How Pacific Bag’s Mark Howley Changed the Coffee Industry
The Havertown native turned his life into a success story.
Havertown native Mark Howley likes his coffee fresh//Photos by Tessa Marie Images.
Mark Howley is sitting in a hotel restaurant, talking about his compulsions. “I have to keep them in check,” he says.
He does a pretty good job of that. Although, what he likes, he really likes. Like sports. Howley coaches lacrosse, went to Houston in the spring to watch Villanova win the men’s basketball national title, and follows Philadelphia teams passionately from his home base in Seattle.
He’s the same way when it comes to learning about history. “He finds the oldest, heaviest, dustiest books he can,” says Glenn Sacco.
Obsessing over sports and books is fine for someone who hit a rough patch at age 25 that necessitated a trip to rehab. Today, the substance to which he is most beholden is coffee, although not in the way you might think. Instead of gulping down latte after latte, Howley is interested in the bean and specifically how best to keep it fresh. He’ll let others grow it, grind it, brew it and mix it. He’s keeping it clear of gases that can ruin it.
Howley is passionate about his work, but these days he is even more interested in his nascent pursuit, MVH Speaking, through which he gives talks on business and work-life balance. He tries to connect with people by relating the story of his life, which still surprises him somewhat. He wants to convince others to find their passion and take a run at it. “Grab something and work hard,” he says.
Howley was born in 1960 and grew up in the Llanerch portion of Havertown, the son of the owner of Lansdowne Steel & Iron, which made artillery shells and other products from 1927 to 1982. He was the sixth of eight children and the youngest boy. He graduated from Malvern Prep in 1978 and Franklin & Marshall College four years later, with a degree in business.
Upon entering the world, Howley was flummoxed and admits to wandering around. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says.
Mark Howley’s secret weapon
It would be nice to say that, once he took a job for Milan-based Goglio, which had patented the Fres-co System that made packages to hold bricks of coffee, he was home. However, he was relatively indifferent about the product, though enthusiastic about the lifestyle. “The thing that was cool to me was that I got to go to Italy and also travel all over the United States,” Howley says.
Goglio was the original creator of the one-way valve, and Howley spent 13 years there, rising to the position of sales manager. As his role expanded, he started “to gain appreciation of the coffee culture,” which was just beginning to blossom. People had begun to regard coffee as others did wine, recognizing its nuances and developing a tolerance for higher prices. “Folgers no longer controlled the message,” Howley says.
As Starbucks redefined the country’s approach to coffee, Howley made his move. In 1997, he was living in Broomall and had three children with his wife, Carolyn. He quit his job as sales manager for Fres-co and started as East Coast regional manager for Pacific Bag. His market was the smaller coffee companies, and he made enough of an impression to be invited to move to Seattle in 1999. It was a drastic change—and pretty soon, it looked like a dumb one. “The investors went bankrupt,” Howley says.
When the new leadership came in, Howley became president, largely by default. “I was the only one who had been working with the product for a long time,” he says.
He quickly established a management team and set about the business of rebuilding. By 2005, he had acquired a piece of the action. Five years later, he completed the full purchase.
Today, Pacific Bag makes a variety of packaging products for 5,000 roasters in 60 countries. Some are generic; others are custom-made. All are built around the patented valve, which is manufactured in the U.S. One half of the 100 million valves produced each year are sent to other companies—including Dunkin’ Donuts—for use in their customized packaging. The other half are found in the bags made by Pacific.
Howley’s success is the culmination of an interesting ride that he could have never predicted.
Sacco met Howley in 1994. He is now the Pacific Bag president and based in the company’s North Wales office. Back then, it didn’t take long for him to realize that Howley had a bright future. “I was a young sales guy, and the only thing I knew when I met Mark was that I was going to grab onto the guy, because he was going places,” Sacco says. “He was going to own his own company.”
Howley works to grow Pacific Bag’s reach and increase sales. But as he gets older, his focus is being redirected toward younger people and helping them find excitement in their lives. He also wants to impress upon them the need to live the right way. That’s why he reads history. It’s one thing to have technology to make life easier, but people must still be able to relate to others. His commitment to that ideal is a big reason why he and Sacco have worked together for 22 years.
His goal through MVH Speaking is to tell the story of someone who overcame tough times, moved across the country, and maintained the roots he put down in this area, holding onto the lessons he learned growing up. “If you run around screwing people over, it will come back to you,” Howley says. “If you build good, loyal bonds with people, things will be good.”
And the bad compulsions will be held at bay.