Augusta factory turns 60

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The next time you use a polystyrene cup, you might be picking up a piece of Augusta's history.

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Solo Cup Company on Wrightsboro Road in Augusta.  Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Annette M. Drowlette/Staff
Solo Cup Company on Wrightsboro Road in Augusta.

There is a good chance that cup came from the factory at 1550 Wrightsboro Road, which turns 60 this month.

The sprawling facility, operated since 2004 by Solo Cup Co., of Highland Park, Ill., is significant beyond the nearly 1.3 billion plastic cups its 220 employees produce each year.

The 375,000-square-foot complex with the giant cup over the front doors is widely considered the first example of modern manufacturing in Augusta -- which, like most other Southern cities, was primarily dependent on agricultural production and textile manufacturing.

Built by Lily-Tulip Co. of New York in 1947, the plant had wages that were twice as high as those paid at the city's numerous textile mills.

"A lot of people went to work there; they thought they had the best deal in town," said Pete Verdery, a former member of Augusta's now-defunct Committee of 100, an economic development organization responsible for recruiting most of the city's industry during the post-World War II years.

"They were making nearly $40 a week, which was a lot of money back then," Mr. Verdery said.

Despite going through more than a half-dozen ownership changes over the decades -- previous owners have included Sweetheart Cup Co. and Fort Howard Paper Co. -- the plant's work force has been loyal.

Henrietta Smith, for example, has worked there 41 years. Her husband, Charlie, whom she met at the plant, has been there 38 years.

Nobody, though, has been there longer than Dannie Allmond, who started 541/2 years ago on his 18th birthday -- June 11, 1953.

"It's a good company to work for," said Mr. Allmond, 72. "We've gone through a lot of changes, but the Lord has blessed me to adapt to the changes, and it's been a great time."

The plant shifted production from wax paper cups to polystyrene in 1989 and now makes only one product: the Trophy brand hot/cold beverage cup.

The cups, which range from 9 to 44 ounces, are purchased by companies such as Panera Bread, Zaxby's, Walt Disney World, BJ's Wholesale Club, Holiday Inn and Bob Evans Restaurants.

"We manufacture right at 4 million per day," said Lisa Phillips, the plant's human resources manager.

Inside the 60-year-old structure is high-tech printing and manufacturing equipment capable of processing large rolls of polystyrene at 500 to 700 linear feet per minute

Trophy department manager Herb Jones said the presses can print up to six colors and use a complex system to maintain color consistency.

Printing department employee Mike Tanksley has the plant's second-longest tenure: 46 years of service. He also has seen a lot of changes, particularly in the demographics of employees.

"When I came here, it was mostly white employees," he said. "Now it's mostly black employees."

With the exception of a warehouse assignment, he has worked in the printing department his entire time at the plant.

"I like printing," he said. His favorite part of the job is "making beautiful cups."

The inline press can make up to 274 cups per minute using glue-free thermoforming, a process that uses hot air to melt the foam together.

The company will soon debut its 44-ounce Love Cup, a cold cup produced for Love's Travel Stops.

Business Editor Damon Cline contributed to this article.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or latina.emerson@augustachronicle.com.

SOLO CUP CO.

HEADQUARTERS: Highland Park, Ill.


OWNERSHIP: Private


EMPLOYEES: 11,500


2006 SALES: $2.4 billion


OPERATIONS: Manufactures and distributes paper and plastic disposable food products; has locations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama and the United Kingdom


COMPETITORS: Dart Container Corp., Pactiv Corp.

TIMELINE

1947: Lily-Tulip Co. of New York builds a 180,000-square-foot paper cup company on Augusta's Wrightsboro Road.

1959: Augusta plant expansion doubles its size.

1968: Lily-Tulip is acquired by Toledo, Ohio-based Owens-Illinois Inc., a maker of glassware and corrugated containerboard.

1971: Teamsters unionize Augusta plant.

1981: Private investors, led by leveraged buyout firm Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co., acquire the Lily cup operations from Owens-Illinois for $150 million; rename it Lily-Tulip Inc.

1982: Augusta plant expansion doubles production.

1983: Lily-Tulip moves corporate headquarters from Toledo to downtown Augusta.

1984: Lily-Tulip goes public.

1985: Augusta plant begins production of the Trophy brand plastic cup.

1986: Fort Howard Paper Co., of Green Bay, Wis., purchases Lily-Tulip for $326 million and merges it with Maryland Cup Corp., maker of Sweetheart brand cups, which it acquired in 1983.

1987-88: Employment at Augusta plant falls from 1,000 to 350 as Fort Howard removes the paper cup operations to focus on higher-profit plastic cups.

1989: Fort Howard sells all food packaging operations to Sweetheart Holdings Inc., a newly formed private investment group, for $232 million in cash and $300 million in short-term notes.

1993: Sweetheart Holdings is purchased by investment group headed by American Industrial Capital Partners.

1998: Multimillionaire Dennis Mehiel acquires Sweetheart into his SF Holdings, which also owns Hoffmaster napkins and Fonda disposable tableware.

2002: Mr. Mehiel merges Fonda business into Sweetheart.

DECEMBER 2003: SF Holdings and Solo Cup Co., of Highland Park, Ill. announce an agreement for Solo to acquire SF Holdings

MARCH 1, 2004: Solo completes acquisition.

WINTER 2004: Paper plate production is added to the plant.

JUNE 2007: Solo sells plant to a New York-based company for $12.5 million but continues operating it under a lease agreement.

FALL 2007: Solo ceases paper plate manufacturing at the facility.

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