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Wheaton Industries Business Information, Profile, and History

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1101 Wheaton Avenue
Millville, New Jersey 08332
U.S.A.

History of Wheaton Industries

With origins in glass production dating to 1888, Wheaton Industries is known as the largest family-owned producer of glassware in the world. From furnishing laboratory glassware, the company moved into design and production of general laboratory supplies and innovative research equipment ranging from centrifuges to micro-processor controlled bioreactors. With the rise of plastics in the 1950s, the company developed and built the world's first commercial injection blow molding (OEM) machine for plastic, revolutionizing the packaging industry and expanding markets in cosmetics and pharmaceutical packaging. Wheaton Plastic Containers eventually specialized in package and graphics design, engineering and package modeling, and mold design and production. These and other developments required innovative machine design, which itself became a company service. Wheaton's General Machinery Company eventually provided every facet of machine building for glass, plastics, military, and industrial markets. After Wheaton's affiliates were reorganized under the parentage of Wheaton Industries in 1971, the company continued to grow and diversify. By the 1990s, the organization's combined operations provided worldwide services in all areas of packaging, OEM components, production equipment, electronics, and scientific instrumentation.

Wheaton Industries survived a stormy beginning. Construction of a new glass factory in Millville, New Jersey, under the ownership of two entrepreneurs, Mr. Shull and Mr. Goodwin, was delayed by the devastating East Coast blizzard of 1888. When operations finally got underway, the partners fell behind schedule in production of the glass tubing needed to supply their lamp room. In addition, they were losing market share to Western glass companies prospering under more advantageous fuel costs, easier access to raw materials, and a superior transportation network. In a campaign to raise much-needed capital, the fledgling company borrowed $3,000 from a local pharmacist and physician, Dr. T. C. Wheaton. Attempting to salvage his investment, Dr. Wheaton participated in company planning. His involvement grew rapidly, and on October 24, 1888, he purchased controlling interest in the firm, thereby founding T. C. Wheaton and Co.

The new company grew rapidly to reflect the medical interests of its founder, specializing in homeopathic and screw-cap vials used by scientific laboratories, chemists, perfumers, pharmacists, and physicians. Within a year, a new lamp room had been constructed alongside the factory. It accommodated 13 glass workers, as well as room for sorting, cutting, inspecting, and packing the tubing. In addition, a new shop was constructed for the manufacture of prescription bottles. Presses were designed to supply matching stoppers and other solid ware. Nursing bottles, breast pump glasses, and other druggist supplies were added to the Wheaton line.

In addition to the usual risks of starting a new company, Dr. Wheaton had to contend with fire hazards typical of the glass industry. On November 24, 1889, six of the original factory buildings were lost to the first of numerous fires over the years. Other major fires occurred in 1908, 1912, and 1925.

By June of 1890, Dr. Wheaton had discontinued his private medical practice in order to focus all his energies on developing the glass business. In an early public relations stint, the doctor traveled to the West Coast in the summer of 1890 to establish new contacts. In 1891, his younger brother, Walter Scott Wheaton, opened a sales office in Denver, Colorado. Further contacts were made during Dr. Wheaton's periodic trips to Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, where he opened a sales office in 1892.

In 1892, Dr. Wheaton gambled on substantial growth by investing $10,000 in a plot of land surrounding the existing factory. By 1894, the number two furnace was operational, and in 1896, $14,000 was invested in 12 pot furnaces and a new building constituting the number three factory. These additions were designed to employ approximately 250 new workers and to double production capacity.

Expanding business required new staff, for which Dr. Wheaton had cultivated two outstanding candidates: his two sons. In 1899, Frank H. Wheaton joined the company at a starting salary of $5 per week. Frank's career and education were closely allied with the company. After graduating from Millville High School in the spring of 1898, he studied general business subjects at the Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and took a summer course in chemistry at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. These skills were put to immediate use at the family business, where he quickly learned technical and sales skills. By 1903, he was elected to the company board and shortly thereafter assumed the post of secretary and treasurer.

