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Bill Berkley, Tension Corporation


Bill Berkley:

I have been in this business my whole life having grown up with the family business


and having an opportunity is a child to go down to the office


and at that time we were able to be in the plant, play on the rolls of paper,


and at that time we could bring three boxcars into our facility


and it was great fun to play in the boxcars as they sat inside the building.


But over the years, I had an opportunity to be exposed to a number of different opportunities,


and always had in the back of my mind that I want to go into the family business.


And so one summer during college,


I decided now is a good time to see what it's all about.


I went to, I went and spent the summer at Tension.


I was a sales trainee on the desk, taking orders over the phone


and getting to go out in person and call on customers,


really getting a broad view, and then returning to college.


And it was an easy way to find out if I really enjoyed it.


And I did.


And what I found I loved about it was putting ink on paper


and going from concept of a product to a finished product,


delivered, and seeing it in the mailbox sometime later.


I then went on and worked and then went to business school,


and then came back after business school.


I always knew that I wanted to come back.


It really wasn't a question of whether, but when.


And at the time there were a number of individuals in our business that were close to retirement.


And I wanted to have an opportunity to learn from them before they left.


And so I came back after business school and have been there the past 34 years.


And had an opportunity to do so much in the business really beginning again,


as, in sales and having a number of different positions


until today where I'm the President and CEO.

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Bert Berkley, Tension Corporation


Bert Berkley:

I'm the Chairman of the Board.


I've been in the business almost 65 years.


And I'd like to tell you about how our company was started.


My grandfather was a small businessperson in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


He sold advertising novelties, pens, pencils, paper weights.


Make a little money, by a little real estate.


Make a little more money, by little more real estate.


And then one day he made a very serious mistake.


He signed a note for a friend.


The friend went broke.


Because we like to say, "integrity was my grandfather's middle name",


he sold the real estate which he had purchased, decided to not stay in Pittsburgh,


found his way to Kansas City, and went into business.


What business?


Advertising novelties.


That's all he knew.


As he made his rounds in his horse and buggy,


he realize that all envelopes which came into Kansas City


were from st. Louis or Chicago.


So he went to Chicago and brought


the first envelope folding machine as far west as Kansas City.


His little business prospered.


The reason it did, was because his customers do not have to pay freight


from St. Louis or Chicago.


And that was in 1886.


In 1886, he began selling printing and envelopes.


The result was that we have been in business now 129 years.


And Bill represents the fourth generation of our


family to run the business.


One more interesting factor.


The envelope association, EMA, was started in 1911.


My grandfather was one of the founders.


In 1916, representing the association, and at his own expense,


he went to washington, DC to meet with the head of the


Postal Department and the US Printing Department.


At that time, the Printing Department manufactured envelopes,


sold them to the Post Office, and the Post Office sold them in


post offices across the country.


The result was, that if he walked into a post office


and wanted to buy X number of envelopes, they have them available for you.


My grandfather explained that with the


Printing Department being able to buy paper and raw materials at government prices,


way below what any other envelope manufacturer could purchase them for,


that envelope manufacturers were not competitive.


But in addition to that, he told them that,


if the envelope manufacturers would promote Direct Mail,


that it would grow the Postal Service.


He was persuasive enough that the two men agreed,


and the result was that, they stopped manufacturing and selling envelopes.


And that was a beginning of the Direct Mail industry in our country.


It was a slow start, but obviously today,


Direct Mail is bigger in the United States than any other nation in the world.

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Bert Berkley, Tension Corporation


Bert Berkley:

When I came into the business we operated what we referred to as plunger machines.


[plunger sounds]


Today, instead of running, maybe 60 a minute,


we're running at 1,200 to 1,500 envelopes per minute.


So fast that the human eye cannot discern what it happening.


And when I came into the business 65 years ago,


we then had some rotary plungers which were a little faster.


But our family was responsible for bringing rotary envelope equipment to this country.


It was developed by a firm in German called Winkler and Dunnebier.


And in 1923 my uncle was on vacation in Germany,


heard about an envelope folding machine that was not size specific,


which plungers were, and operated at speeds of,


believe it or not, up to 200 per minute.


He was the salesperson of the brothers,


my father, and E.B., and him, Walter.


He sent a telegram to my dad who was the mechanical person,


and I have to say, he was a mechanical genius of this industry,


and I will explain that in a moment.


My dad got on a ship, came over to Germany, saw the machine,


got the rights for it for the United States, Canada, and Mexico,


and started selling envelope folding equipment to the industry of North America.


And, one of the things that is very interesting


is that the original envelope folding machine, a rotary envelope folding machine,


had no window capabilities.


