Owner and CEO of Pacific Bag talks business, bags, and Malvern
When you sit down to talk with alumnus Mark Howley ’78, it’s clear from the start that he is passionate about his career.
“I love bags,” the CEO of Pacific Bag Inc. said. “It’s a pretty weird statement to make. I don’t think I ever would’ve said that when I was a younger man, but as I’ve gotten more involved in the industry, it’s become my passion.”
Howley’s company, Pacific Bag, is based in Woodinville, Washington, just outside of Seattle. He holds a patent on a type of valve used in the coffee bags his company manufactures.
“If you drink coffee, there’s a little belly button thing in the bag. If you press the bag and smell something comes out of that valve, I’m one of about three patent holders in the country [for that valve],” Howley said.
Howley says that the valve has allowed his company to get into the high-end coffee market.
“We sell flexible packaging into the coffee, pet food, and gourmet food segments of the market. In short we sell bags, throughout the country and the world,” he said.
Pacific Bag sells to 5,000 small to medium sized coffee roasters in 60 countries, according to Howley. The bags are also used for pet food, specialty food, and natural food products, mostly for smaller specialty or regional companies.
“There’s an enormous amount of technology in it, everything from design through overall performance through price. I’ve gotten to know all of the different people in different disciplines, and that intrigues me. It’s intellectually challenging, and socially enjoyable,” he said.
Howley noted that he enjoys sales, but that there’s more to it for him than just the act of making a sale. “I have always liked to sell, but what I like more is to have somebody trust me,” he said. “It’s a very satisfying feeling when you build a reputation as being somebody that’s trustworthy… that makes me feel good. I get excited, and motivated.”
Howley moved to Seattle after working for another company for 13 years. He says he left that job in pursuit of a new opportunity.
“It so happened that [opportunity] was in packaging, and then I got a job with a company out in Seattle, Pacific Bag, the company I own now. But I started in my basement in Broomall, PA at the age of 38 after working for this larger company,” he said. “That evolved into moving to Seattle, which was a real crazy different culture.”
Howley says that when he initially moved out to Seattle, Pacific Bag was, unbeknownst to him, in dire financial straits.
“I thought for about a year that I was going to be packing my bags and getting home with my tail between my legs and my fourth daughter,” he said. “That was nasty, it was very unpleasant, and getting through that as I look back was that critical moment. I didn’t like the fear, I didn’t like the sense of not knowing what was next. But I persevered and it worked out.”
He said that the experience taught him an important lesson. “When things are bad, keep getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. That really is your only choice, other than giving up, and I didn’t want to do that,” he said.
Now 57, Howley said he isn’t entirely sure himself how his journey in life took him to Seattle, or to the packaging industry.
“I’m still trying to figure that out. I speak about this to young professionals and younger kids, I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to do, I really didn’t,” he said. “I got a job in packaging, and it didn’t take long before I wanted to do well at it. At that point, it wasn’t so much what it was, it was just that the opportunity was in front of me and [that I needed to] perform and do my best.”
He said that he doubled down on his efforts once he realized that he could support his family with a career in the industry.
“I eventually became extremely passionate when I started to see some of the rewards and started to gain reputation, and that was a good feeling. It made me feel good about myself, and I liked it, so I kept doing it,” he said.
Long before his tenure at Pacific Bag, Howley grew up in Havertown, attending Waldron Mercy Academy until he entered Malvern as a freshman.
“I was the fourth boy in my family to go to Malvern. When I was younger my father was the chairman of the board,” he said. “I always thought of myself as that I would be going to Malvern, that’s just what boys in our family did.”
Math was his favorite subject, and he remembers Fr. Flynn’s Geometry as his favorite class.
“I tended to enjoy math because mentally it came to me. I didn’t always do really well at it, but I liked the discipline of it,” he said. “Geometry was a new idea, and it took me awhile to get my head around geometry, but then I was kind of like ‘oh, that’s kind of cool.’ It wasn’t algebra, it was a whole new way of looking at solving things.”
