This year marks 150 years in business for the Bemis Co. The company, which is now one of Northeastern Wisconsin’s largest employers, was founded in St. Louis, Mo., in 1858. Bemis is often credited as popularizing burlap “gunny sacks,” which were used to haul perishables such as flour and seeds.

Fast forward to today. Bemis is the largest flexible packaging manufacturer in the Americas and a major manufacturer of pressure-sensitive materials. Products include blown and cast stretch film; carton sealing tape; coated and laminated polymer film; industrial and consumer paper-bag packaging; polyethylene packaging; pressure-sensitive materials; medical adhesives; and narrow-web roll label products.

Bemis was named Flexible Packaging’s No. 1 converter in 2007 and holds that position again this year, with total 2007 flexible packaging sales of more than $3 billion. And it’s a lead the company intends to maintain. According to first quarter 2008 earnings, Bemis’s flexible packaging segment, which represents about 83% of total net sales during the quarter, reported net sales of $781.6 million in the first quarter, compared with $743.2 million for the first quarter of 2007.

In a press release, president and chief executive officer Henry Theisen said that during the first quarter of 2008, the company experienced higher specialty resin costs which negatively impacted operating profit levels in the flexible packaging business segment.

“These and other inflationary cost pressures are being managed with selling price increases and profit improvement programs that we expect to result in improved performance for the remainder of the year. Flexible packaging unit sales volume increased modestly compared to last year and to last quarter, which primarily reflects the scale up of new business awarded in 2007 and stabilizing consumer demand in North America,” Theisen responded in a press release.

Acquisitions have played a key role in the rise of Bemis to a flexible packaging powerhouse. Throughout the 1880s and early 1900s, Bemis grew to become the second largest bag manufacturer in the United States. After World War II, Bemis expanded into the paper and polyethylene packaging markets. A series of strategic acquisitions in the1950s and 1960s also contributed to the company’s growth. Bemis acquired Curwood and MACtac. Following a major capital expansion in the 1980s, Bemis saw sales reach more than $1 billion in 1988.

More acquisitions followed: candy packaging producer Milprint Inc., in 1990; Princeton Packaging’s bakery packaging business in 1993; Banner Packaging in 1995; Malaysia-based Perfecseal in 1996; a one-third interest in Brazil-based Dixie Toga’s flexible packaging operations in 1998.

In addition to selling off other units, Bemis continued with more recent acquisitions including the Clysar shrink film business of DuPont (with operations in both the U.S. and Europe) for more than $140 million, and the Walki Films business of UPM-Kymmene for about $69 million later that year.

However, like all successful companies, Bemis continues to innovate with new products as well. In April, the company introduced Bemis SkinTite, which offers two innovative product ranges for thermoforming and tray sealing applications. SkinTite films feature a draping or “second skin effect” that enhances presentation and fixes products securely in position to prevent drip-loss and movement during transportation or vertical presentation on retail shelves.