The Philly Case Company

Mike Wharton • Company SpotlightDecember 2018 • December 7, 2018

Vinny Barbati, his wife Mary Ann, daughter Theresa and the Philly Case employee family.

For over 75 years, Philly Case Company has been building custom shipping cases in South Philadelphia, PA. With its long history of operation under family ownership, the company is a picture of how the great American dream is still attainable with the right attitude and perseverance, and people.

‡‡         Origins

Now one of the nation’s leading case manufacturers with millions in annual sales, Vinny Barbati and his wife Mary Ann grew today’s Philly Case Company out of what had started out as a very humble venture — the Philadelphia Fiber Case Company, which launched in 1989 with 500 square feet and no customers.

For Vinny, the fledgling company was an extension of the family business with even deeper roots — his uncle and grandfather’s trunk-making factory, where he went to work at age 15.

“We lived in a predominantly Italian neighbor in South Philly,” Barbati says. “My father ran a little grocery store, and the family lived above it. My aunt and uncle lived just three doors away from us, and I had to go live with them when my dad passed away from a massive heart attack. I was 13 at the time. Now my uncle and his father, they owned a little trunk-making shop, and it was decided I should start working with them. I wanted to be out running the streets, but they wouldn’t have any of that,” laughs Barbati.

“Everything they threw at me I just picked up almost naturally,” he says, “and since we needed the money, I dropped out of high school and stayed working with my uncle until I was about 19.”

‡‡         A Stint on the Docks

Barbati landed a job as a longshoreman at Philadelphia Waterfront but continued to help out his uncle and grandfather back at the factory whenever the docks slowed down. His uncle retired and closed the factory in 1986. Then, there was a sharp downturn at the docks, and suddenly, “I don’t have a job, and I only know how to load a ship,” says Vinny.

He found work at the convention center building tradeshow displays. “Now, I made thousands of cases and trunks with my uncle, but I never knew who used that stuff. Finally, at the convention center I see everything is coming in, in cases and crates. I said to myself, ‘these are the people that use this stuff!’”

He went home to his wife that night in 1989 and told her, “I’m starting a business.” With a little pension money and small loan against the house, Barbati opened Philly Case in the basement of an old South Philadelphia rowhouse, with no machinery, no customers and just an idea.

“Mr. Nick Defrancesco, our landlord, was quite a character,” recalls Vinny, “He was your big cigar-chomping guy who always had something up his sleeve. He showed me this great space, that had all kinds of room, and I told him, I don’t have any money, I’m trying to start a business, I can’t afford something like this.”

He says, ‘Come with me, kid,’ and he walks me down this long flight of steps down a hallway, turns on a light and says, ‘I’ll put ya in here for 250 bucks a month. If you don’t make it here, kid, you’re not gonna make it.”

“He also said to me at that time ‘Just remember I helped you, and if anybody ever needs help, I want you to help ‘em,” says Barbati. “I’ve never forgot it, and kept my promise.”

“I had to put planks down on the steps to rope down the machines, but we made it work. There wasn’t much money then. I can remember looking on the floor of my van, trying to scrounge enough money for the bridge toll on my way into work.”

‡‡         Decades of Growth

During the next 10 years, business improved on a steady basis and Barbati bought two companies. He purchased one of them, Power Industries, in 1996, and it brought in another three to five hundred customers from the exhibit industry. “It seems like I always got just enough jobs that paid the bills,” says Vinny, “and then one day, I showed up, and I just didn’t have to worry about paying the bills anymore. There was even a little bit of money left over for me!”

The next company Barbati bought was an ATA company. At one time, Philly Case was one of their biggest customers. Keeping his promise to his old landlord, Barbati also brought along most of the staff. This purchase opened the door to the lighting and video entertainment fields for Barbati. They also did a tremendous amount of work in music industry, for drummers, musicians, magicians and instrument cases in general. Philly Case has provided cases for the Super Bowl champs — the Philadelphia Eagles — plus Apple, Unisys, Tony Bennett, Grover Washington and the Philadelphia Orchestra, to name a few. And they are still one of only companies in the country that carry all three lines of cases in house — ATA, lightweight poly and roto-molded.

“Hey, I knocked on a lot of doors, ya know!”

‡‡         The Company Today

The Philly Case Company now resides in a 30,000-square-foot warehouse at 2409 South Water Street, Philadelphia, PA, and continues to serve a diverse array of clients in the live entertainment, lighting, video and trade show industries. “With my daughter Theresa coming into the business, we are now a fourth-generation family business,” says Vinny. “Now we’re just looking forward to jumping into the 21st century.”

Vinny also feels that if he started another company with the employees he has, he would be successful with them, in whatever business it was. “My people are the best, from the girls in the office to the fabricators and designers. I did not do this alone, however — my customers are the ones that make it happen.

“It’s really been a Cinderella story,” Vinny adds. “Quite honestly, I have been given more than I ever dreamed of as a kid. If I had to plan my life with all the ups and downs; the tragedies and the triumphs- I couldn’t a wrote it any better than it is right now. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I met the girl who is my wife when I was 13 years old, and you know how they say behind every great man is a great woman, well I always tell her you wasn’t behind me, you was always right by my side. Wow — life is good!”

For more information, go to www.phillycase.com.

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