We had a seperate punch press that punched out the window


and then we took that punched out blank to a patching machine,


and placed the, at that time, glassine patch onto the blank


and then we put blank with a hump in it where


the window was into the feed of the little folding machine and we folded the envelope.


My father was convinced that there was a way to do both operations,


the window and the folding, in one operation.


And so he went to Germany.


And visualize this if you will,


in the office of the President to the machinery company Winkler and Dunnebier,


it happened to have a very high ceiling, and so he had


the engineers put paper all over the wall,


and then there were two ladders, one on each side,


and he would described to the engineers how he wanted


to fit a patching mechanism into the folding machine,


which had never been done before.


The result was, that the engineers thought this was a great idea,


Mr. Winkler of Winkler and Dunnebier was very enthusiastic about it.


And with a matter of few months, they made that happen


and they shipped the machine over to Kansas City so that it could be tested.


And today believe it or not, though we have obviously much higher speeds,


we do things in a higher speed environment, new gearing,


new vacuum, etc., exactly the same method of applying and gumming the window,


takes place today, as did many, many years ago.

Tension – The Beginnings

By the age of 24, William J Berkowitz was already an accomplished businessperson and entrepreneur. Little did he know that his decision to sell advertising novelties would ultimately shape the future of the envelope industry and Tension Corporation.

Refer to caption
Tension Founder William J Berkowitz

The young William J Berkowitz grew up in Pennsylvania, finishing his public school education in Pittsburgh. Upon graduation, he went into his family’s clothing business which had been established years earlier by his father, a German immigrant.

He soon broke out on his own selling advertising novelties such as pens, pencils and paperweights. This business was so successful he was able to invest, bit by bit, in real estate. However one day he made a “serious mistake,” according to his grandson, Bert Berkley. “He signed a promissory note for a friend. The friend went bankrupt, and because we like to say that “integrity” was my grandfather’s middle name, he sold his real estate to cover the debt.” Later, as the family lore goes, his real estate plots would be developed into what is now known as the Golden Triangle of downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Shortly after selling his properties, William moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where several of his brothers already lived. He worked at the law firm of Lathrop, Smith & Marrow in 1884, studied at night, and clerked over the weekends. William found himself increasingly interested in business, so he decided to leave the law profession and join his younger brother, Maurice.

On March 17, 1886, William and his brother founded a new business, Berkowitz & Company Printers. William J Berkowitz was adept at recognizing what was needed in the marketplace, and became the primary business solicitor. He was often described as being an excellent judge of human nature and found it easy to deliver his customers’ requests.  He started selling envelopes and printing, and, again, he found himself selling advertising novelties and items that were personalized with a company name or logo printed on them, as that was the business he knew in Pittsburgh.

The Berkowitz brothers were astute businesspeople. Seeing a void in the marketplace, they began to manufacture envelopes in 1890, which immediately proved profitable. Although other printers existed in Kansas City, Berkowitz & Company appeared to be the only one making envelopes. Their letterhead stated: “Berkowitz & Co. Printers and importers and manufacturer of Advertising Novelties for every business and Manufacturer of Envelopes of every grade and color,” although these envelopes of “every grade and color” were all one size and produced by hand.

Refer to caption
Berkowitz & Company, shown here during the 1890s in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1894, the company brought the first envelope-folding machine as far west as Kansas City. And in about 1896, the envelope business had grown so rapidly that Berkowitz & Company gradually withdrew from the general printing business to concentrate on the production of envelopes. By 1901, the company focused solely on manufacturing envelopes and changed its name to Berkowitz Envelope Company.

The company was expanding, and William J Berkowitz’s sons, E.B. and Walter, joined the business as young teenagers.

E.B. Berkowitz would eventually go on to lead the business showing expertise in management as well as in manufacturing. Initially E.B. was in sales, yet had a natural proclivity toward the manufacturing side of business and was described as a mechanical genius. Eventually he began to focus on machine designs and processes to improve the production of envelopes. E.B. was awarded Tension’ first patent for a shirt-packaging envelope made on custom-designed equipment, which was issued in 1909.

Walter entered the company as a salesperson in 1906 at the age of 14, working in the morning and going to school in the afternoon. Walter was a natural salesperson and eventually was in charge of sales and was secretary/treasurer of the company.

Influence on the Envelope Industry

The Berkowitz, now Berkley, family has long been dedicated to the envelope industry and this continues today. From its earliest involvement in the industry, Tension’s philosophy is that the envelope is more than a carrier of paper. It creates a positive brand image, carries an important message, helps sell a product or service, and can facilitate bill payment.

In 1911, William J Berkowitz was one of three founding members of the American Envelope Association, the predecessor of the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA), which was established to share knowledge and advocate for the envelope manufacturing industry. His descendants, Bert and Bill Berkley, third and fourth generation Tension Chief Executive Officers respectively, continued this commitment to the EMA.

