Peter Browning and Continental White Cap

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Peter Browning and Continental White Cap (A)
On April 1, 1984, Peter Browning assumed the position of vice president and operating officer of Continental White Cap, a Chicago-based division of the Continental Group, Inc. Having completed a successful five-year turnaround of Continental’s troubled Bondware Division, Browning found this new assignment at White Cap to be a very different type of challenge. He was taking over the most successful of Continental’s nine divisions—“the jewel in the Continental crown,” as one Continental executive described it. White Cap was the market leader in the production and distribution of vacuum-sealed metal closures for glass jars. Browning’s charge, though, was to revitalize and reposition the division to remain preeminent in the face of threatened, but not yet fully realized, changes in the competitive environment. Sales were stable and costs were up. Recent years had brought changes in the market: one competitor in particular was utilizing price cuts for the first time to build market share, and the introduction of plastic packaging to many of White Cap’s traditional customers threatened sales. White Cap had not yet developed a plastic closure or the ability to seal plastic containers. After more than 50 years of traditional management and close control by White Cap’s founding family, corporate headquarters decided it was time to bring in a proven, enthusiastic manager to push the business toward a leaner, more efficient, and more flexible operation—one capable of responding to the evolving market conditions. From the very start, Browning recognized two major obstacles that he would have to address. First, few managers or employees at White Cap acknowledged the need for change. Business results for more than 50 years had been quite impressive and when dips were experienced, they were perceived as cyclical and transient. Second, White Cap had a family-style culture characterized by long-term loyalty from its employees, long-standing traditions of job security, liberal benefits, and paternalistic management. Attempts to alter these traditions would not be welcome. Reflecting on his new assignment at White Cap, Browning recalled that at Bondware he had walked into a failing business where he “had nothing to lose.” Now he was entering “a successful business with absolutely everything to lose.” One White Cap manager observed: “White Cap will be the testing period for Peter Browning in the eyes of Continental.” Browning’s success in reframing the business would be critical for his future in corporate leadership there. Browning thought about the stern words of caution he had received from his boss, Dick Hofmann, executive vice president of the Continental Group: “White Cap needs changes, but just don’t break it while you’re trying to fix it. Continental can’t afford to lose White Cap.”

White Cap Background
In 1926 William P. White and his two brothers started the White Cap Company in an old box factory on Goose Island, located in the Chicago River. From the beginning, the White Cap Company was active in many areas: in closure production and distribution, in new product development, and in the design of cap-making and capping machinery. Thus, White Cap promoted itself as not only a source of quality closures but also providers of a “Total System” of engineering and R&D support and service to the food industry. It claimed the latest in closure technology—for example, in 1954 White Cap pioneered the twist-off style of closure, and in the late 1960s it developed the popular “P.T.” (press-on/twist-off) style of cap). It also took pride in its capping equipment and field operations service. White Cap’s customers were producers of ketchup, juices, baby foods, preserves, pickles, and other perishable foods. In 1956 the Continental Can Company bought White Cap, and in 1984 the Continental Group, Inc., went from public to private as it was merged into KMI Continental, Inc., a subsidiary of Peter...
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