When Howley was a student, College Counselor and English Teacher Mr. Richard Roper was new to the school. “I thought he was a little quirky, but came to find him to be somebody that we all really got to know, so I started to enjoy those classes, against what I thought I would like,” he said.
While at Malvern, Howley was a multisport athlete, including playing football for three and lacrosse for four years.
“Lacrosse was my love. My older brother had been quite good at it so I had that leg up. While I was there our team went from stinky to ultimately winning the Inter-Ac [championship], which at the time believe it or not for you younger people was very exciting in 1978 for all of us,” he said. “The group of guys around me, the coach, it was just awesome, an awesome experience that made me proud of being from Malvern when that happened.”
Of all the schools that he went to, Howley says that Malvern had the strongest impact on him as a person.
“It set the tone,” he said. “I went through some tough times in my mid 20s, some trouble, and the messages that I learned [at Malvern] were many times the only thing I was holding onto. College was wonderful, but it never had the [same] impact.”
He also accredits Malvern as the source of his inquisitiveness. “I think that [Malvern] taught me about the Catholic religion, but I never felt like I was restricted in thinking outside of the box, arguing outside of the box, challenging my faith, [or] challenging what I believed,” he said.
Howley said that Malvern has undergone significant changes since his time as a student, including being on much more stable footing. During his freshman year at Malvern, the school nearly closed. He said that he remembered a lot of focus on trying to keep the school financially afloat.
“Some kids had to leave because it was the one year where [the school] took tuition up a lot. There was a lot of heartache for people who were getting financial aid and then couldn’t get it,” Howley said. “As a young man, I wasn’t thinking about it so much, but parents were concerned, families were concerned, so you knew it.”
He is grateful that the school has survived and thrived since then.
“There’s guys that graduated with me with whom I’ve never lost touch. I know where they are right now, and not only that but I’ve probably spoken to them in the last two or three months, that’s a very strong bond,” he said.
Nowadays, Howley keeps what little free time he has occupied with different hobbies. He enjoys history, mountain biking, and travel. According to Pacific Bag’s website, Howley has visited over 100 packaging companies throughout the world, and he says he enjoys the experience of visiting different places.
“My business has taken me to different cultures; China, Vietnam, Bangkok, India, Eastern Europe, and it’s a pain in the butt travelling, but I love the experience,” he said. “It opens my mind, and I find that we are so different yet so alike. There’s a lot of people living a tough life out there, and they’re not all miserable. There’s some people that live without much money and some seem to be able to find happiness in their lives.”
Howley advised Malvern’s current students to be humble, hardworking, and honest with themselves.
“Try and realize that as you reach new stages of your life that you’re new at it, and that you need to learn, and there’s nothing wrong with having to learn,” he said. “In fact if you’re eager to learn and you’re humble about it, you’ll find a lot of people want to help.”
“You just have to work hard if you want to enjoy anything … whatever it is, you’re going to have to work hard,” he added.
“Lastly, be honest. I don’t mean telling somebody that they are ugly, that’s being mean, that’s not being honest,” he said. “I mean being honest with yourself. We need help, and many people think that asking for help is a weakness, and I don’t think so. Be humble, work hard, be honest.
Howley also shared what he thinks students should know about the world and life beyond Malvern.
“It’s really cool, that’s what I would say. If somebody told me when I walked out of Malvern, ‘you’re going to be living in Seattle, owning your own business, you’ll be the father of five girls and you’ll marry a girl from Lower Merion,’ I would’ve said, ‘I’m sorry, I think you’ve got a different person’s life, that’s not going to be me,’” he said.
“I couldn’t have begun to imagine where I am now when I was 30 as to where the twists and turns would take me. All of the bad stuff is worth it when you get into the good stuff,” he said. “There are great moments out there, don’t lose sight of that.”