Jewish Veterans: Bert Berkley

Every year I have an idea to write a post about a Jewish veteran for the upcoming Veterans Day, but with my lack of interviewing skills and not personally knowing any veterans, every year I come up with nothing. Last year I took a few photos of the Jewish Veterans Museum and since my email to the local post of the Jewish War Veterans went unanswered, I decided to search for something interesting online. Only few names come up when searching for the Jewish Veterans in Kansas City and one of them is Bert Berkley – veteran, civic leader and the Chairman of the Board of Tension Envelope.

The article below was published in the Outlook – Kansas City Business Journal in May of 1979. The issue is available at the Missouri Valley Special Collections at the  Kansas City Public Library (if you have a Twitter account, you should follow @KCPubLibrary).

The article is presented almost entirely with an exception of the discussion of the envelope business and its future as seen in 1979; I felt these details were irrelevant. Many of the things the article talks about in the future tense are now well in the past, that’s why I enjoy reading the old magazines.

This is the most typing I’ve done in the past ten years, and even though I am positive no one will finish reading this, I still liked doing it.

All the images are copyrighted by their owners.

Bert Berkley: Unflappable Chief of Tension Envelope.

Political success is relative; but developing production techniques is a challenge.

By Kathleen Q. Pemberton.

The only Berkley who’s making the newspapers these days is the new mayor of Kansas City, Richard L. Berkley. His political career has made him the most visible standard bearer from a family with a long tradition of involvement in community affairs.

Berkley’s cousin, Bert Berkley, goes about his business with considerable less fanfare than that which surrounds the mayor. Bert’s business is making envelopes. And the affable president of Tension Envelope Corp. seems as much at home on the production floor as he is in his modestly furnished office.
In the not-too-distant past, it was Bert Berkley who was in the news rather frequently for his civic endeavors. He has been, for example, president of the Civic Council, and guided the formation of the Alternative Futures Program, a plan designed to anticipate, rather than react to, city growth. In fact, his myriad activities earned him the 1971 Mr. Kansas City award.

The energetic millionaire long ago swapped his silver spoon for the crusader’s lance. Berkley was one of the instigators of the drive to end the discriminatory practices against Jews in the city’s most prestigious social and business clubs. Currently, he is on the steering committee of People for Constitutional Progress, a business group pushing for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Missouri.

And he was among these who took on the unpopular task of revamping the Heart of America campaign. Unpopular, that is, among agencies which were the recipients of United Way funds.
“Some strong positions had to be taken in regard to what we were going to do (to be) in the best interest of the entire community,” Berkley recalled. The upshot was the establishment of United Community Services, which reviews agency budgets and makes recommendations to the United Way for fund distribution.

One might expect that a fellow with his fingers in so many pies is a whirlwind of nervous energy. On the contrary, Berkley is surprisingly low-key. Like a long-distance runner, Berkley seems to go on stored energy released only at the proper intervals.

In the past five or six years, most of that energy has been directed to running Tension, reputedly the second largest firm in a $1 billion industry. Berkley’s outside activities are, for the most part, now confined to directorships on several boards, including Midwest Research Institute, the American Jewish Committee, and the Envelope Manufactures Association of America.

He favors the West for his vacations where he can pursue his favorite hobbies of white water canoeing, camping and fishing. He’s also a jogger and tennis player, and looks much younger than his 54 years.
“There’s something every, very important I forgot to tell you the other day,” he confided in a solemn tone of voice, Breaking into laughter, he then detailed the events which led to his capture of a 61-pound salmon (not 60 pounds, mind you), of the coast of British Columbia some months ago. He had it stuffed, he said, only because the lodge keeper convinced him he’d never catch another one so large.

Why, we wondered, does a fellow with such invigorating hobbies, the third generation offspring of one of the city’s most prominent and wealthy families, voluntary chain himself to the daily grind?
Berkley shrugged, seemingly as mystified by the question as he was hard put to produce an answer.

Running the family-held company is what he has always wanted to do, he indicated. “I have a real interest and fondness for the business.”

That may qualify as one of the great understatements. For Berkley is not only president of Tension, but in charge of production as well. His assumption of responsibilities in the latter area was prompted by the sudden, early retirement five years ago of the vice president of that department. That turn of events is largely responsible for curtailing his time for city projects. Someday, the sandy-haired Berkley laughed, he intends to find a new vice president of production. In the meantime, he and several other employees will also be taking up the slack for Dick Berkley, Tensions’ secretary-treasurer.

Bert Berkley may have to be arm-wrestled into conceding his production post, and admittedly doesn’t plan on rushing into anything, “My real love is production. It’s what comes out of these machines, and how they’re going to do it, that’s really of interest.” There’s a definite note of pride when he speaks about equipment. In the graphic arts department, he asked a visiting photographer, “You’ve been in lots of darkrooms. Ever see one like this before?”

The darkroom was extraordinarily light. The standard red filter lights absorb the red color of the walls, resulting in a soft, whitish glow which makes it possible to work more quickly and safely than in conventional darkrooms with their faint, red lighting.

