CHICAGO – Small plastic cups spanning a spectrum of colors covered the kitchen table, and a gaggle of kids gathered around. Robert Hulseman was trying to nail down the colors for his newly invented plastic Solo Cup.
“The (research and development) lab for the family business was our kitchen table,” said Tom Hulseman, the seventh of Robert and his wife Sheila’s 10 children. “The kids were the focus group.”
They picked red, blue, yellow and peach. That peach one obviously didn’t stick, but it was the 1970s, after all, said Paul Hulseman, the third oldest of the bunch.
Robert L. Hulseman, 84, died Dec. 21 in Northfield, north of Chicago. He spent his life immersed in the Solo Cup Co., succeeding his father, the company’s founder, as CEO in the 1980s, and inventing a number of products that have become ubiquitous in American life.
Among those are the red Solo Cup, which populates nearly every gathering from campus parties to office shindigs, the plastic portion cups often used to serve ketchup at restaurants, and the Traveler lid.
“The Traveler lid was on the top of every Starbucks cup,” Paul Hulseman said. “You probably looked past it every day.”
Robert Hulseman’s father, Leo J. Hulseman, founded the business as Paper Container Manufacturing Co. in 1936 in Chicago and changed its name in the 1940s. The patriarch created the original cone paper Solo Cup and his son followed in his footsteps, but on the plastics side.
Robert Hulseman got his start at the company when he was just 18, working in the factory. That passion for the manufacturing side never left him.
He knew all the employees on the factory floor by name, and once moved the entire family to Oklahoma to open a Solo Cup factory there. Rather than turning to the market for product ideas, “he would figure out a way to make it and take it to market,” Paul Hulseman said.
His original plastic Solo Cup designs were much smaller than the 16-ounce size familiar today. They were 5, 7 and 9 ounces, made for the kitchen and picnics.
“Nobody was drinking 16-ounce beers at that point,” said Tom Hulseman. But eventually, the 16-ounce size stuck.
Many of the Hulseman children worked at least a stint at Solo Cup. Tom Hulseman, now managing director at Metro Chicago Exports, helped build the company’s export and international program. Paul Hulseman was in marketing and sales.
Dart Container Corp. acquired the Solo Cup Co. in 2012, about six years after Robert Hulseman retired. His legacy is still going strong, said Margo Burrage, communications manager at Dart.
“He was known for being incredibly passionate about his work, mentoring his staff, having a tremendous sense of humor and creating a family-oriented work atmosphere,” Burrage said in an email.
Hulseman and his late wife, whom he met at Marquette University, were devout Catholics. Every Sunday, they would take the kids to Mass at Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Church in Winnetka. They filled up an entire pew.
Paul Hulseman said his father’s health declined after suffering a series of strokes a couple of years ago. He lost his ability to communicate, and would get antsy at home. But he always calmed down when he was at Mass.
“He was perfect in church,” Paul Hulseman said. “You could tell that’s just where he wanted to be.”
Other survivors include five sons, Robert, Richard, Joseph, Lawrence and William; two daughters, Margaret Kovach and Patricia Hulseman; a brother, John; and 29 grandchildren.
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