Bert was chairman of the EMA and was also a founder of the Global Envelope Alliance formed to preserve the value and volume of mail worldwide. Bill, Bert’s son, stands as the longest serving chairman of the EMA, holding the position for three years from 2011 to 2014. As Tension’s current president and CEO and the chair of the EMA public policy committee, Bill continues to advocate for the industry through legislative efforts that help the industry thrive and meet the needs of American businesses and consumers.

During World War I, the U.S. Printing Office manufactured and sold envelopes to the U.S. Postal Department, which then resold them in every post office in the country. Because the nation was at war, the U.S. government could buy paper and other raw materials at a lower price than envelope manufacturers. William J Berkowitz recognized the strain this put on the industry, and in 1916, at his own expense, went to Washington, D.C. to talk to the postmaster general and the head of the U.S. Printing Office. He explained that if the postal service was to grow, envelope manufacturers, printers, and others interested in the mail should be promoting mail, something the postal department was not doing. He was successful in his efforts, and, as a result, William J Berkowitz is often credited with saving the envelope business and helping give rise to the direct mail industry.

It was also during this time that Tension saw some changes to its management. In 1914, William J Berkowitz became sole owner of Berkowitz Envelope Company. William’s son, E.B., was appointed Vice President and General Manager, and Walter was appointed Secretary and Treasurer. Later, in 1920, William passed away and E.B. was named President of the company.

In 1921, Walter Berkowitz visited Germany on vacation where a chance encounter would change the face of North American envelope manufacturing. He learned of a new high-speed envelope-folding machine produced by Winkler and Dunnebier (W&D) that could fold a range of sizes, as opposed to a plunger machine, which was much slower and manufactured only one size. Walter arranged a visit to W&D and was so struck by what he saw that he telegraphed his brother, E.B., who traveled to Europe by ship to evaluate the machine. The brothers were able to envision the W&D machine’s impact on the industry and negotiated to have exclusive rights to sell W&D machines in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. This created even more opportunities for E.B. to develop and patent machines and envelopes. That spirit of innovation has continued and to date Tension has received more patents than all other U.S. envelope manufacturers combined.

Refer to caption
Tension's Creative Design Department, now the Tension Design Group, is shown here in the 1940s. Tension Design Group creates original designs for customers and is an example of Tension's consultative selling approach.

Consultative Selling Approach

Consultative selling has long been a hallmark of Tension and its sales associates. It is driven by a simple philosophy - by working together, Tension and its customers can achieve greater results by focusing on solving problems and fulfilling customer needs.

An early example was the establishment in 1933 of an in-house Creative Design Department. E.B. believed that a strong graphics arts department, with its in-depth understanding of the equipment, printing process, and printing specifications, would be able to work with the customer and develop the best graphics for the envelope. The department, now named the Tension Design Group, continues today and has created thousands of original creative designs.

How Tension Got its Name

The company purchased the New York-based Tension Envelope Company in 1937. The original Tension Envelope Corporation patented the “Tension Tie,” the now iconic string and button design, which held the contents under “tension.” In 1943, all of the company’s businesses were consolidated under the more recognizable name of “Tension Envelope Corporation.” Coincidently, in 1941, the family changed their name from Berkowitz to Berkley.

Refer to caption
During World War II, many women assumed roles that had traditionally belonged to men. These four women were machine operators at Tension in the early 1940s.

Second Half of the Century

The second half of the 20th century was a time of growth, expansion and commitment to Tension’s employees and the envelope industry. In fact, Tension had a policy that any employee who served in the military could have their same position back when they returned from service, and many employees took advantage of this policy.  

The early 1960s witnessed a transition of leadership at Tension. Bert Berkley, son of E.B. and grandson of William J Berkowitz, was named President and CEO of the Tension Corporation in 1962. Dick Berkley, who would become mayor of Kansas City in the 1980s, was elected Assistant Treasurer and Assistant Secretary of the board. Walter Hiersteiner, who joined the company in 1951, worked closely with Bert Berkley as Executive Vice President.

Tension grew throughout Bert’s tenure by steadily adding more plants and developing new and improved products and processes. It was under his leadership that Tension expanded to the West Coast, making Tension one of the few envelope manufacturers with nationwide coverage. “We continued to do things that were different,” Bert Berkley said. “We were awarded patents, made the first photo envelopes, an example of one of the many patents issued to Tension. Numerous designs are still in use today.”

When Bert turned 65 in 1988, Bill became President and CEO and was the fourth generation of the Berkley family to lead the business. By the time Bill took over, he had worked full-time for the company for seven years, learning all aspects of the business.