Berkley’s fascination with the mechanics of envelope production is a legacy from his father and namesake, E. Bertram Berkowitz, who designed machines as well as envelope. Berkowitz, in fact, held patents in both fields.

“He was a genius,” his son said.

Berkowitz was the founder of Baltimore Paper Co., now Berkley machine Co., a supplier of graphic arts printing equipment. Berkley, the major stockholder said it is a corporation separate from Tension. His stint there as president provided him with a thorough understanding of printing and envelope equipment. (Until a few years ago, Berkley Machine was a distributor of Winkler Dunbear envelope presses, long a standard in the industry. The German company has since pulled its distributorships.) Berkley left the machine company, and took the reigns from his father at Tension in 1962.

The envelope firm is one of Kansas City’s most famous businesses; and yet, as with Hallmark card Inc.,only the external structure is visible. The numbers are shrouded in the mantle of family ownership. Tension is an old-time firm with roots in specialty printing business started by Berkley’s grandfather, William J. Berkowitz, in 1886. Along with Hallmark, it enjoys a reputation for quality products and merchandising savvy; and both are in the lucrative business of converting bulk quantities of raw paper into cash commodities.

Just how lucrative it is for Tension is speculative, and hard to deduce since the envelope industry is composed of a good number of family-held firms. The largest company is the New York-based Westvaco (a division of Weyerhaeuser.) Berkley placed Tension some distance from Westvaco; but the quickest way to put a damper on the conversation it ask him to be specific.

Ask Berkley about production, however, and you’ve said the magic word. What you win is a comprehensive tour of headquarters at 819 E. 19th St., conducted with vigor and quietly-suppressed relish by Berkley. Of the 22,000 envelopes produced daily by 10 plants scattered nationwide, 6,000 come out of Kansas City.

And those familiar white envelopes which gather dust on supply room shelves account for only a portion of Tension’s output. Envelopes for the banking, insurance and medical industries, file folders, and special courier packets are hurtled out of the machines in a dazzling array of colors, shapes and sizes.

Berkley stepped deftly and swiftly down the rows of noisy equipment, detailing the function and capabilities of each machine. Intermingled with the descriptions were first-name greetings to employees, and frequent admonitions to “watch your step”. With a laugh, Berkley recalled that his first clear memory of the plant involved the time he whacked his thumb with a hammer while breaking lead bars in the type composing room.

The tour ended prematurely when the plant closed for a safety meeting. Berkley said the meetings are held at least once a month, and structured around small groups of employees.

“Who likes to close a plant for 30 minutes?” asked the man with the inclination for the rhetorical. “I don’t either, but there are trade-offs, and it’s important people don’t get hurt. There’s no way you can show just safety films. You’ve really got to get it down to the people on the floor and get them involved.”

Berkley doesn’t need to be coaxed to talk about safety: Did you know, he asked, that most employee injuries occur before the four major holidays. When workers’ thoughts are elsewhere? One of the few objects on his uncluttered desk is and old-fashioned metal box which houses a pair of antique safety glasses.

The meetings do serve another purpose, Berkley offered: the company inserts a pitch at the end about keeping the workmanship up to a high standard.

“We have to be good to give them (customers) the kind of quality they want and expect,” he emphasized. “But creating an atmosphere in the plant so that people understand we really do insist on making the highest quality commercial envelope in the country (is the key).”

If employees produced the same kind of product each day, he added, it would be very difficult to keep them interested in their jobs. “But here’s a guy who knows the machine. And he changes it today from the envelope you saw, and tomorrow he puts another envelope on it. And it taxes his ingenuity to get it done quickly, to run it at high speed, to see that the printing looks good, to see it’s really a high-class product.”

Tension has a name in the industry for being a high technology company, a name enhanced during Berkley’s 17-year tenure, his Kansas City competitors say. One small manufacturer said when a piece of equipment is needed, such as a die to change the size of windows on an envelope, the small firms borrow among themselves.

“No one borrows from Tension,” the manufacturer stated, “and they don’t borrow from anyone.” If Tension needs equipment, it buys it.

“I wish it were that simple,” Berkley smiled, pointing out that the decision to purchase a $250,000 machine is not made lightly. But he affirmed that the outlay for equipment is high at Tension, and necessary to give the company the production flexibility it needs to fill non-standard orders.
“We custom design things for the individual customer, and that’s really our strength in the marketplace,” he noted.
Tension has an in-house engineering department. It exists to render standard machines capable of producing non-standard products. There is, for example, the expanding envelope with the dual side-folds, and the metal top, sand sample envelope used in geological libraries.
“You must see this,” Berkley said beckoning to the latest effort of his engineering department. Using only a standard envelope press as a base, the stuff has added about 10 feet of mechanism to produce a contraption which has increased by three fold Tension’s output of X-ray envelopes. It now produces 100,000 daily.
Manufacturing activities in Kansas City spilled over from the 19th Street plant to one a few blocks away, which Tension purchased in 1977. “Some people claim the reason we put the plant in that building was so I could get over to Arthur Bryant’s (barbecue restaurant) more often,” Berkley joked. “What, you’ve never been to Arthur Bryant’s? You’re in for the thrill of your life, sweetheart!”

