Before the first pitch was thrown at the South Bend Silver Hawks' home opener last month, team owner Andrew Berlin stuck his hand under all the soap dispensers in the men's and women's bathrooms to make sure they worked.
He went to the hardware store to buy brooms to sweep the concourse. He stood inside the left-field gates as ticket holders arrived, shaking their hands to welcome them on a chilly April evening.
Berlin, a hard-driving, detail-oriented Chicago businessman, had taken every precaution to ensure a good night.
What he couldn't anticipate was that the first foul ball of the season would sail over the roof of Coveleski Stadium into the parking lot and land squarely on his black Cadillac Escalade, leaving a dent.
"Maybe it's good luck, like when it rains on your wedding day," he said with a chuckle.
At almost 52 and chairman and CEO of an eponymous packaging company that should pass $700 million in revenue this year, Berlin is hardly ready to craft an exit strategy. But the purchase of the Class A Silver Hawks in November was more than a vanity play.
It's a business turnaround opportunity — Berlin expects the team to return to profitability this year — and schooling to prepare him for his next goal.
"I'd like to buy a Major League Baseball team," Berlin says matter-of-factly. "That's the plan, but it has to be a Central Division team. I don't want to go far from home, and Chicago is definitely home. How bad can the day be if you wake up and say, 'I'm involved with baseball.'"
Berlin Packaging LLC has become a packaging industry juggernaut as a result of organic growth and, more recently, acquisitions; it has had 19 consecutive years of sales and earnings growth. Its customers come from 12 industries and include such familiar household brands as Downy, ACT mouthwash, Target and Turtle Wax. Berlin's Studio One Eleven design division designed a frog-shaped Pampers Kandoo hand soap container that last year won an international design award.
No customer accounts for more than 5 percent of the business, and Berlin doesn't sell to the auto, construction and high-tech sectors, which are industries hard hit in an economic downturn. When consumers are pinched financially, they may trade down to a less expensive shampoo, but that shampoo still comes in a plastic container.
"You know what's great about packaging? Even in a recession, we make money," Berlin said.
Berlin attributes a fair measure of his success to his 83-year-old father, Melvin Berlin, a self-made man who bought a metals company in Chicago in 1967 and renamed it Berlin Metals LLC.
Berlin worked there, and at a long list of other jobs, while putting himself through Syracuse University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in political science. Afterward, he earned a law degree from Loyola University Chicago Law School because, he admits, he had a romantic notion about becoming a lawyer. In hindsight, he acknowledges, a Master of Business Administration might have been better.
Berlin practiced law at the firm that was then Katten Muchin Zavis for 23 months. He found it an incredibly inefficient business, helping clients work toward trial for months, only to have them settle right beforehand.
In 1988, Melvin Berlin negotiated a leveraged buyout of Alco Packaging. Andrew, then 27, left the law firm to join his father as director of marketing and general counsel at Alco, which had $69 million in revenue. He was named president a year later, and the company changed its name to Berlin Packaging in 1990.
Berlin established itself as a one-stop resource for product companies in need of plastic, glass and metal containers and closures, offering package consulting, design and mold development, transportation and logistics, and financing. It contracts with other firms to do the actual manufacturing, which keeps down Berlin's capital expenditures and operating expenses.
In mid-2007, when annual revenue topped $300 million and the company had 25 locations nationally, private equity firm Investcorp took a majority stake, and Andrew, who put an undisclosed but "substantial" amount into the deal, remained CEO and was named chairman.
Its latest acquisition, finalized last week and the third since 2010, of Connecticut-based Lerman Container, increased its presence to more than 80 sales offices and warehouse locations, and it will allow Berlin's annual revenue to push past the $700 million mark this year.
"Our acquisition play is not a slash-and-burn play," Berlin said. "I'm not saying slash and burn doesn't work. In many cases it does. But ours is more of a growth play. We're not really looking to buy troubled companies, but if there's a deal out there, and it's priced right, we'll certainly set out to turn it around."