Fresh home from serving under Gen. George S. Patton Jr. in the European Theater during World War II, Edward Attman promptly married Mildred Cohen, his sweetheart from his pre-war days at the University of Baltimore.
And less than a month after marrying, they launched Acme Paper & Supply Co. on April Fools’ Day 1946 in a rented garage, near Baltimore’s iconic Shot Tower on Front Street. They walked the old port city’s streets, peddling waxed butcher paper, paper bags, paper towels, toilet paper, napkins and drinking cups.
Acme’s products weren’t glamorous, but items everybody needs – over and over again.
Among Acme's first customers was Attman’s Delicatessen, a family-run deli started by Eddie Attman’s father, Harry Attman, three years after he emigrated to Baltimore from a Russian town near the border with Poland in 1912.
At Acme Paper, in their first 15 years in the business, Eddie and Mildred Attman never took a vacation. Eddie, who died in February at 95, showed up to work daily until his last days.
Seven decades after Eddie and Mildred founded the business, a second and third generation of Attmans – eight of them – carry on the family tradition. The company is now one of the nation’s largest suppliers of products like plastic souvenir cups at stadiums (selling 50 million annually to Maryland stadiums alone), straws, popcorn boxes, takeout containers and enough toilet paper each year to stretch from Earth to the moon three and a half times.
Indeed, it’s about much more than paper now: The family-owned, privately held company has branched out into restaurant equipment and refrigeration service, kitchen supplies, disposable food service packaging, janitorial supplies and cleaning equipment – with 24/7 repairs.
Acme’s slogan: “Much more than paper.”
Steve Attman, principal and co-CEO at Acme, said his father had a work ethic that never quit and a knack for spotting trends, cultivating trust and building strong bonds with customers.
“My father was really a relationship-builder,” said Attman, 59, whose three brothers, youngest son and three nephews work in the family business. “You’ve got to build trust with people, and you have to show them that you can really understand and help their business, not just sell them products.
“It’s a much slower process than just making a sale. A lot of people are in a hurry to get to the end result, to get to the sale. But if you do the right thing for your customer, you really do the right thing for yourself and your business,” Attman continued. “It’s about understanding what the clients are looking for the product to do, and then not creating just a sale, but creating relationships that have value based on the clients’ needs. And it comes down to listening and asking questions about their needs and producing results.”
From the start, Attman said, his father was forever on the lookout for innovations and named the company Acme Paper & Supply Co. because he anticipated expansion well beyond paper products. The name also was picked because “Acme” appears very close to front of the phone book.
“My father’s philosophy, which always worked well, was to constantly have a new idea for people, and bring them new ways to help make an impact on their business and separate themselves from their competition,” Attman said. “He was always looking for innovations, always out there looking for and being open to new ideas of what’s coming into the market, and that’s really critical.”
Acme, now based in Savage in Howard County, has engendered fierce loyalty, with many of its customers dating back decades, and some to the company’s very beginnings. As they grew, Acme grew along with them.
The firm, which has furnished the Baltimore Orioles with plastic cups and paper products for decades, also counts among its clients M&T Bank Stadium, Nationals Park, the Verizon Center, Royal Farms Arena, Maryland Live! Casino, the soon-to-open MGM National Harbor casino in suburban Washington, Six Flags America, Hershey Park, Kings Dominion and the U.S. House of Representatives. Acme also serves hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, universities and public school systems.
With 250 employees and 30 delivery trucks, the company continues expanding, opening additional warehouses in 2013, in Jessup, Md., and Richmond, Va.; and another in Jessup two weeks ago.
Attman says his parents imparted lessons about running a family business that he’s been turning over in his mind ever since.
“They say a family business can be the best thing or the worst thing,” Attman said. “But for us, it’s always been the greatest thing. The key for us is it’s been mutual respect, and we all come from an honest place with each other. We leave our egos at the door. We just all work together so well because that’s how we were taught, and that doesn’t happen in a lot of family businesses. We’re after a common goal: to make sure our clients get the best customer experience.
“In a family business, it can’t be just about the money. It’s got to be growing the brand and you, the family and the employees, are the brand. And if you view yourself as that, you see you have the greatest opportunity in the world to build something that’s yours and really special. It’s your name on the door, and the Acme name means everything when we’re dealing with clients and potential clients.”