Sager Metal plays a key role in moving the world’s food products

A popular cable television program is Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made.”

It’s a behind-scenes look at how everyday products are manufactured. Many of them have taken a look at food products that are bottled or canned.

Shows can leave viewers with the thought, “So that’s how they do it.”

But that sense of wonder wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for a Michigan City company that has quietly been helping make the world’s food and beverage industry more productive and efficient.

Sager Metal Strip Company is responsible for many of the high-speed conveyor systems that move food products from one machine to another. It’s not an industry a lot of people notice, but in the background of some of those shots on “How It’s Made,” the red and black circular logo of a Sager is visible.

The company has been around since the late 1880s, starting in Chicago as Sager Metal Weatherstrip making weather-stripping and equipment for doors and windows.

The Congreve family purchased the company in the 1930s and continued making weather-stripping until 1950 when it added custom metal fabrication. That eventually became the main business, evolving into fabrication for parts used by conveyor manufacturers.

In 1976, Sager began fabricating and assembling conveyors for Continental Can Co. and eventually took over the conveyor manufacturing business from Continental. In 1991, Continental was sold to Crown Cork and Seal, which led Sager to diversity in order to expand its business to all types of container manufacturers, fillers and packing companies.

A growth spurt followed and that led to Sager needing a larger building. In 1987, owner George J. Congreve found a 50,000-square-foot building in Michigan City at 100 Boone Drive, just off Ohio Street on the south side of the city. That building has since been expanded to 85,000 square feet.

For Peter Pairitz, who with Michael Brennan and other local investors bought the company in 1999 from Congreve, it was an unexpected opportunity. Congreve wanted to sell and Pairitz initially worked with him to find a buyer. But the more Pairitz got involved in the process, the more he realized Sager Metal was an opportunity.

“I kind of fell into it,” said Pairitz.

Pairitz, who is listed as company president, is modest about his role in the company. He spreads his arms and acknowledges the employees, giving them credit for making the business a success.

“Opportunities are all around us,” he said. “All it takes is the ability to recognize it.”

Over the years, Sager Metal has become a world leader in conveyor systems. Major companies like Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Campbell’s Soup use Sager conveyors to package their products.

Not only are Sager conveyors used throughout the United States, they’re used around the world — in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Tunisia, Venezuela as well as other countries.

“There is a very good chance that a can in your refrigerator or pantry has been moved by a Sager conveyor either in the manufacturing process of the can or the filling of the can with beer, pop or vegetables,” said Pairitz.

As he walks the production floor chatting with long-time employees like Jerry Eapmon, C.S. Jogger, Danny Munoz and Mike Iacovetti, it’s obvious Sager has cultivated an experienced and dedicated staff. Many have been with the company since before it moved to Michigan City.

Jogger is an engineer who helps design the conveyors that are installed around the world. Each is unique because the layout of each plant is different.

“What works in one place won’t work someplace else,” said Jogger.

“I’m thinking about this all the time,” he said. Showing off a display of cans of various sizes, Jogger said he believes in what he does so much that he tells his wife to only buy groceries that come in a can.

In some factories, conveyors are designed to run the length of the building. In others, there isn’t room, so the conveyors are designed to up to the ceiling. Jogger pointed out that once a conveyor is operating at peak capacity, cans move so quickly the human eye can’t follow them.

And the conveyors just don’t move cans through the filling process. It starts with manufacturing the can, where raw aluminum or steel is uncoiled, small “blanks” are made, which are then pressed into the shape of a can. From there, the cans are decorated with the company’s logo, cleaned on the inside, filled, sealed and pasteurized before heading to the store.

Outside account manager Conrad Baugh pointed out that conveyor is made by hand from start to finish, assembled at Sager, tested and then disassembled and shipped to the customer. Once it’s shipped, company employees who built the machine go with it to reassemble it and make sure it works properly.

Nearly every employee on the floor has been out of the country and to all corners of the United States making sure Sager’s conveyors work properly.

Munoz, who works in the assembly area, recently returned from Texas where a Sager system had been installed at a soft drink company.

The conveyors — which move product mechanically, by compressed air, through the company’s registered “Tunnel Track” system, by cable or gravity — are made and assembled by hand. A computer-guided laser cuts stainless steel pieces which are then welded by hand.

In the back of the shop, Iacovetti works by hand carefully bending and shaping the pieces of a conveyor that allows empty containers to be put in on their side at once end and come out standing upright on the other, ready to be filled.

It’s a tedious process, but Iacovetti isn’t impressed by what he does. “It’s not that difficult,” he said. “I just look at it and bend a little bit until it’s right.”

Away from Iacovetti, Pairitz quietly disagrees, describing what Iacovetti does as “art,” calling him a true craftsman. Pairitz said that kind of skill is something all employees at Sager possess.

“I think that’s one of the keys to our success,” said Pairitz.

For the future, Pairitz said he see Sager continuing to grow its conveyor business, but he also sees opportunity in metal fabrication.

He said that with the computer-aided design process at Sager, and its laser-guided metal fabricator, parts that were once considered too difficult or too costly to make can now be designed and cut economically. “Our focus is on metal fabrication services to general industrial customers with requirements from prototypes to major production runs,” said Pairitz.

Learn about Sager Metal here.