longstanding reputation in the Philadelphia market, and the new owners of the company recognized the value it had with the customer base. “People called it ‘Weber’ when it was Chesapeake,” he says. “They could not get that name out of their heads.
“We took advantage of that,” he adds. “We went out to tell the customers, ‘We’re going to be here; nothing is changing; we have the same equipment; give us a chance.’”
The driving force in the newly established business, however, was Jim Doherty Jr. himself. Bob recalls, “Jim was very inspirational on the plant floor—very inspirational. He got everybody behind him and behind us. He really came across that he was just a Philly guy like all of them—a young guy that grew up in Philadelphia, moved to South Jersey. ‘I have a family just like you guys; this is my money; I need all of you to pull on the rope in the same direction.’ And they did.”
A Solid Family Foundation
The founders of modern-day Weber Display & Packaging found value in restoring a recognized name and the appeal of working in a family-run organization; the next generation is building on this tradition. Jim III joined his father in the business in 1992. He had his own successful career in residential real estate, and he was reluctant to come into the family business in part, he says, because he felt his father’s personal sales relationships were unique to him and wouldn’t guarantee future success.
“I told my father, ‘You’re a broker, and all the relationships are with you. If something happened to you, it doesn’t automatically mean that all the business is going to go forward with me.’ So I did not see a bright future there,” Jim III says. In time, however, Doherty made the decision to come into the business, reasoning, “If I’m going to jump off the cliff, I want to do it now and not 20 years from now.”
Jim III says he started in sales to “get his feet wet,” and jokes that “I was on probation after six months due to lack of sales, so they had to move me to production.” Eventually, though, Jim III settled into key roles of purchasing roll stock and converting equipment, responsibilities which he still carries in his role as CEO.
Kevin Doherty, sales manager, is the son of Bob Doherty and thus succeeds his father in that role. Kevin is a relative newcomer to the Weber team, joining a mere nine years ago following a successful career at Lockheed-Martin. Says Kevin of his transition into the business: “At Lockheed-Martin, I was one of 130,000 people. Even if I did a good job, I felt as though I were irrelevant. When I looked at what was happening at Weber, I could see that the business was growing. I didn’t really expect to get into it, but I could see it was growing. It is very motivating to be part of the group that controls it.”
Jim Zambon is the brother-in-law of Jim III, having married his sister Barbara Doherty Zambon. Zambon also began his career at Weber early on—in 1992—moving from Indiana, where he was a regional manager of a small pharmacy chain. “The company’s first accountant didn’t last very long, and Weber needed one,” he says. “Jim Doherty asked me if I was interested in coming aboard.”
Keeping things in the family and family relationships are important to Zambon. His son, J. Ryan Zambon, is the general manager of the company’s pack-out division and Weber’s process manager. His daughter Keira Zambon Bergvall is now the accounting manager.
Ryan Zambon joined the company in 2012 following the start of his career in management consulting. “I went to undergraduate school for operations and information management and worked for Deloitte & Touche,” he says of his career prior to Weber. “I grew up around the family business and worked in the office and on the plant floor over the years on summer breaks and holidays. When the business eventually needed some help in IT, I saw an opportunity to try to take what I had learned inside and outside of Weber to help improve the family business.”
Zambon Bergvall, for her part, started in 2015. After graduating from Villanova in 2014, she became a CPA and worked for the accounting firm KPMG. When Weber’s accounting manager announced her retirement, Chief Financial Officer Jim Zambon asked Keira if she wanted to become a part of the business. “Of course, I said ‘yes!’” she recalls.
Other key players on the Weber management team include David de la Rosa, vice president of operations. A 40-year veteran of the corrugated industry, de la Rosa joined Weber in 2003 following a long career in production supervision and management with Owens-Illinois, Packaging Corp. of America, and Southern Container.
‘Design Through Delivery’
How does a 129-year-old company continue to be successful year after year, generation after generation? “Our mission statement is ‘design through delivery,’” says Kevin Doherty. “Our best accounts are the ones who use us for all our strengths.” Those “strengths,” he says, are a 15-person sales force, a dedicated team of graphic designers, a co-packing facility, a permanent display division, and a mix of equipment that can satisfy the needs of its diverse mix of food and beverage, pharmaceutical, agricultural, and industrial customers.
“I don’t think it’s all that common—even among AICC members—for a company to be able to cover such a broad waterfront,” he says. “You’re either making brown boxes, or you’re making displays; you’re buying sheets, or you’re making board; you’re involved in co-packing, or you don’t touch it.”
Jim III adds, “It goes back to my father’s mantra: He didn’t care if it was a 50-lot or a 10,000-lot. As long as he could serve the customer, he was going to do it. I think that’s pretty much our philosophy; we do that to this day. We are definitely a sales-driven company.”
An independent corrugator plant, Weber has a 98” Corrugator—a BHS wet end with a Fosber dry end—that produces, B, C, and E flutes, as well BC and EB double-wall. The company has a strong affiliation with and affinity for Bobst and Marquip Ward United (now BWPaperSystems) converting and finishing equipment. The company’s workhorse printing machines are a six-color Bobst DRO rotary die cutter and a six-color MarquipWardUnited rotary die cutter. Rounding out its flexo printing capability are two Bobst flexo folder gluers—a four-color 1228 50” and a three-color 618 Mini Martin—and a two-color Bobst ExpertCut flatbed die cutter. A Stock label laminator, a Bobst MasterCut flatbed die cutter, and a Bobst MasterFold specialty folder-gluer complete the list of current equipment.