His younger brother, Theodore C. Wheaton, Jr., also joined the family enterprise, concentrating more on public relations and marketing than on production. Theodore was born on September 30, 1888, the year T. C. Wheaton Co. was founded. After finishing his studies at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, he served on the domestic front of World War I, primarily in Washington, D.C. He eventually became vice president of the New York sales office of T. C. Wheaton Co. and established valuable business ties over the course of his career.

In the pre-World War I years, the company grew quickly, trying new ventures with varying success. In 1903, Wheaton entered the window glass market, or window lights as they were called at the time. Despite high quality, profits were extremely low, and the company had to allocate profits from its Lamp Room and Bottle Glass Departments to finance the loans on the Window Glass Company. By 1908, the window plant was permanently idled. In 1903, the company also had to contend with the unexpected resignation of two top executives, who started their own glass factory, Millville Bottle Works, working in direct competition with T. C. Wheaton in the areas of medicine bottles and laboratory ware. Wheaton would eventually acquire the firm and use the competitive edge to its own benefit.

The glass industry, and particularly T. C. Wheaton, continued to prosper. When Carl Sandburg visited Millville in 1905, he described the setting in unforgettable terms: "Down in Southern New Jersey they make glass. By day and night, the fires burn on in Millville and bid the sand let in the light.... Big, black flumes, shooting out smoke and sparks ... and bottles, bottles, bottles, of every tint and hue from a brilliant crimson to the dull green that marks the death of sand and the birth of glass."

With the onset of World War I, the "fires burning in Millville" redoubled their heat, as the United States became a chief supplier of war materials. Discontinued importation of German glassware, which had dominated the world market, gave American producers the impetus to prove that their products were at least as competitive. Among the many glassware needs of the war effort, the Chemical Warfare Service of the U.S. Army required specially designed canisters known as L.E.C. bottles. According to a company report, T. C. Wheaton Company produced the only L.E.C. bottles that met the exacting standards of military engineers at the Lakehurst Proving Grounds in New Jersey. After the U.S. declaration of war in 1917, Dr. Wheaton offered President Wilson the company's services in production of "a diversified line of scientific glassware, as glass stopcocks, tube funnels, test tubes, pipettes, ampules, etc., as well as blown bottles for prescriptions and supply bottles for hospital use." The offer helped establish valuable new business opportunities and won a personalized note from the President, thanking Dr. Wheaton for his "generous and patriotic offer."

The post-World War I era marked substantial expansion. Additions to the plant included a new etching facility for perfumery ware, a metal and concrete warehouse for storing chemicals, a new mold room and batch house, sheds for grinding, and other improvements. After a debilitating fire in June of 1925 and the death of Dr. Wheaton's brother, Walter Scott Wheaton, company growth continued unhindered. The company acquired Millville Bottle Works in 1926, gaining its competitor's proprietary line of prescription and medicine bottles and laboratory ware, and establishing T. C. Wheaton Co. as a major player in the laboratory glassware business.

With the advent of the Great Depression, T. C. Wheaton Co. withstood turbulent markets as well as unforeseen changes in personnel. On September 7, 1931, Dr. T. C. Wheaton died, leaving the post of president and chair of the board to Frank H. Wheaton, Sr. That same year, Frank Wheaton, Jr., departed for the Boston University School of Business where he passed a shortened tenure before returning to the family business to work his way up the company ladder from batch mixing assistant to truck driver's helper and, before too long, to manager and ultimately president.

Frank Jr.'s reputation as "New Idea Man," was reinforced by his introduction of automated glass production in the late 1930s. Earlier in that decade, he helped introduce handmade borosilicate glass tubes for select pharmaceuticals (borosilicate glass could be molded into long, narrow tubes without collapsing like standard soda-lime glass). For a short time, the company successfully sold handmade serum containers to Eli Lilly, Parke-Davis, and other pharmaceutical companies. Key competition had developed automated production facilities, however, and Wheaton had to either follow suit or lose business. In 1937, Frank Wheaton, Jr., negotiated with the Hartford-Empire Company to lease a single section semi-automatic machine for the production of perfume bottles. That machine's success prompted further negotiations toward the lease of a four-section I. S. Machine, which would increase the company's productivity to eight times its former level. Though the terms of the lease were restrictive, the machine was installed. By 1938, the factory itself had been automated and the first automatic bottles were produced.

