The Interview: Ron Attman

Vice president of Acme Paper & Supply Co. talks hand sanitizer and other products

  • Ron Attman, president of Acme Paper & Supply Co., is pictured in the company's warehouse.
Ron Attman, president of Acme Paper & Supply Co., is pictured… (Baltimore Sun photo by Algerina…)
December 30, 2010|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Acme Paper & Supply Co. has a name more befitting its past than its present.

When the company started in 1946, it specialized in paper products such as drinking cups. Today, Acme is a much different company — so much so that the tagline "more than paper" has been appended to its name. Plastics are now the predominant part of the business.

The company also has helped the U.S. House of Representatives switch to more environmentally friendly products. If you've ever used hand sanitizer at a hospital or restaurant, it was likely supplied by Acme. The company also provides many of the paper products used in Franklin Square Hospital Center's new wing. And Acme supplies stadiums and arenas from Maryland to Philadelphia.

Ron Attman, a vice president with the company and son of its founder, recently talked with The Baltimore Sun about Acme.

Question: Tell me a little bit about the history of your company.

Answer: We were founded by my parents, Edward and Mildred Attman. We were founded in downtown Baltimore in a 1,500-square-foot garage. We grew, and in 1979 we moved out to Savage, which is dead in the center between Maryland and Washington, so that we are able to take care of both of those markets. In 1991, we established an office in Richmond, Va.

Q: You started as a paper company?

A: When my father started off, there were probably eight different products we covered, and they were all related — paper bags and paper cups, which were just starting to be popular then. It was everything he could get his hands on to sell. His family had the deli on Lombard Street, Attman's Deli. They had the connections to the meat companies, so my father used to sell salmon and tuna to supplement paper sales. Paper products at that time were still being rationed.

Q: So it seemed like a bad time to open a paper-products business. Why did he decide to pursue it?

A: His mother advised him to. She told him he wanted to do something that would have better hours. He wanted products that wouldn't spoil. There was a relative on my mother's side that was in the paper business. When he got out of the war and was looking for a company he could run, he thought there was an opportunity in this kind of field.

Q: How has the company evolved?

A: It's a constant evolution. I have been working for over 40 years now, and most of the products we are selling today weren't even invented years ago. Like in "The Graduate," when the guy advises Dustin Hoffman to go into the plastics business — in 1968, … there was little made of plastic and now it is the predominant part of our business.

Q: What are some examples of what you make now?

A: You used to see paper cold cups, and today everybody is using plastic. Like McDonald's, they still use paper. But if you go into Panera Bread or the stadiums, they use plastic.

We're also heavily involved in green products. There is a demand for products made from renewable sources and that can be composted. Things constantly change, and we're continually trying to be on top of those changes.

Q: Can you talk about your compost programs?

A: That has definitely become a big trend in this area more than others. One of the big projects we worked on was with the U.S. House of Representatives. They went to a totally green composting program throughout the building. Everything from the plates and cutlery to the water bottles they use. The total waste stream gets composted.

They turn all that waste in there into compost. It can then be used as fertilizer, and it is put back into the soil. That was created in 2006. But who knows what will happen now that the Republicans are in charge?

Q: Did they seek you out for the project, or did you bid for it?

A: They brought in a new food service vendor in the House, and we were doing some business for them. They didn't know where to find [compostable] products.

Q: You have a big hand-sanitizer business. How did you get into that?

A: The health care business is a big part of our business. We service most of the major hospitals throughout the region. … Last year, when we had the outbreak of H1N1 flu, everyone wanted hand sanitizer. That was a challenge.

Hand sanitizer was first invented in the mid-1990s, and there has always been some call for it. Five or six years ago, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta did the research and came through with a paper that said hand sanitizer is the best way to clean hands and that it does even a better job than hand washing. Hospitals jumped on it.

Q: How much did the H1N1 flu epidemic impact sales?

A: Sales went off the charts last year, and most of it has held up this year. It grew exponentially. It probably grew 300 to 400 percent in a year.

Q: You don't make the products?

A: We distribute. We have one or two products that we actually have patents on that we have made for us on a contractual basis. We designed a carryout tray used in some stadiums that lets people put more products on it. When somebody walks up to the concession stand, they'll only buy as much as they can carry. If you have trays where people can fit more on it, the concessionaire will make more money.

Q: Any new initiatives that you have?

A: I'm always trying to think of what the newest initiative will be. In our business, there are a lot of people that have similar products. When we talk to a potential customer, we don't say, "Tell us what you're using, and we'll give you a price." We try to approach it as, "What are your problems, and we'll help you solve them."

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