In Berkley’s office is a limited-edition print with the caption: “You are what you eat.” The pencil sketch, a gift from his children, pictures a man and woman emerging from Bryant’s. The man has the head of a bull, the woman’s head is that of a pig.

A few yards away on the same wall is a matching set off prints of the six endangered species of wildlife, a gift from his wife. There are no pithy signs in the large sunny room; only art prints and patent certificates hanging in neat, matched groups. Berkley’s penchant for the orderly and harmonious also is evident in the balanced architecture of his Georgian style home in Mission Hills.

“Responsibility” is a word Berkley uses often. One of the stops on the Tension tour was in the board room, where hang portraits of his grandfather, father and uncle. Volunteering a brief bit of family history, Berkley told of his grandfather’s migration West from Pittsburgh area, where he owned a small novelty and advertising business. Berkowitz signed a bank note for a friend, the friend defaulted, and Berkowitz mortgaged several possessions, including his business, to meet the note. With his obligations cleared, he left for greener pastures.

“That’s the kind of man he was,” Berkley commented.

He was also the kind of fellow who was extremely interested in education. As chairman of the committee in charge of the University Extension Lecture group, he was responsible for bringing several famous speakers to Kansas City, including Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Berkley’s father was one of the founders of the Jewish Federation in Kansas City, and president of the board of directors of Menorah Medical Center. Walter Berkowitz, Berkley’s uncle, was active in the Jewish Community Center.

“One of the things that I happen to think is very important about carrying out civic responsibilities is that the individual who is doing it not try to win a popularity contest,” said Berkley. “Even though it may be difficult for that individual to get it done without creating ill will. If it’s morally right, that’s really where the emphasis is.”

Berkley was not out to garner popularity votes when he attempted to integrate businesses and social clubs in Kansas City which barred Jewish members. He said he found many members in the business community “wonderfully receptive” to his attempts to break down the barriers. “They very sincerely tried to do something about the discrimination problem in various downtown clubs, for example, and were successful in doing something about it. There were several of us who were very much involved.”

Coincidental with the war against the closed clubs – which wasn’t totally successful – came an invitation to speak at the Junior League, a then lily-white organization. Berkley addressed a surprised audience on discrimination at the junior league. His speech was effective, said one former league member. The next time the vote came up to open club membership to Jews, it passed.

The irony remains that the family which has spoken out so strongly against antisemitism Americanized its very Semitic name. Berkley said he changed his last name when he was a teenager because, “in those days there were a lot more antisemitism than there is today. And I just felt it was more important to pass judgment after you met somebody, rather than before. Quite obviously from my activities, you understand there’s no attempt on my part to deny my Judaism. But things were different, this was before World War II.” During that time, Berkley smiled, we all learned that everyone put their pants on the same way.

Berkley’s studies at Duke University were interrupted by the war. He spend about three-and-one-half years with the infantry in the Philippines, then returned to Duke. He barely had time to complete his master’s degree at the Harvard University School of Business  before he was drafted for the Korean War. He emerged from that conflict with the Bronze Star.

By the time Berkley stepped in as president of Tension in 1962, the company had five plants, patent certificates pile knee-deep and a solid reputation in the industry. Following E. Bertram Berkowitz, a man described by his son and competitors as “dynamic”, was no easy task, even for someone who grew up in the business. Berkowitz and his brother, Walter, had forged the company, then known as Berkowitz Envelope, into a national force in the industry. The coup which opened markets nationwide was the acquisition by Berkowitz of Tension envelop in Hackensack, NJ. Though Tension was the smaller of two firms, its eastern roots had given it name recognition among the major buyers in New York.

Berkley said he was fortunate to have the benefit of his father’s guidance during his first few years as president, though he carefully emphasized that the guidance was not the same as second-guessing. Berkowitz died in 1966.

Five plants have been added under Berkley; the last three were started from scratch, and two were acquisitions. Berkley did not rule out either approach as avenues for future expansion. Considering its size and established name, Tension is in a prime position to increase its business as tight paper supplies undoubtedly will squeeze out some of the small firms.

Berkley said he is confident Tension can continue under its private ownership format. He indicated he intends to keep it this way, though he concedes growth will be slower than if the company was publicly held. “One of the things that I’m very pleased about is that a third generation is still involved in the business, because there aren’t that many companies that are third generation privately-held,” Berkley pointed out. He is not sure whether his son Bill, who was deeply involved in Dick Berkley’s mayoral race, will come into the business. His other two children, both daughters, are pursuing their own careers, one as a physical therapist and one as a student of environmental studies at a western university.

But succession is a concern for the future. Judging from the pace Berkley sets, and his evident enthusiasm for his work and his company, he is going to be around Tension for some time to come. His attitude calls to mind an obscure but appropriate quote from H.L. Mencken, “I go on working for the same reason a hen goes laying eggs.”