Tucked away in the southeast corner of North Carolina, Tabor City prides itself as the “yam capital of the world.” But there’s another staple in this town of 2,500 people: Atlantic Packaging Corp., a family-owned company that stood up to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and has gone on to become a national leader in its industry.
During its 70-plus-year relationship with the community of Tabor City, Atlantic has become the town’s largest employer. It has also taken on many roles: weekly newspaper, furniture seller, commercial printer, and, most recently, packaging.
“From the outside looking in, it really is fairly illogical that we do as many diverse things as we do,” said Rusty Carter, Atlantic’s CEO. “But when this little newspaper was started by my dad in 1946, we had our own printing capabilities, and that gave us access to do commercial printing, too — creating letterheads, business cards, wedding invitations, and menus for local residents and businesses.”
An entrepreneurial spirit
Atlantic Packaging’s embrace of corporate citizenship, coupled with an uncanny ability to evolve, has contributed to its standing today as a national leader in shipping and packaging solutions.
The company was founded by W. Horace Carter, who published the first edition of The Tabor City Tribune on July 6, 1946. Over the next 30 years, he would expand the company’s focus several times before passing control to his son, Rusty, in 1974.
Billy Vaught, who recently celebrated his 46th year with the company, recalled, “When I first started at Atlantic, we had less than 20 employees, and everybody did everything — we were in the warehouse, the printing department, bookkeeping, the front office, the newspaper. We did it all.”
As the years progressed, the company continued its evolution, adding office supplies and furniture sales for a period before finally finding its niche as a provider of customized shipping and packaging solutions for some of the largest manufacturers across North America.
Vaught, who is the last of Atlantic’s more than 900 current employees to be hired by the company’s founder, credits Rusty Carter for orchestrating the success that is today’s Atlantic Packaging Corp.
“Mr. Carter was kind of a hands-on guy. He expected a lot, but he gave a lot,” said Vaught. “Rusty was kind of different. Rusty is a visionary, and he has continuously taken us to the next level and always has given us the resources we needed to be successful doing so.”
That vision for success is no doubt one that the son learned from his father in the early days of the company, while editing and printing the Tabor City Tribune — and looking for ways to take Atlantic beyond the newspaper business.
The power of the pen
When Horace Carter began publishing The Tabor City Tribune, he was hoping to create a platform to keep the community connected through a weekly newspaper. A few years later, unfortunately, he found that the community was increasingly subjected to the outlandish and violent acts of the Ku Klux Klan.
The 29-year-old editor used the greatest tools he had to combat the Klan’s actions against local citizens: his words and his newspaper.
The Tribune, along with another local paper, The News Reporter in Whiteville, North Carolina, began a four-year campaign against the Klan and its violent actions; Carter himself would pen more than 100 stories and editorials on the subject.
Carter and The News Reporter’s editor, Willard Cole, received numerous threats over those years, but their vocal opposition of the Klan eventually led to an FBI investigation — and the arrests and convictions of more than 250 Klansmen.
The two newspapers were awarded the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service “for their successful campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, waged on their own doorstep at the risk of economic loss and personal danger, culminating in the conviction of over one hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities.”
Following the Pulitzer Prize announcement, Carter appeared on Edward R. Murrow’s CBS program “See it Now” in 1953 and explained why he risked so much in taking such a public stance against the Klan.
“No group of people has the right to inflict their type of justice on any individual. … We have freedom of fear and this was trying to run our community in a lawless type way … and that’s not our philosophy on the way that life should be lived in America,” he said.
Carter would continue to run the Tribune for another 20 years — along the way helping to expand the business that encompasses today’s Atlantic Packaging Corp. — before retiring to Florida to fish and write books about the outdoors.
“Somewhere, probably in the early ’90s, it became obvious to us in leadership that Atlantic needed to expand its borders and grow beyond North Carolina,” said Rusty Carter, “but we understood that finding a strong financial partner who believed in us and was confident in the vision of Atlantic was vital to that. We could not have begun to move from that small company to the company we are today without the strong support of Wells Fargo.”
Horace Carter returned to Tabor City in the 1990s, once again editing and writing for the paper until his death in 2009.
His family’s company continues to evolve. Atlantic recently opened a new Packaging Solution Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it’s tapping into the science behind packaging and using this knowledge and data to create proven solutions for its customers.
Yet no matter the heights of success, Atlantic’s roots remain connected to the small-town values that have existed since that first newspaper rolled off the printing press in Tabor City more than 70 years ago.
The newspaper, now called the Tabor-Loris Tribune, still remains under the control of the Atlantic Packaging Corp.
“Yes indeed, we still do publish a newspaper every Wednesday,” Rusty Carter said. “It’s how we started. Everything evolved from my father’s culture was conveyed in that newspaper back in the ’50s, and its shadow is long. And it still casts itself over a lot of what we do today. We’re very proud of it.”