Old-line company is producer of oils extracted from animals

Philadelphia's Berg Co., founded in 1873, started as a rendering plant

October 20, 2002|By Peter Binzen | Peter Binzen,THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER

PHILADELPHIA - One day in October 1911, a 60,000-pound whale 58 feet in length washed ashore in Ocean City, N.J.

The carcass was removed and "utilized" by the Berg Co., a Philadelphia firm that collected the fat and bones of dead animals to make glue, bone meal, fertilizer, and animal-oil products. A postcard memorialized the beaching of the "gigantic whale."

At that time, Berg was the city's largest renderer of animals parts. It was a nasty business, but somebody had to do it. The company had more than 50 wagons on the streets of Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and outlying sections picking up butcher-shop leavings.

It was also Philadelphia's official collector of horses that died on the city's streets.

In 1930, Berg stopped rendering animal parts, but it continued in business as a producer of oils extracted from animals. And now, 129 years after its founding in 1873, this unusual outfit is still around.

Although its corporate name has been changed to Nupro Industries Corp., it remains in the Berg family.

Alan Sulzberger Berg, fourth-generation descendant of founder Abram Berg, owns and operates it from the original site on East Ontario Street in the Port Richmond neighborhood.

About 40 employees

Berg, 72, is chief executive officer and chairman. Ira S. Katuran, 42, is president and chief operating officer. The company employs about 40 working in three shifts five days a week. Berg said its annual revenues range from $12 million to $20 million.

Nupro's subsidiary, Neatsfoot Oil Refineries Corp., purchases animal fat from meat packing houses, and, employing stringent quality controls, squeezes out the oils and refines them for various uses.

Neatsfoot oil is perhaps best known for softening and preserving leather in shoes, baseball gloves, and other leather products. Kiwi Brands in Douglassville, Berks County, is a customer.

The company also sells its refined animal-oil products to the steel, textile and metalworking industries for formulation as lubricants and for antibiotic fermentation processing. Other uses include carbon paper and ribbon manufacturing, grease making, and soaps and cosmetic waxes. All of the products are biodegradable.

Most of the oil at Berg's refinery comes from hogs and cattle that have been rendered by the meat packers. However, he gets mink oil from mink rendering plants in Wisconsin for use in cosmetics.

"Chemically speaking, the fatty acid composition of mink oil closely matches human fatty acids," Berg said. "That's why the beauty care companies use it in their cosmetics."

His place once used oils from horses, but that source was given up years ago. And because whales are protected under the Endangered Species Act, their sperm oil is no longer available.

Berg's products are stored in 50,000-gallon tanks on the premises, and shipped all over the world. He said his export business runs from 18 percent to 25 percent of his yearly sales, depending on market fluctuations.

"We export to Japan, China, Korea and Thailand as well as to Europe and South America," he said.

Berg, a native Philadelphian who graduated from Cheltenham High School and Bergen Junior College (now Fairleigh Dickinson University) in North Jersey, started working for his father in 1952. The company was then about one-tenth the size of the present operation, he said.

At the age of 38, he took over direction of the business. His father, also named Alan, died in 1972, and Berg became the sole owner of the family enterprise.

A Welsh name

The elder Berg had changed the company name to Neatsfoot. It's a Welsh word for oil obtained by boiling the feet and shinbones of cattle and used mainly as a dressing for leather.

But the son, who intended to broaden the company's scope into new products, renamed it Nupro Industries in the 1980s. In 1993, he bought United Lubricants Corp., of Middletown, Ohio. Like Neatsfoot, it markets oil products for the primary metals industries. Unlike Neatsfoot, it wasn't doing well when Berg purchased it.

Actually, Neatsfoot had not been roaring ahead like gangbusters, either. "We had gone through rough times after a fire in 1970 that destroyed the plant," Berg said.

However, the Philadelphia company was solidly profitable again when its owner made his foray into the Midwest. "I bought a company that was failing, and turned it around," Berg said.

He said he paid less than $1 million for United Lubricants, and assumed debt of $1 million or so. "I worked very hard, and increased its value tremendously," Berg said.

Late last year, he sold United Lubricants to Quaker Chemical Corp. in Conshohocken. According to a document filed by Quaker with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the sale was valued at $13.7 million.

Berg's lawyer, Michael Forman, who is also a Nupro Industries board member, said: "It was a nice price, a significant multiple, three or four times what he had paid for the company eight years earlier."

Synthetic lubricants

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