A Golden Anniversary
Unique Industries celebrates 50 years in business
If you've ever seen a SpongeBob SquarePants piñata or a "Barney" birthday plate, then you're familiar with Unique Industries, a leading manufacturer and distributor of party supplies that's celebrating 50 years in business in 2012. Headquartered in Philadelphia, Unique now operates offices and warehouses in seven different locations across North America, Europe and East Asia, and sells millions of pieces of party items each year.
In the Beginning
It all started in 1961 when Camden New Jersey native Eb Novak founded Unique Industries with a small business loan and a 1,500 square foot rented warehouse out of which he sold a few imported party items to local distributors. At that time, the party industry was small, but there was a consumer demand for Eb's items - children's donkey games, a few party favors, plastic cutlery and straws. Novak was convinced that children's party supplies was a growing, viable product category, and he worked tirelessly to support his wife and sons, and built a profitable business.
Novak's first big break came in 1967 from Woolworth's when they asked him to produce a line of private-label party favors for their five-and-ten stores. The next big success came in 1981 with Smurfs, the quirky blue characters that captivated millions of kids on TV. Eb figured that kids would want to celebrate birthdays with their favorite TV characters, and persuaded some major chains to buy an extensive line of Smurfs party supplies.
As business progressed, Unique's collection of party goods expanded with more party favors, licensed paper products and printed birthday designs and the business moved into a 94,000 square foot warehouse space in northeast Philadelphia. It then moved in 1983 to South Philadelphia, where the office and warehouse encompassed 270,000 square feet. In 2006, Unique moved the headquarters into the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it now resides in a three-story glass building. A 720,000 square foot warehouse in Blairs, Va. serves their U.S. customers, while their Canadian office and warehouse occupies more than 160,000 square feet of space in Ontario and a facility in North Lincolnshire England serves customers across the United Kingdom and Europe.
"We have had to reinvent this company several times," Eb said. "Servicing the current environment of party superstores, value chains, grocery, mass market and big-box stores is very different from selling to the variety stores and distributors of 50 years ago."
Although Unique holds more than 45 licenses, the largest successes include Cabbage Patch Kids, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Barbie, Batman & Robin, He-Man, Spider-Man, Transformers (the original), The Incredible Hulk and many more.
But the biggest craze came from an unlikely purple dinosaur in 1993. "Barney" was an amazing opportunity and experience for Unique and customer service phone lines rang non-stop with people calling and asking for Barney. Sales representatives had to ration quantities of product to different stores, while inventory was being replenished as quickly as possible.
SpongeBob SquarePants remains their top-selling piñata to this day, with thousands of pieces sold each year. Their current license line-up also includes the most beloved characters of all time - Disney Cars, Princess, Toy Story and Winnie the Pooh, along with teen idol Justin Bieber.
A Family Affair
Several of Novak's sons hold key positions in the family enterprise. Craig Novak, company president since 1998, had his first job at Unique packing boxes and shipping orders in the warehouse. He then learned sales by accompanying some sales representatives on their travels around the North East, where they knocked on the doors of five-and-dime shops, variety stores and distributors and has been the driving force for the company ever since. Jeff Novak serves as vice president of quality assurance, and Gary Novak works with customers in a sales capacity.
"The best thing about being part of this company is being able to work with my father and brothers for more than three decades to move our company forward, as well as being able to have a positive impact on all of our employees and their families," Craig said. "Unique works hard to compete in an industry that continually demands new merchandise and fresh ideas, responding rapidly to the fast-paced changes and trends in the party trade and developing innovative new products and coordinating accessory merchandising."
Unique manufacturers their own paper plates, napkins and cups with state-of-the-art printing and manufacturing equipment in their Montoursville, Pa., facility, which enables them to produce and manage inventory quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively.
"We're proud to be one of few privately-owned companies remaining in an industry that has experienced much consolidation," Eb said. "From humble warehouse basement to global enterprise, we remain committed to our goal of treating employees like family and providing customers with high-quality products at value prices, with superior shipping, fill-rates and customer service.
"We are very grateful for the support of our retail customers, license partners and suppliers," he continued. "Unique is thrilled and honored to be part of the party industry, and we look forward to many more years."