The Nalbach Group is a diversified organization consisting of four companies: Nalbach Engineering, Container Handling Systems Corp (CHSC), Chicago Metal Fabricators, and Ability Metal. Each business brings unique offerings—from custom built turnkey packaging machinery and conveying systems to metal fabrication and contract manufacturing for a vast array of industries, including construction, aerospace, rail, defense, food & beverage, nutraceuticals, pet care, and medical industries. According to company executives, this mixed bag of specialized products and services provides a one-stop-shop for custom automation machinery and fabricated components.
OEM magazine recently interviewed Nalbach Group CEO Matt Nalbach, the grandson of company founder John R. Nalbach. The conversation focused specifically on the two OEM businesses that currently share a 250,000 sq-ft facility in Countryside, IL: Nalbach Engineering, which offers filler machines and bottle unscramblers, as well as system integration for turnkey packaging lines; and conveying system and depalletizing provider CHSC.
But before unpackaging all that the two OEM divisions offer, it’s helpful to understand the history of the organization—which earned its reputation for quality and performance in the design and manufacturing of filling machines over 75 years ago.
“My grandfather kicked the whole thing off in the 1930s as a consulting engineer, and then in the 1940s he and a couple of partners incorporated into the John R. Nalbach Engineering Company,” explains Nalbach.
The year was 1945 when John Nalbach was commissioned to design and build a high speed machine for filling Cameo Cleanser scouring powder. That machine design was later picked up by other familiar CPGs, including Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Unilever, to name a few. By 1954 the burgeoning business needed its own manufacturing facility. So John R. Nalbach Engineering moved out of the city and opened its own factory in Cicero, Illinois.
“In the early 1960s we branched into food packaging when we got a contract with Nestle to fill their instant coffee, which at that time was a new product. We made a very simple machine for them and they standardized on our equipment with installations all over the world,” Nalbach says, noting that within the Nestle organization, the executives and workforce would never refer to the systems as simply “filling machines,” rather, they were always identified specifically as “Nalbachs.” This was testament to the power of the brand.
The deal with Nestle was the tipping point for the company’s shift from a general engineering firm to the packaging business. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In the early 1970s, Matt’s father, John C. “Jack” Nalbach, joined his father’s company. An engineer and innovator with a number of patents to his name, Jack grew the organization through the strategic acquisitions of several local contract manufacturing companies over a 20-to-30 year time period.
During that time, Jack was renowned as an important inventor, not only at the company, but in the industry as a whole. “His original patents go back to the early 1970s when plastic bottles were really starting to take off in the industry,” Nalbach says of his father. “He had an early start in that, and we were successful in using our patents to keep a lot of the competition out of the United States for a number of years.”
Jack graduated from Purdue University (BSME) and from Columbia University (MBA). After serving with the Navy in Vietnam, the young engineer soon began working for his father’s company. After nearly 25 years in research and development, Jack was promoted to president of Nalbach Engineering in 1994, where he continued to grow the company which ultimately expanded to become the Nalbach Group.
One shining example of innovation within Nalbach Engineering extends beyond the well-known fillers to the high-speed bottle unscrambling equipment. The company currently offers four different types of bottle unscramblers and Jack was the inventor of three of those machines, including the NECOSORT-III, which is a product he developed with Matt in 2005. “It is the world’s fastest bottle unscrambler that can go up to speeds of 1,400 bpm, which is blazingly fast,” Nalbach states.
They worked with a Nestle division, Nestle Waters, on this machine during a huge growth period of the bottled water segment. Nestle had partnered with an Italian company at the time for unscrambling bottles, but they weren’t satisfied. Jack and Matt convinced the CPG to give them a chance. Nalbach Engineering did not disappoint.
“They were a patron of sorts to allow us to develop this for them, and it was really successful,” Nalbach says. “And then we were able to sell it to other companies as well, because it wasn’t an exclusive arrangement. But it is always that first one that’s hard to get.”
The father and son team continued to work side-by-side in business with Matt moving from vice president of engineer to president of Nalbach Engineering in 2011, where he held that role until being appointed CEO of Nalbach Group in 2022—the same year he lost his father.
Jack Nalbach passed away in January of 2022 leaving a legacy of machine innovations that have helped to shape the packaging industry.
The legacy lives on
After graduating with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Iowa in 1992, Matt did not join the family business right away. His first engineering role was with a company in Kansas City that made construction equipment. “It was a big departure from packaging equipment, but it was great to get out on my own and do something a little different,” Nalbach says.
In 1996, he came back to Chicago and joined the family business as a project engineer for about six months before he was promoted to chief engineer reporting to his father who was president of the company. His father retired in 2010, which is when Matt took over as president of Nalbach Engineering—while Jack remained on in a consultant role.
Then, a few years ago, they brought Pat Vincent, with over 30 years of experience in the industry, to lead Nalbach Engineering and CHSC as president of both divisions, which are both based in a facility in Countryside, Ill. This allowed Matt to step back to oversee the whole Nalbach Group—which he is currently in the midst of repositioning. With all of the acquisitions over the years, Nalbach Group has consolidated several different companies into four. And it is currently rebranding to reflect the new streamlined approach.
To that end, over the past few years, Nalbach Group has been integrating Nalbach Engineering and CHSC a bit more in order to provide turnkey services. “We can build the entire front end of a line up to whatever is after the filling machine, and we can build it all in our factory, put it all together, and take responsibility for the whole thing,” Nalbach says, noting that the “single point of blame” is something that most of its competition can’t do.
Innovation, Nalbach says, comes from customer cues and relying on the OEM’s sales team to pay attention to what they need. Once they understand the customer needs, Nalbach can build it. One of the company’s strengths is the fact that it does not stock machines, everything is custom built, so they rely on the personal connection with customers.
In addition, because the sister companies are comprised of a machine shop and metal fabrication company, it allows the OEM to have access to state of the art, highly automated machine tools, laser cutters, and all the newest technology. “So we as an OEM can focus on where our value-add is, which is in the people and the engineering and the connection to our customers, rather than the technology we use to create our parts.”
The Nalbach Group is in a good place because it’s a diversified organization that can benefit from what’s going on in different industry segments outside of packaging. In addition, the group is currently experiencing the biggest backlog of jobs in the history of the organization.
So the company is leveraging that stability to take the time and look inward, focusing on what inefficiencies and redundancies exist in the office or in the manufacturing facility. “What I’m doing now is encouraging everybody to look at the processes that they are involved in and decide how key they are to continue,” Nalbach explains.
This “leaning out” effort will position the company to succeed no matter what happens in the future.
“If anything is going to keep me up at night, it is the uncertainty of what is going to happen next with the economy. With all of the potential wild cards out there, and people talking about recessions coming—or maybe not—nobody really knows what’s coming. We are positioning ourselves to face whatever does come next.”
This effort will also benefit its outward-facing business model. Ideally, Nalbach Group continues to develop products and services that allow them to choose the jobs that they pursue to ensure success vs. taking risks. This focused approach also fosters a collaborative culture with customers.
“So much of what we do is as much about the personal relationships and connections and trust as it is the technology itself,” Nalbach says. “We are engineers, we can build a machine to your specifications, but you have to trust that we know how to do that. And we have to trust [the customer] that we’re going to get everything that we need from them.”