Distributor Pioneers: The 10 Oldest Jan/San Distributors
Business owners commonly celebrate 10, 25, or even 50-year anniversaries. But how many make it to 150 years? The jan/san distribution industry — in one form or another — has been around at least that long. Knowing the pride the industry takes in its past, SM editors documented the respective histories of the oldest industry distributors. Each of the 10 companies has followed a unique path to sustained growth and longevity. But there are also some similarities.
Among our feted 10, a couple sprang up when adjacent paper mills were built. Paper mills needed an efficient (as efficient as a horse and buggy could be) way to get their products to customers. Jan/san distributors filled that need.
Two originally manufactured and distributed soap.
Others got their start selling everything from ice cream to fruit jars to seeds to stationery. By bike, by rail, by sleigh or buggy, their product offerings were as diverse as their pipelines. Truly, they tried to be everything to everyone.
They’ve survived fires, depressions, market changes and ownership turnovers, and they’ve all managed to find their way into our “Top 10.”
The profiles of these remarkable companies aren’t intended as exhaustive historical narrative. Considered collectively, they provide a taste of the jan/san business in its infancy.
1850 — Kranz Inc., Racine, Wis.
At over 150 years old, Kranz Inc. is the oldest jan/san distributor in the industry. In 1850, John Kranz founded Kranz Inc. The company’s product lines included paper, stationery, brooms, other cleaning supplies, and packaging items, such as kraft paper and twine.
William H. Kranz joined his father, John, in the business in 1881. John Kranz and Son expanded their territory from southern Wisconsin to northern Illinois.
Gerhard Voelker acquired an interest in and incorporated the W.H. Kranz Co. in 1917 with several other investors. In 1918, Voelker became president of the company. In 1944, Harry Voelker, Gerhard’s son, became president.
In 1960, Ralph Neubauer, Harry’s son-in-law — husband of Harry’s daughter Sara — became president. Kranz later moved its headquarters with the acquisition of the Service Paper Company. To accommodate growth, Kranz-Service Inc. moved again in 1968. Under Ralph’s leadership, Kranz broadened its product offering to include janitorial chemicals and supplies, and industrial packaging, supplies, equipment and service. He expanded the sales territory north to Green Bay, west to Madison, south to the Chicago area and east to Gary, Ind.
In 1994, Jeff Neubauer, Ralph and Sara’s son, became the fourth generation of the family to become company president. In November of 1994, the company acquired its current location in Racine.
1853 — Schnaible Service & Supply Co., Inc., Lafayette, Ind.
M.& J. Schnaible Co. was founded in, Lafayette, Ind., in 1853, but manufactured soap products as early as 1847. The sons of German immigrants, Michael and John Schnaible were first employed by Edward T. Jenks to work for the company. Among their jobs: boiling, stripping tallow and fat from animal carcasses, and processing lard oil from the trimmings to make the soap.
The brothers bought out Jenks in the 1850s. In 1868, they invested in a three-story factory west of the Wabash & Erie Canal. After another addition, the company employed eight men by 1885.
In 1899, the business was incorporated, at which time Michael’s sons, C. George and John Frederick, became partners in the firm. By 1910, five Schnaible family members and two other employees operated the business.
In the 1930s, a new law prohibited the transport of animal carcasses, putting an end to a cheap source of supply for soap-makers. The Schnaibles retired their own soap brands and arranged with Procter & Gamble to distribute P&G soaps and paper supplies. In 1935, during the Great Depression, the company generated about $35,000 in sales.
“O.U.” Sullivan acquired the company in 1953, and continued to expand the business with cleaning and janitor supplies.
In 1969, Donald Jay Stein of Crown Laundry and Cleaning Company and Lafayette Linen and Coverall Service purchased a partnering interest in the company. Shortly after, the company was renamed Schnaible Service & Supply Co. Inc.
The crossover marketing was a success. Business tripled each of the first three years.
In 1984, Sullivan sold his interest to Stein, who sold his interest in Crown Laundry. By 1985, the company had grown to 22 employees doing $3 million annually in sales from three Indiana locations.
By its 150th anniversary in 2003, the company had 32 employees in nine Indiana cities, and had built the $10-million company into the second largest distributor in Indiana.
1868 — The Ohio & Michigan Paper Co., Perrysburg, Ohio
Residents of Ohio and Michigan were still recovering from the effects of the Civil War in 1868 when the Level Company opened a new paper mill in Tecumseh, Mich., then a sleepy little frontier-like community 25 miles north of Toledo.
To handle the sales and distribution of the paper from the new mill, George Smith and his brother established The Ohio and Michigan Paper Co., located in downtown Toledo.
The company prospered and soon after the turn of the century moved to new quarters where it remained until 1914, when the building was destroyed by fire.
After the fire, the company moved to a building north of downtown Toledo until 1969, when the then-101-year-old firm moved to its current location southeast of the city.
