Master of automation
Raised in rural Illinois, Clark Pulver moved his family to Chicago in 1928 and began working as a mechanic at one of three bakeries operated by the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co. During the next 20 years, he rose through the ranks to become the bakery’s chief engineer when he saw an opportunity and the entrepreneur bug bit.
That opportunity was in the area of automating material and product handling. In the late 1940s, A&P’s state-of-the-art bakery could crank out 40 loaves of bread per minute. Mr. Pulver realized manual product handling wouldn’t be able to keep up with increasing production rates. Working with his regional superintendent Frank Velten, he began designing and building conveyors for others while still doing his chief engineering duties at A&P.
Eventually, word spread of Mr. Pulver’s talents. Demand for his equipment spread, and something had to give. In 1948, Velten & Pulver was born.
Mr. Pulver’s reputation as a hard-working problem solver led to him working with many members of the Quality Bakers of America (QBA) along the East Coast. Routinely, he would hop in his Packard drive to a customer’s plant, analyze the situation, sell his solution, return home, build the equipment and then install it. “Often, nothing more than a handshake secured the deal,” his biography by the American Society of Baking (ASB) noted.
In the mid-1950s, his eldest son Bill joined the family business. Although his son had a mechanical engineering degree, the young man soon discovered there was much to learn from his hands-on, self-educated father. Working with a team of designers and craftsmen, they developed systems that included cooling conveyors and switching mechanisms that delivered bread from the depanner to the slicers. The company pioneered automatic pan stacking, and its systems eventually led to the successful introduction of automated basket and tray loading systems.
During the next 30 years, the company acquired many US and international patents for product handling equipment design. Additionally, Mr. Pulver developed patented rod belt conveyors, oven loaders and unloaders, continuous chain bread and roll coolers, snack cake loaders, and basket and wire pallet loaders for bread and buns.
In the 1960s, the company partnered with DuPont Corp. to discover ways to incorporate plastic components in bakery equipment. The partnership also led to several widely used wear components for the industry. In the 1970s, Pulver Systems designed a conveyorized system for McDonald’s drive-thrus that delivered food from the kitchen across the dining room to the delivery window. In all, more than 200 of these systems were sold to the restaurant chain.
By the time he retired in 1973, Pulver Systems had grown to an organization of 100 employees and the underpinnings were in place for the company's future growth into a 70,000-sq-ft facility employing nearly 200 people. His legacy of achievements left the industry and his community stronger.
A QBA director of engineering wrote to Mr. Pulver upon his retirement, “I can’t imagine the industry being as advanced as it is today without calling to mind many of your contributions.”