Weber’s capital investment strategy is driven by its “design through delivery” philosophy. Bob Doherty credits Weber’s printing excellence today to its competition early on, namely Triangle Container, now Menasha, also in Philadelphia. “We had Triangle around the corner, and its owner, Jack Grollman, and they were printing the Mona Lisa directly on corrugated,” he says, referring to the industry’s flexographic printing innovation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “I wanted to be that. I felt that was the direction we needed to go. In the end we wanted to be everything to everybody, and that was a challenge.”
So, how does a company excel at producing such diverse and demanding product mix? “You pay some tuition along the way,” says Kevin Doherty. “You learn through stubbing your toe from time to time, but if you have good people and good processes, you find a way.”
Process management and automation are key, says Ryan Zambon. “I think that our success is unique in what we’ve been able to offer the marketplace. There will always be a place for value and service. Doing so in the confines of efficient manufacturing will continue to be the challenge,” he says, adding, “Whether it’s through automation, technology, or better processes, that’s going to be what Weber will hang its hat on in the future.”
Keira Zambon Bergvall agrees, saying, “The ownership of the company has to continue its capital investment, making sure we have the equipment to make things more efficient.”
‘Relationships Are Key’
It sounds trite to say, but like any independent in the corrugated or paperboard packaging business, Weber believes relationships are key to success. As noted earlier, the company’s founders had two principal goals in acquiring Chesapeake’s Philadelphia plant: Ensure jobs for the current employees and make sure its current customers were taken care of.
The long-tenured employees of Weber—one was retiring after 51 years at the time of our visit—were the ones who stuck with the change of ownership and remained loyal. “We have a group of individuals here who understood at the beginning, saw the challenge we were facing, and saw the growth of the company,” says Jim III.
Zambon Bergvall recalls the day in 2013 when Doherty Jr. passed away. “I had just started my senior year at Villanova when I had heard that my grandfather had passed away,” she recalls. “My dad and I went to the plant to be with everyone as the news was being shared. I appreciated the love and stories that everyone shared at that time. My grandfather had close relationships with employees across the company.”
This familylike atmosphere pervades everything the company does. It is useful in the marketplace, too. “Customers like that we’re family-owned,” says Kevin Doherty. “They like the story; they like the banter between our families; they get a kick out of it. They root for us because some of them have the same story themselves.”
Commenting on the longevity of some of Weber’s current customers, he adds, “If you’re aligned with the right people, then their growth becomes your growth. We’re partnered with some good customers that have been very loyal to us.”
Resilience in the Face of Challenges
Commenting on current challenges in the industry and the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone on the Weber team agrees that the company’s long-maintained employee, customer, and vendor relationships have insulated them from the most damaging market conditions, namely extended lead times and scarce labor.
Says Jim Zambon: “I think [the pandemic] has fortified relationships—vendor and professional relationships, customer relationships, equipment relationships, employee relationships. And I think that’s probably the key thing that most successful independents do very well: They establish those key relationships with vendors who are going to do whatever it takes to get us the raw material the same way that customers rely on us to get them their boxes.”
Ryan Zambon adds, “If you’d gone back five years and said, ‘You’re going to lose dozens of people all at once across your whole company,’ I’m not so sure we would have been so prepared to work through it. I think the pandemic has taught us that we have really good tenacity, and our resilience is certainly strengthened and improved by the challenge. You get harder steel through fire.”
Weber is a member of a distinct class of independents that has shrunk with industry consolidation—independent corrugator plants without mill affiliation or sheet feeder ownership. “The competitive landscape is very different,” says Kevin Doherty. “In the past five years, our biggest competitors have been swallowed up or sold. And as soon as they sell, they’re different. That has created opportunities for us.”
Adds Jim III, “We’ve had our fair share of offers to take out the corrugator and become part of a sheet operation, but there is nothing like having your own corrugator and being nimble. We’ve never been one to follow the herd instinct.”
He says he thinks independents are best suited to the changes ahead: “You have to see what the new world is going to bring and adapt to it in many ways. I think that’s what independents have done so well over their history.”
The company credits its AICC relationships in their success story as well. Bob Doherty tells a story of a major account early on in their business that needed a three-color box, which Weber did not have the capability to print. Weber approached Schiffenhaus Packaging, another AICC member, to look at converting the box to preprinted linerboard. “I called Anton Schiffenhaus, and he treated me like a son,“ Doherty recalls. “I went back to the customer and said I think I have a solution. That whole thing with Schiffenhaus got us that customer’s business for another seven or eight years. That’s what AICC was all about.”
Kevin Doherty adds, “I’m the only sales manager here. You go to AICC meetings, and you talk to four or five others. It’s very helpful to find other people you’re in sync with.”
Jim III, for his part, contributed his time and expertise to AICC’s growth, serving six years on the AICC board of directors, from 1994 through 2000, first as a regional vice president for the Mid-Atlantic states and then as a director at large.
In a video presentation marking Weber’s 125th Anniversary, shown at AICC’s 2018 Spring Meeting in Phoenix, Jim III closes with the words, “The future looks very bright for Weber Display & Packaging.” The company’s operating philosophy, its long-term, loyal relationships with employees, customers, and vendors, and its Doherty and Zambon family heritage will prove his words true for many years to come.
Steve Young is AICC’s ambassador-at-large. He can be reached at 202-297-0583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.