World War II brought a flood of needs that, paired with shortages in iron and steel, prompted innovation and diversification of Wheaton products. On the medical and laboratory front, the company supplied products for the blood serum program, serum containers, Halazone containers (used to purify water on the battlefield), and a wide variety of scientific glassware. Experimentation in material substitutes showed that glass could be used in the place of metal, sometimes with unexpected advantages. Wheaton No-Sol-Vit glass was ground to machinery tolerances and fashioned into three types of glass gages: ring gages, tri-lock gages, and taper lock plug blanks. Glass also replaced metal in many electronic applications, for which Wheaton developed water-resistant glass-to-metal seals sold under the Tronex trademark. The seals were especially useful in radio equipment vulnerable in water-prone combat situations. Wheaton prided itself, among other things, on never missing a single shipment during the war. Nor was it the only party to recognize its competence; in February, 1943, the company was awarded the Army-Navy "E" Award for its provision of war equipment. As new techniques and new machines were designed to meet diverse war needs, Wheaton gained expertise in industrial machine design and construction, one of its new specialties after the war.

At the close of the war, the glass industry saw tremendous surge in demand for new molds and new glass containers on the domestic front. In 1947, under the driving influence of Frank Wheaton, Jr., the Wheaton third generation established a new company, Wheaton Glass Company, designed to function separately but in tandem with the older company. For its initial year and a half, Wheaton Glass manufactured only type I (Borosilicate) glass, due to extremely high demand in the market. Afterwards, the new company shifted to long-run soda lime items.

The 1950s saw the rise of industrial plastic, which was quickly exploited by Wheaton and other companies as a powerful packaging medium. In September of 1950, the company acquired in Mays Landing, the closed grounds of a plant belonging to the Millville Manufacturing Company, comprising 240,000 square feet of floor space. In 1953, Frank Wheaton, Jr., designed a new container for those aerosol products that were chemically incompatible with metal canisters. His solution involved a glass container coated with a polymer product, polyvinyl chloride, manufactured by the Goodrich Company. The result was a nonvolatile, break-resistant container that launched a new company line, Wheaton Plasti-Cote. The company also developed a small injection molding machine to make plastic snap caps, which, along with Plasti-Cote items marked the first products of the Wheaton Plastics Company.

Wheaton Plastics worked quickly to develop automatic machinery that could manufacture plastic containers with the same injection blow mold system used for glass. Around 1950, the company acquired the rights to a Swiss manufacturing process called Novoplast. The company's General Machinery division, with the combined expertise of Ted Wheaton and the engineering group, developed the VB65-1 machine, the first in a series of bigger and faster injection blow molding machines.

By 1950, the T. C. Wheaton Co. office force had outgrown its old site, and plans were drawn up for new facilities that would include expanded central offices as well as new research and visitors centers. The complex, completed in September of 1951, was referred to as "the Pentagon," in reference to its rambling and impressive size.

The 1960s and 1970s marked ever-increasing diversification and the formation of new affiliate companies with various specializations. In 1960 General Mod and Machinery was established, and in 1966, Wheaton Scientific was formed. In the mid-1960s the company entered the consumer products market. In 1964, Central Research and Development was established to service all Wheaton companies, especially the rapidly growing Wheaton Plastics. In February of 1974, Decora was formed to specialize in decorating and labeling operations for glass and plastic containers. In 1975, the Wheaton Cartage Company was established, growing from an in-house carrier to a full-service, national trucking company. In 1977, part of Wheaton's glass operations were transferred to Flat River, Missouri, where fuel costs and transportation facilities were favorable to those in New Jersey. The Flat River Glass Company was thus founded. And in January of 1977, American International Container, Inc. was established to distribute Wheaton and other name brands in Florida, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa. Topping the whirlwind expansion of the 1970s, a new Wheaton R&D Center was appended to the so-called Pentagon in 1979. The massive facility would be a driving engine for continued research and product expansion in the 1980s and beyond.

