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Sunday, January 11, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest People

The Self-Made Man -- Corporate America Does Not Have Much Room For Types Like Art Oberto, Candid In A Way That Frightens Most Managers. Then There's The Jerky Mobile.

NOTHING MAKES SENSE without first understanding that Art Oberto is lazy. Without an alarm clock, he would get up at noon. If his factory caught fire in the middle of the night, he would not expect you to wake him. That's what the fire department is for.

"I think lazy, I think simple," he says. "Get someone to do the busy work, and you can do the creative things. I always keep at least two people between me and any work that needs to be done."

He begins his days with a walk of 2.8 miles, equivalent to 116 laps around a course in his house that begins in his living room. Oberto measured it, by hand, to be exactly 136 feet. He is precise, in love with numbers and equations.

The chairman of the Oh Boy! Oberto Sausage Company loves to think he is saving space, no matter how nominal. In his home office, on his large but cluttered desktop, are two phones, stacked like bunk mates to save about 80 square inches. Oberto, 70, made the phone shelf himself out of a cardboard box, PVC tubing and a hot-glue gun. More than anything, he likes to build things.

Sink into his chair. Turn around. Look up. The ceiling-high bookcases full of videotapes, each one crudely labeled with duct tape, won't fall over, although they look like they might.

Don't throw garbage into the garbage can. It looks like a garbage can, but it's not. Not really. To Oberto, garbage is a relative term. He keeps it for five years before permanently disposing of it so he can dig through it on occasion to see if he should save anything. Sometimes he does.

He uses the multicolored pens he is fond of giving away, the ones that say, "Have Fun! Stolen From Art `Oh-Boy' Oberto." He keeps four of them in his shirt pocket. He writes in green any notes pertaining to money, in red anything urgent. In blue and black is written anything that needs to be distinguished but isn't urgent or money-related.

"He never stops thinking," said Laura Oberto, 41, Art's oldest child and the president of the company since 1991. "To him, there's always a better way to do things."

By constantly building upon what is already good enough, and by delegating to others jobs he hates to do, Art Oberto, who once delivered sausages by bicycle, built his company into a $100-million-a-year business that has become the largest producer of beef jerky in the country.

Laura was the first in the family to earn a business degree. Art took over the company at age 16 when his father died, not knowing enough to even keep proper accounting.

"Imagine," matriarch Dorothy Oberto says, "what we could have accomplished if we knew what we were doing."

CURVING AND PASTORAL, the road on a sunny afternoon looks as much as any like the path to heaven. Dorothy Oberto is driving on Lake Washington Boulevard at an easy 25 miles per hour in her Mercedes Benz sedan, contemplating the road ahead.

"When we go to the great beyond," she says, implying the afterlife, not Madison Park, where she plans to eat lunch, "it would be sad, but I think our family will either sell the company or hire outside management."

She once kept the company's books by hand, invited her kids' friends over on Sunday to help mix the spices used to process meat, lived in fact underneath her mother-in-law's house in a basement apartment attached to the Oberto factory.

Today the company is building a 100,000-square-foot warehouse next to its main plant and headquarters in Kent. It has a board of directors, consultants, public-relations agents, and considers top secret its state-of-the-art beef-jerky-processing machinery. Businesses of this scale are typically bought out by large corporations. Many times, the Obertos have been approached by prospective buyers.

The family business, in the hands of one Oberto or another since 1918, is changing fast. Once a 5-foot boning table in a 10-foot-wide room on Dearborn Street, it is now three plants in the Seattle area and one in Albany, Ore., totaling almost 6 acres of floor space.

Oberto began producing jerky 30 years ago for a customer who wanted to sell it in his bar. Today, jerky is a national product, accounting for slightly more than 50 percent of the company's product line. The rest is sausage sticks, smoked dinner sausages, dry salami, kippered beef and pickled sausages.

Easy to pack and easy to ship, jerky was the perfect product to lead expansion. In February 1995, Oberto purchased Curtice Burns Meat Snacks Inc., which produces beef jerky under the brands Smoke Craft and Lowrey's, nearly doubling sales.

Oh Boy! Oberto is still a private company, owned by the six adult members of the family whose diverging interests might ultimately dissolve the business, one of the oldest intact businesses in the city.

Art's parents, the now deceased Constantin and Antonietta, settled in a part of Seattle's Rainier Valley Art still remembers as "Garlic Gulch," a reference to the many Italian immigrants who lived there. Constantin did what he knew, which was to make sausage. He and Antonietta raised a daughter, Irma, and a son, Art.

