History of Heinz: It all began with his mom's garden

Modest beginnings to global enterprise

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"To do a common thing uncommonly well brings success." -- Henry John Heinz, founder, H.J. Heinz Co.

Few companies in Pittsburgh are as intertwined with the city's history and gritty origins as the H.J. Heinz Co.

A fixture in the region for nearly 150 years, the company traces its roots to the early 1850s when an enterprising 8-year-old boy named Henry John Heinz began the 19th-century equivalent of a lemonade stand, peddling extra vegetables from his mother's garden to his Sharpsburg neighbors.

In 1859, at age 15, the young entrepreneur and marketing pioneer began bottling his first product -- horseradish. At the same time, he scored his first marketing coup, rejecting the customary green glass bottle in favor of clear glass to emphasize the product's purity.

In 1869 -- the same year that retired Judge Thomas Mellon founded the bank bearing his name that would finance many of the Pittsburgh region's industrial stalwarts -- the 25-year-old Mr. Heinz launched the forerunner to the modern-day H.J. Heinz Co.

Pickles, sauerkraut and vinegar quickly followed horseradish in the product lineup, all delivered to local grocers by horse-drawn wagons and processed and packed at Heinz's two-story farmhouse headquarters.

By 1876, the company had launched its iconic Heinz Ketchup brand. Fourteen years later, with business booming at home and an expansion beginning in England, the company opened a processing plant on the North Side.

The facility quickly became known for its progressive employee benefits including free medical care, a swimming pool, gymnasium, reading rooms and free classes for women in cooking and dressmaking.

A few years later, during a train ride in New York, Mr. Heinz cooked up the famous "57 Varieties" slogan that remains today.

The idea "gripped" him, as he once told an interviewer, after noticing cards in train cars advertising "21 styles" of shoes. Although the company was producing more than 60 products at the time, the number 57 kept popping up in his head and he stuck with it.

When Mr. Heinz died in 1919 of pneumonia at age 75, his son Howard took the reins, followed by Mr. Heinz's grandson, H.J. "Jack" Heinz II, who in 1946 took the company public.

In 1966, R. Burt Gookin, a 21-year veteran of the company with a background in accounting, became the first CEO from outside the Heinz family. The late Mr. Gookin undertook an aggressive modernization and expansion plan, helping to transform the sleepy family operation into a highly profitable global corporation.

Mr. Gookin also added an outside cadre of managers, including his successor, Anthony J.F. O'Reilly, an Irishman whom he recruited to run Heinz's British operations in 1969.

Mr. O'Reilly, who headed Heinz from 1979 to 1998 and continued the company's global expansion, enjoyed a career as one of the country's most flamboyant and highest-paid corporate chieftains before handing over the helm to current CEO William Johnson.

In 2001, Heinz agreed to pay Pittsburgh's Rooney family $57 million over 20 years for the right to name the new Steelers stadium, settling on Heinz Field after considering Heinz Coliseum, Heinz Stadium and Heinz Bowl. The price tag for the deal was not a coincidence.

Heinz doesn't make products in Pittsburgh anymore, even though traffic reporters may persist in calling the North Side plant along Route 28 "the Heinz plant."

Local production ended in 2002, when the company sold the plant along with its tuna, pet food, soup and baby food lines to Del Monte Foods.

The plant is now owned by Illinois-based TreeHouse Foods, which produces private label soup and baby food there.

Heinz currently operates its world headquarters and North American headquarters out of Downtown Pittsburgh. It also has its Global Innovation and Quality Center in Marshall.

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Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066. First Published February 15, 2013 5:00 AM


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