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The story behind Uline, the packaging powerhouse whose reclusive billionaire owners use their fortune to influence American politics

Insider Inc.   

The story behind Uline, the packaging powerhouse whose reclusive billionaire owners use their fortune to influence American politics
  • Uline is the leading distributor of packing materials and industrial supplies in North America.
  • The company was founded in 1980 by Liz and Dick Uihlein, who run it today with their three children.

It's not something most people stop to notice, but next time you buy something — online, in-store, anywhere really — take a look at the words printed on the packaging that carried your purchase.

Whether it's a cardboard box, paper or plastic bag, envelope, take-out container, or any number of other things that soon make their way to the recycling bin, there's a strong likelihood you'll see one name more than any other: Uline.

Uline is a leading distributor of packing materials and industrial supplies in North America. The company provides the essential (and often invisible) products that small and large businesses need every day, and it rakes in an estimated $6.1 billion in sales per year, according to Forbes.

Just as Uline's name is likely stamped on the bottom of your Amazon shipment, a copy of its 850-page catalog is likely floating around the backroom of almost every restaurant, store, and office in the country.

Of course, Uline wasn't always so ubiquitous.

Every company has to start somewhere, and for Uline, that beginning was 1980 in the Illinois basement of Dick and Liz Uihlein.

'One of the neatest little tools I'd ever seen'

Dick Uihlein, the great-grandson of Schlitz beer's co-founder, grew up in a family of Chicago businessmen and went to Stanford, where he met and married Liz.

After college, Dick worked for his father's company for a few years until one day he got his hands on a tool called a carton sizer, used for trimming cardboard boxes down to custom fits.

"It was one of the neatest little tools I'd ever seen," he told the National Review.

Dick was so impressed that he left his job and got a loan from his dad to start a business with Liz selling carton sizers out of their home. (Uline still sells the product today – model number H-101 for $17 each.)

Bit by bit, the Uihleins added more packing supplies to their selection and slashed delivery times to the minimum — a decade before Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.

"Answer the phone faster than 911," a company saying goes.

The company's catalog got thicker and distribution centers popped up across North America. Uline currently has 13 distribution centers, and its corporate headquarters is in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin.

"It's weird to develop a love of corrugated boxes and shipping supplies, but I really enjoy it," Liz told the Milwaukee BizTimes in 2020.

As the Uihleins expanded their business, they also tapped their vast wealth – currently estimated at $3.7 billion each, per Forbes – to grow their political influence in support of far-right-wing candidates and causes.

Spending big to push US politics farther right

The couple were major donors to former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and current Senator Ron Johnson, and gave roughly $6 million to funds connected to Donald Trump during the 2016 and 2002 election cycles.

Their family foundation also gave more than $5 million to groups that disputed or worked to challenge the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.

Most recently, the Uihleins have thrown their financial heft behind the presidential campaign of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and the American Principles Project, which opposes abortion rights, critical race theory, and transgender rights.

Dick is also the largest financial supporter of the main group that backed an Ohio ballot measure, Issue 1, that would have made it harder to amend the state constitution and serve as a "defense against out-of-state meddling." The Uihleins live in Illinois.

All told, their giving to federal candidates and causes has topped $230 million over the past decade, Politico reported, citing campaign finance records.

A conservative company culture

The Uihleins' involvement in national politics isn't the only thing that has landed the family in the spotlight, though. In 2021, ProPublica reported that Uline, which is still privately held, had some notably conservative and strict office policies.

The company did not respond to multiple requests from Insider to comment on this story.

Employees at the company's offices are required to follow exacting standards around their attire and workstations at the risk of losing their jobs, per a handbook obtained by ProPublica.

Desks may have no more than four personal decorations, sized 5x7 inches or smaller, and all notes and Post-it labels are to be removed at the end of each day, the handbook said.

The dress code prohibits skirts or dresses that are "too short," tops that are "too revealing," and bans denim, corduroy, and flannel.

One employee in a company video describes the dress code as "fair trade" for the perks he enjoys at the office: "It's clean, it's bright, it's got great food, and all I've gotta do to get that is wear a tie."

'We feel that we should speak up'

Liz Uihlein also uses her office as company president to host town-hall meetings with conservative leaders and pen letters published in the Uline catalog celebrating former presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, and warning about the decline of America.

Liz told the BizTimes in 2020 that her and Dick's political activities have cost the company some sales, but she said, "we feel that we should speak up."

"I believe the best thing you can give somebody is a job, not a government handout," she added.

The pandemic boom in e-commerce helped Uline's sales surge by 14% to $6.5 billion in 2020, and they were projected to top $7 billion in 2021, per a memo obtained by ProPublica.

The Uihleins' daughter Freddy and sons Brian and Duke, all now work for the company, which they are set to inherit through a "dynasty trust" that Dick initially established in 2004.

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