The company history was recently the subject of a special exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry. Art Oberto's endeavors in publicity, the hydroplane his company sponsored, the Jerkymobile he drove, became cultural references in Seattle. Today at KeyArena, the Oberto logo is flashed on the big screen whenever a Seattle SuperSonic sinks a three-pointer.

If you moved to Seattle after 1985, you might not recognize Art Oberto as a hat-wearing local celebrity, star of radio and television commercials and wholesale dispenser of free pens and stickers. Seafair and its hydroplane race on Lake Washington might not seem relevant to you. As Oh Boy! Oberto moves into its corporate age, Art remains its only link to its kitschy past.

Before jerky dominated the business, the Oberto Sausage Company sold specialty meats - coppacola, pastrami, salami, linguica, rolapolsa - to small delis and grocery stores. It opened the Rainier plant in 1953 with eight employees. It was Oberto's only plant as recently as 1970, although it had grown to capacity with 80 employees. Today Oberto is the second-largest producer of meat snacks in the country, with almost 800 employees.

It is not what it used to be, nor will it ever be. It has nonetheless given the oldest Obertos, Dorothy and Art, means to a pampered retirement. It has given their two oldest children, Laura and Steve, 38, respectable careers within the company. And it has given their two bachelor sons, Larry, 35, and Jimi, 31, the funds to live out their fantasies of racing cars professionally.

While her husband has a knack for expounding, Dorothy Oberto has a knack for condensing, setting up her summations with, "Let's put it this way." It is usually followed by an easily understood axiom that is more or less the point of all conversation that has taken place in the previous 10 minutes. The most frequently uttered Dorothyism pertains to the inevitable changes brought on by time and has a few different forms: "Let's put it this way. It was a very different time." Or: "Let's put it this way, life was very different. Everything was on a smaller scale." Or: "Let's put it this way. Things have changed a lot."

CONSTANTIN OBERTO was a good sausage maker, a fair businessman and a terrible card player. He constantly gambled earnings from the business. Antonietta faithfully kept him out of debt, issuing him a promissory note each time she paid a marker. On his worst night, Constantin lost $800. By the time Constantin died, he had accumulated $10,000 of unpaid notes.

Art turned 16 on Aug. 22, 1943. His father died on Labor Day, leaving the somewhat struggling business in the hands of a family that lacked any experience making sausage. Art excelled in math, chemistry and physics but barely passed in other subjects. He thought he might be an engineer or a carpenter. Instead, he was forced to operate the business after school, supervising its staff of two employees, which was soon reduced to a staff of one, after the chief sausage maker argued with Antonietta.

Art, still too young to drive, rode his bicycle from West Seattle High School to the factory, a trip that took 20 minutes.

He was the only kid at school with an ulcer. Friends urged the family to sell the business.

"I told my mom, `Don't worry; we can run it,' " Art said. "We had no meat anyhow." Because the country was at war, meat was rationed. And a neighborhood sausage maker was the last priority. The meat inspector felt so much pity for Art, he talked other sausage makers into giving the kid some of their meat. Sympathy, if nothing else, was on Oberto's side.

Oberto spent almost nothing, putting all money back into the business. By 1953, Art and his mother had saved up enough to build a small sausage factory on Rainier Avenue. Good thing, because their shop on Dearborn had just been condemned by the city. But with the new building half-completed, and all their money spent, Art had to halt construction. He had naively believed a contractor who estimated construction costs at $45,000.

Art had to tell a 300-pound plumber he was not going to get paid, which isn't easy when said plumber is suspending you 6 inches off the ground by your collar.

Unsure of how he and his mother were going to get the place built, Art did the only thing he could do. He got married.

DOROTHY VENNETTI'S father also liked to gamble, although he preferred the horses. So even if they didn't know it yet, Art and Dorothy had something in common. They met at a dance, in a place called the Spanish Castle, a popular dance hall in the 1950s. The talkative Art chatted up the quiet Dorothy, who did her best to discourage him. Art left the dance without a name, address or phone number. But he did know she was the oldest of six kids, had sisters who were twins and shopped at a grocery store that was on his delivery route.

With only those clues, he found his future wife. The grocer knew exactly whom Art was looking for. The Vennettis, Art remembers the grocer telling him, live at the top of the hill, the father is crazy, and if you want to marry his daughter it will cost you a fifth of whiskey. All of it, Art said, turned out to be true.