Until the move in 1969, the family name most associated with the company was Hegamaster. Frederick D. Hegamaster joined The Ohio and Michigan Paper Co. in 1892 as a bookkeeper and with two partners, Vine Depugh Sisson and Ira Garret Winegar, purchased the business in 1902.
Frederick’s son Donald Z. Hegamaster joined the firm in 1920 and served as president from 1951 until 1966 when Donald’s son, Richard, became president. Richard died suddenly, not long after the company’s 100th anniversary celebration that included the unveiling of plans for the company’s current facility.
Ken Leininger, who had been vice president since 1966, became president. He purchased the business from the Hegamaster estate, and soon supervised the move to the new facility.
Prior to World War I, nearly all of The Ohio and Michigan Paper Co. market was small retailers. Supplies arrived by horse-drawn wagons and rail prior to WWI. All deliveries were made by horse and wagon.
The Ohio and Michigan Paper Co.’s industrial division began operations in 1919 and today accounts for a major portion of business. The company’s printing paper division debuted in 1924.
Today, The Ohio and Michigan Paper Co. services its customers from a 65,000-square-foot warehouse with nine truck bays, two rail docks, and 5,000 square feet of office space. A fleet of two tractor-trailer rigs, three 28-foot straight trucks, and three vans fan out daily over northwest Ohio and southwest Michigan.
1876 — T. Frank McCall’s, Chester, Pa.
In 1876, T. Frank McCall’s was a feed and grain concern owned by T. Frank McCall, his sons and, later, his grandsons. The setting was rural, but industry began to take root, and around 1890, Scott Paper opened a plant in the area. T. Frank McCall’s was its first customer.
In the 1890s, the company moved into janitorial supplies, which now make up 98 percent of the company’s inventory.
In 1957, Charles and Edmond Witomski bought the business from the third generation of McCalls. Today, the second generation of Witomskis, Lisa and Marcie Witomski, own and manage the business.
An interesting fact about the company: since it was founded, its headquarters have never moved. The original elevator and safe are right where they’ve always been, though the company’s operations now take up an entire city block in Chester, Pa.
1881 — White River Paper Co., White River Junction, Vt.
The White River Paper Co. opened for business in April 1881. It was owned by Alma C. Farman, George W. Smith and Samuel L. Farman.
Samuel Farman brought a sound knowledge of the paper industry, having worked in book publishing for 30 years. He came to White River Jct. in 1879 and ran a small paper products business — the forerunner of the White River Paper Co.
Products were housed in the local freight depot, which was destroyed by fire in 1888. White River Paper Co. suffered a loss of more than $4,500 in paper goods.
Despite the setback, the firm prospered under Smith and Farman management until Smith died in 1905. Farman assumed control, and in 1907 the firm relocated to the corner of North Main and Currier streets.
J. Pratt Kimball and George G. Nichols joined the firm in the 1890s, and assumed ownership when Farman died in 1911. Nichols is the great-grandfather of Michael and Jeffrey Lyford, who own the business today.
Nichols died in 1943 and Kimball retired in 1946. Two members of the company, Robert Whitney and Laurence Nichols, son of the former owner, purchased the company in 1946.
In the 1960s, a new generation of the Nichols family joined the business: Ed Nichols. At about the same time, Laurence Nichols’ daughter’s husband, Peter Lyford, entered employment at the company.
In 1973, Laurence Nichols passed away and Ed Nichols became president.
White River Paper Co. began distributing many new items, such as plastic garbage liners and foam cups and containers. These items led to even faster growth.
In 1986, Peter Lyford and his two sons, Michael and Jeffrey, assumed control of the company and bought out Ed Nichols’ stock. The following year they built a new distribution facility in Hartford, Vt.
In 1993, Peter Lyford’s sons assumed control of the company when he retired.
Today, White River Paper Co. is one of Vermont and New Hampshire’s leading distributors of foodservice disposables, and janitorial, packaging and office supplies.
1882 — Butler-Dearden Paper Service Inc., Boylston, Mass.
Butler-Dearden Paper traces its roots back to the Worcester paper and twine store of Frederick W. Perkins, which opened in 1882. George S. Butler worked in that store and became part owner in 1900. The name of the business was changed to Perkins and Butler. George Butler became sole owner of the company in 1916 after Frederick Perkins died. George brought his three sons, Walter, Claire and Gordon, into the business. The Butlers sensed an opportunity in the marketplace, and in 1930, established a new company to specialize in paper for the printing trade. Walter S. Dearden, who worked for Strathmore Paper Co., was brought in to assist in the setup of this operation. The new venture was named Butler-Dearden Paper.
The third generation of Butlers joined the company in the 1950s, Douglas and George Butler. In 1966, the two companies were merged into one operation, which retained the name of Butler-Dearden Paper Services Inc. In 1986, Douglas Butler retired and George Butler became president. His son David, who became the fourth generation of Butlers in the business, joined him in 1987.
In 2004, David became president and George became chairman.