Refer to caption
Bert Berkley, Chairman of the Board, is pictured here with Bill Berkley, Tension CEO and President.

Under Bill’s leadership, Tension continued to grow, both organically as it increased the size of its customer base and by additional sales to existing customers. It also opened new plants, expanded its presence and made strategic acquisitions.

There was growth across the globe as well, as Tension established an international presence in Australia in 1995, then in Taiwan and China shortly after. If you look closely at Tension’s logo, you see that it features a red ball with the letter ‘T’ positioned to the right. “The ball represents the globe and reflects our global presence. The ‘Tension T’ propels us forward, even as it respects and honors our past,” Bill Berkley said.

Into the 21st Century

With its rich history of adapting to the changing needs of customers, Tension expanded its business into the packaging and automation market in the early 2000s. For years, Tension had been creating envelopes for the growing internet retail business. Drawing on its roots as an early adopter and influencer in the envelope machinery industry, as well as its engineering center of excellence, Tension soon began to develop a broad array of machines which package and sort customer orders. “It was the infancy of online commerce, but we had always worked with a number of mail-order companies,” Bill explains. It was a natural extension of Tension’s business of supplying envelope products to provide the automated machinery for Tension’s customers who were packaging orders for delivery – as well as the consumables that go through the equipment.

Refer to caption
Tension's Packaging & Automation division develops large-scale pharmacy automation systems, like this Linear Dispensing Unit that dispenses pharmaceuticals.

The process of automating the fulfillment process applied to pharmaceuticals as well, and Tension began selling equipment to pharmacies. The acquisition of Maverick Enterprises in 2011 gave Tension the capability to design and market its own automated fulfillment equipment and systems.

Today, Tension’s Packaging & Automation division designs, engineers and integrates automation solutions for order fulfillment centers and central fill, mail order and specialty pharmacies. In addition, the company offers software, packaging materials, service and support.

The company, after seeing a need for print-on-demand services for its customers, later created Tension Direct, an on-demand web-based printing solution that helps companies keep marketing materials up to date and also services businesses that purchase small quantities of printed goods,. Tension continues to diversify and extend its products ‘beyond the envelope,’ and now also offers business cards, presentation folders, checks and financial forms, and direct mail inserts and letters.

Tension has integrated Lean Sigma principles throughout the company. Lean Sigma is a systematic approach to cost control, quality, and repeatable processes, using methodologies that engage all associates of Tension. It is a bottom-up way of solving problems that empowers every associate to improve the business. Ultimately, as a Lean company, Tension can respond to market changes quickly and effectively, and provide greater value to customers.

In 2011, Tension rebranded from Tension Envelope Corporation to Tension Corporation, reflecting its expanding presence in packaging and automation, beyond the envelope products, as well as its increasing footprint in international operations. Today, Tension’s three divisions are Envelope, Packaging & Automation, and International.

Tension: Making Its Mark on the Greener Side

Sustainability and respect for the environment have long been an integral part of Tension’s approach to business and can be found in Tension’s Vision, Mission and Values statement. Recognizing the importance of sustainability to customers, Tension has always integrated “green” products into its product lineup. Tension was a pioneer in developing the two-way envelope, having patented one of the earliest designs in 1938.

In addition to supporting customer’s green initiatives through two-way envelopes, Tension offers other environmentally-friendly options that can reduce customers’ environmental impact while promoting their brand as an environmental steward. Products and services such as certified and recycled papers, wind credits and soy-based inks are a few examples.

Tension’s commitment to sustainability starts from inside the company walls as the company looks for opportunities to reduce its environmental footprint through sustainable processes and practices. As a result, Tension factories reuse and recycle virtually all of the materials used in manufacturing and integrate sound waste reduction activities into all its processes. Continuous improvement through Lean Sigma has helped enhance these initiatives.

An Eye on the Future

As of 2016, Tension is the second largest envelope manufacturer in the U.S. with seven manufacturing locations and sales operations throughout the country and facilities overseas as well.  “Our business is built around adapting to customer needs and providing cost-effective solutions,” President and CEO Bill Berkley said. “And it is all made possible by the dedicated associates of Tension Corporation.”

As the envelope, order fulfillment packaging equipment and pharmacy automation industries continue to grow and evolve, Tension remains at the forefront, leading the way with customer-centered innovations and quality products and services.

“The mail continues to play a critical role in the lives of Americans. Not only does it serve the individuals who still want to receive hard copy documents, but mail also helps connect customers to a company’s digital presence. The integration of hard copy and digital content gets the best result in the mail. As we look toward the future, Tension continues to create new products and advocate for the real value mail brings to businesses and consumers,” Bill Berkley said.

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