Art and Dorothy honeymooned on Catalina Island, off the California coast, visiting cemeteries while the sausage factory sat unfinished. When they returned, they did the sensible thing and borrowed $40,000. To help offset the unexpected debt, they moved into Antonietta's basement, which was remodeled to livability by Dorothy's father as a wedding present. Later, the house was attached to the factory that sat on the same lot.

"We were forced to grow to make the numbers come out right," Art said. "When the numbers came out right, we outgrew the plant again."

ART OBERTO always had gimmicks. He bought a 1957 Lincoln Town Car, painted it with the company colors and logo and dubbed it the Jerky Mobile. For many years, it was his only car. Until four years ago, Oberto sponsored a piston-powered boat on the hydroplane circuit. During the Christmas season, he passed out snacks all over the city from his Oberto-decorated mobile home, the same one he let employees borrow for family vacations.

Dorothy is a match for Art's eccentricity. She commissioned a glass artist to create a 20-foot aquarium of glass fish, suspended by nylon filament, in their Leschi home. She is not above planting a 500-pound bronze buddha in the living room or posting life-size sculptures of her kids in their back yard, which fronts Lake Washington. If ever she misses how they used to play and chatter as youngsters, there they are, always, in frozen frolic.

The Obertos' basement is filled with toys of pampered childhoods, bikes, skis, an organ, a foosball table, electronic arcade games, a 7-foot gumball machine. The Obertos' wealth is obvious, but in a way that is hard to resent. Although he can certainly afford better, lunch is typically a hamburger on white bread, dressed only in iceberg lettuce, with Ovaltine to wash it down.

Art, a child of the Great Depression, certainly doesn't spend his money on clothes, dressing in plaid shirts and 30-year-old suits in shades of blue more suited to drapes. His briefcase is a plastic mesh shopping bag. His money goes toward gadgets, tape recorders, televisions, switches, relays, battery chargers. Dorothy indulges Art's soldering kits; Art indulges Dorothy's Julio Iglesias wall clock.

Corporate America does not have much room for types like Art Oberto, candid and direct in a way that frightens vice presidents and section managers. Like Tom Campanile, vice president of operations, who came from Sara Lee, Oberto's executives are not exactly the types to drive around in Jerky Mobiles.

"The Obertos are very different from your standard Fortune 500 company," Campanile said. "Quirky is a word you could use."

The company barely resembles a family business anymore, with needs that go far beyond feeding one family.

LAURA, THE MOST business-minded of Art and Dorothy's children, is capable of running the company for the foreseeable future. Steve, the second child and most like Art, worked for several years remodeling and building houses before applying his skills to design and troubleshoot machinery at his family's factories. Larry and Jimi have no interest in the business.

The oldest of the five grandchildren, Steve's daughter Cindy, 18, seems at the moment to be Laura's most logical successor. Smart past her years, familiar with the business, a freshman at Dartmouth, she seems to be more interested in science, like her grandfather. She is fastened to Seattle by e-mail, which she checks and answers constantly.

"Business is in my blood," Cindy wrote in a dispatch from New Hampshire. "As a little girl, I would tag along on all sorts of adventures. The taping of radio commercials, a trip to the plant to look at a new packaging machine, passing out stickers along the beach during the hydroplane races.

"When I spent the night at my grandparents' house, my grandfather would tuck me into bed and tell me stories explaining the concepts of supply and demand and cost accounting."

These days, Cindy is teaching Art the nuances of the Internet. Art has yet to use a computer - "I'm a slow learner," he said - but is about to give e-mail a try. His company is installing its third computer system. And his executives have requested that he use e-mail instead of the fax machine, which Art prefers.

So that he doesn't ever forget a matter he has postponed, he keeps a get-back-to box, not to be confused with his get-back-to pile. Piles are a mark of a genius, when the genius is a slob.

Another pile is what he calls important stuff. Yet another pile is the really important stuff. This pile is yesterday's lunch. The stuff in plastic bags that looks like dried meat is exactly that, experimental products, prototypes of the latest flavor of beef jerky, perhaps. Feel free to nibble on it. Rex, his son's dog, does.

As the conglomerates come shopping for Art Oberto's company, he figures the best way to avoid becoming a line in a conglomerate's checkbook is to become one yourself. And with that in mind, he discreetly hints at a business trip he is making to California. True to his style, he eschews the airplane and instead fuels the mobile home and visits the local AAA to pick up a free Triptik, worth their weight in gold, he says.

"Every move we made, we stuck our neck out," he said. "We were too stubborn to quit. We've never been happy with things being easy. I guess we were fortunate enough to have more problems than anyone else."

Hugo Kugiya is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Harley Soltes is the magazine's photographer.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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