In October of 1995 the company moved into a new building in Boylston, Mass.. Today, the company employs 32 people and has come a long way since the paper and twine retail store of 1882. The company motto: “excellent customer service is the most important product it delivers.”
1894 — P.B. Gast & Sons, Grand Rapids, Mich.
The p.b. gast & sons of today traces its origins to the P.B. Gast Soap Co., founded in 1894 by a 20-year-old soapmaker named Peter B. Gast.
Soapmaking in the 1890s was a complicated business. Because even such simple chemical indicators as litmus paper were unknown at the time, soapmakers had to rely on their own sense of sight and taste to arrive at a mixture just slightly on the alkaline side.
The soapmaker’s next step was to add salt to precipitate the soap, which was skimmed from the kettle and poured onto a large metal-top table where it was dried and cut with piano wire into four-foot-long sticks. Gast marketed his soap sticks, packed in open-top barrels, to some 20 Grand Rapids steam laundries.
Like other housewives of the time, Emily Gast, Peter’s wife, pared the soap sticks into small pieces that could be boiled with the family wash in a large copper tub. Emily one day asked her husband why a machine couldn’t chip the soap. He presented the problem to a machine shop in New York., and in 1908 began marketing P.B. Gast Soap Chips, a soap industry first.
By 1922, two of Peter’s sons, Waldemar and Raymond, had joined the business, and the company name was changed to p.b. gast & sons. Four years later, faced with rising competition from such soap industry giants as Proctor & Gamble, the firm stopped making soap entirely, devoting itself instead to the distribution of janitorial and sanitary supplies.
The Laundry Division of p.b. gast & sons was established in 1949 by Frederick C. Gast Sr. This division distributes commercial laundry equipment throughout Michigan and northern Ohio.
A third generation of the Gast family now manages the firm: Peter B. Gast and Frederick “Fritz” C. Gast Jr.
1898 — Black River Paper Co., Inc., Watertown, N.Y.
In 1898, William A. Morrow and John W. Hyde founded Black River Paper Co. In 1919, Allen S. Perkins bought Hyde’s stock, and the company has been in the Perkins family ever since.
The company started out as a wholesale paper distributor, serving Watertown and Glen Park. Deliveries were first made via bicycle; later, a team and wagon, and later yet, a trolley.
Over time, the firm bought five more businesses, expanding its territory from Norwood to Syracuse.
Today, the third generation manages the company operations. Homer Perkins, son of Allen and Ida Perkins, joined the firm in 1956. His wife, Carolyn, became secretary and later vice president. In 1971, Stewart Perkins joined the company and is currently president and treasurer; his wife, Sally, is vice president and secretary. The fourth generation is now with the company: Steven Perkins is vice president in charge of sales.
The company now carries paper products, as well as chemical and hardware lines.
1906 — Hill & Markes, Amsterdam, N.Y.
In 1906, four years after Amos Hill and Charlie Markes started an ice cream business, they added candy to their store. They began making deliveries by horse and buggy in the Amsterdam area. Family members made the ice cream and ice cream cones. In the winter, they made deliveries by horse and sleigh.
In 1927, Hill & Markes sold its ice cream operation to concentrate on the wholesale candy and paper business.
In 1947, Harry and Harriet Finkle purchased Hill & Markes and expanded the product lines to include school supplies, paper products, and rental dishes and cutlery. In the 1970s, Neal Packer, Andrea Finkle Packer and Jeffrey Finkle joined the family business and continue to operate it today.
You can still buy candy, ice cream cones and toppings from Hill & Markes, but you can also buy products ranging from bubble wrap and tape to paper towels and floor-cleaning machines.
“Instead of one horse and buggy, we now have 15 trucks and they’re on the road all the time,” Andrea Finkle Packer says. The business employs 100 people, and has four divisions: jan/san, industrial packaging, food service and office supplies.
1907 — S. Freedman & Sons Inc., Landover, Md.
In 1907, Samuel Freedman began selling twine and paper bags to local merchants from a wooden cart. In 1908, Issac Porton sold his business to Freedman for $800.50 and four promissory notes totaling $240.
According to records, the purchase included: “…goodwill, stock and fixtures of my paper, tray and twine route in the city and District aforesaid including among other things, a stock of Paper; paper bags, paper-boxes, trays and twine, etc., and also one bay horse, one set of harness, one spring covered wagon, one platform scale estimated at Three Hundred ($300.00) Dollars, all of said stock being located at premises # 1300 Florida Avenue, Northeast, hereby sold and bargained, released and confirmed unto the said Samuel Freedman, is(sic) heirs, executors, administrators or assigns to their proper use and behoof forever.”
S. Freedman & Sons Inc., was born. Three of Samuel’s five sons worked for their father and continued in the business all their working lives. The president of S. Freedman, the grandson of the founder, has two sons — the fourth generation — who are actively involved in the company.
In the early years, the company moved to the 600 block of K Street, Northwest, Washington D.C. It remained there until 1968 when it was moved to Landover, Md. In 1989, the warehouse was expanded to almost twice its previous capacity.
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