Despite the rapid speed of change in the 1970s, two developments helped define Wheaton as a unified organization with a distinct place in history. The first development was the 1971 formation of Wheaton Industries, which was thereafter considered the parent company of its numerous divisions. The second development was the 1976 dedication of Wheaton Village, a periodized rendition of the original 1888 glassworks, complete with one of the finest glass museums in the United States. The historical park was the result of careful planning and funding on the part of Frank H. Wheaton, Jr., and associates. In 1968, Mr. Wheaton had helped found the Wheaton Historical Association as the first step in researching the town's past and organizing historical resources. In 1984, the Creative Glass Center of America, an organization working in concert with Wheaton Village, started a fellowship program to select and fund contemporary artists to stay in the vintage glass making facilities and use the resources to innovate. The primary objective was to mix old traditions with new art forms, and to expand the costly facilities beyond the scope of traditional, and less experimental, paperweight making.

Rapid diversification and expansion continued in the 1980s, while foreign competition forced Americans to run leaner businesses. In mid-1980, Wheaton Fine Glass was created to produce high-quality glassware products for the American market. Due to the rising value of the dollar and lower wages in foreign industries, the division yielded no profit and discontinued operations in 1984, followed by the closing of all consumer operations in 1986. Another venture launched in 1983, Carolina Glass Works, also folded under the weight of heavy competition. The operation produced state-of-the-art borosilicate flint glass, and was fully computerized and environmentally controlled to produce what the company called "the world's most precise glass containers." The plant closed in 1985. But Wheaton adapted to the changing market, opening Wheaton Science Plastics in 1987 to manufacture injection-molded and blow-molded plastic products for the laboratory. Additionally, the Wheaton Glass Company completely renovated its Plant I in 1987, installing all the capabilities for advanced glass production that had been lost in the Carolina Glass Works.

The 1980s also marked various milestones in Wheaton's long history. On March 16, 1981, the company celebrated the 100th birthday of Frank Wheaton, Sr. Then in September of 1988, the company celebrated its own centennial, attended by former president Gerald R. Ford and New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean, among roughly 7,000 others.

By the 1990s, Wheaton Industries constituted over 30 subsidiaries with worldwide distribution. In September of 1992, Beijing-Wheaton Glass Co., Ltd. realized the first Sino-foreign joint venture to daily produce glass containers for cosmetics, foodstuffs, and other products. That same month, Wheaton Science Products, Inc. signed a marketing and distribution agreement with Endotronics, Inc., a Minneapolis-based company providing cell processing products and health-care and biotechnology services. Endotronics agreed to market Wheaton's Integral Bioreactor System along with its BioPro software throughout the United States and Canada. In December of that same year, Wheaton contracted with Sandretto Industrie, an Italian firm, to assemble a limited number of machines for U.S. distribution. The venture was discontinued due to recession and aggressive competition from the Far East, according to the joint managing director in a December, 1992 Modern Plastics article. It nevertheless marked an increasing trend of international cooperation in the 1990s. Wheaton had grown from a family business to a family of businesses, held together by an increasingly cosmopolitan parent.

Principal Subsidiaries: American International Container, Inc.; AMS Wheaton; Wheaton Coated Products; Wheaton Cultural Alliance; C P Packaging, Inc.; Wheaton (Export Sales); General Machinery; Wheaton Glass Products Clean Pack; Glass Warehouse; Wheaton Industrial Molding; Wheaton Injection Molding; Wheaton Instruments; Wheaton International; Wheaton Medical Technologies, Inc.; Wheaton Pharmatech; Wheaton Plastic Products; Wheaton Science Plastics; Wheaton (Science Products); Wheaton Tubing Products.

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