Ziploc pioneer Ausnit shares success story with Marquette Business
November 22, 2013
At one juncture during the decades-long adventure that eventually resulted in the creation of the Ziploc bag, entrepreneur Steve Ausnit and his business partners were ready to sell.
In 1951, Ausnit’s friend turned him on to a plastic, toothless zipper that resulted in dustproof and waterproof closure. After buying the rights to the device a year later, Ausnit and his partners encountered difficulty after difficulty, many dealing with manufacturing and production.
“Our business plan was really a seat-of-the-pants plan and didn’t work out how we thought it would,” Ausnit says. “We made too many assumptions. We bought the rights, and then found out things were not as rosy as we thought.”
Ausnit turned to his father, Max, a successful Romanian industrialist known as the “King of Steel,” to help find a potential buyer. One company showed interest in the zipper product, but its executives concluded Ausnit’s company’s profits would top out at about $1 million.
“Year’s later, I found that report and found that the company was still in business,” Ausnit says. “I wrote them and thanked them for screwing up the deal. They never responded; I guess they didn’t have a sense of humor.”
Ausnit, now considered the pioneer of Ziploc, shared stories from his long and successful career at Marquette University during The Kohler Center for Entrepreneurship’s new “After Hours” speaker series Tuesday, Nov. 20.
Ausnit discussed the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur, including how it took nearly a decade for him and his company, Minigrip, to realize the biggest success for the zipper products would come in the packaging industry. In the early 1960s, Minigrip negotiated an exclusive license for the grocery trade with Dow Chemical Company, and in 1968, Dow introduced the Ziploc bag.
Still, Ausnit and his partners waited for success.
“Anytime you showed the zipper bag, people were impressed by it,” Ausnit says. “But at one point, Dow called me and said, ‘It looks like we’re going to kill the program because it’s not doing anything.’ Two months later, they said, ‘It’s taking off spectacularly and we have to place an order with you for one hundred million bags.’”
Ausnit also shared advice with students who have the same entrepreneurial spirit he has, including his granddaughter, Saskia Salak, a junior in the College of Business Administration.
He recommended detailing a business plan that avoids assumptions. He suggested doubling the estimated cash needed up front because unexpected costs will crop up, and “avoid borrowing from the bank because if something goes wrong, you work for them,” he says. In addition, never give a personal guarantee; make sure long-term contracts cover inflation clauses; and beware of the competition trying to copy your successful idea.
“You need persistence, luck, and will to succeed, and it has to be something you enjoy doing,” Ausnit says.
At nearly 90 years old, Ausnit still holds 116 patents in his name and co-holds 67 others, all of them tied to the plastic zipper, the zipper bag or the methods to make them. Though retired from Minigrip since 1988, Ausnit still serves as a consultant for intellectual properties.
But the personal and financial investment he made in a little plastic zipper more than 60 years ago is what Ausnit is most proud of.
“I was involved in something that has an everyday use,” he says. “When I’m gone, people will still be using Ziploc bags. I didn’t do it all by myself. There were a lot of people involved, but I had a lot to do with it. That’s what I’ll leave behind.”