It's refreshing and unexpected when the CEO of a major corporation is down to earth and a darnn nice guy. That's what we found with Greg Simko, CEO of US Playing Card, which is a 138-year-old company and the largest playing card maker in the world.
Born and raised in the small 500-people-town of East Millstone, just outside of New Brunswick, NJ, Simko says his childhood was just like the "Little Rascals." His father was Captain of the volunteer fire department and a retail florist. They even set up boxing rings in the middle of town. Growing up Greg was an allaround boy who loved fishing, camping, and skiing.
Simko started playing cards with his aunt, Alma, who lived on the way home from his two-room school. Her husband was a traveling salesman, and he would stop by to keep her company. She first taught him Michigan Rummy and Gin.
"I'm one lucky florist from New Jersey," says Simko, "I worked in the florist business until I went to business school at 26. I even did my wife's wedding flowers."
Greg Simko went to Boston College and then earned his MBA at Harvard. Before coming to USPC, Greg worked for a leveraged buyout firm where he said they did, "friendly transactions, from willing sellers. We were more builders than raiders."
When we asked him what was responsible for his move to USPC, he simply responded, "Luck. It was a matter of networking. When the position became open, my hat was thrown in the ring."
At the top of his list of enjoyable pastimes is playing tournament poker. In fact, Simko played in a recent World Poker Tour celebrity invitational at the Commerce in LA, where he got about half way through the field before being knocked out by Dan Harrington. (Simko had previously won a World Poker Tour Invitational tournament.)
Simko is not the only executive at USPC who plays the game. Their Chief Operating Officer, Jason Lockwood, chalked up a 7th place finish in the same Commerce event. Jason was all in holding A, K up against the 2000 World Champion Chris "Jesus" Ferguson who picked up a straight on the river.
Simko says, "Poker is the game of the people. For children . . . it's great for them to play with one another. It's not like video games. It's social. It is so wonderful to see kids playing hold'em on the bus. It they are in your house playing cards, you know where they are. It sharpens their math skills . . . it's all about betting strategy and learning about other people."
When in Vegas, Greg likes the $100 and $200 buy in No Limit Hold'em cash games. He also enjoys the Bicycle and Commerce in LA. He even plays at work. After their board meetings, they have tournaments. At a national operations group Christmas party, they had a poker tournament. In February 2004 when Jarden bought USPC, after their closing dinner, the top management team had a poker tournament. And they even had a tournament for their original shareholders. All, No Limit Hold'em, of course!
Today, everyone agrees that US Playing Card's tremendous increase in sales, up 400%, is directly related to the world's obsession with poker. But, when did Simko know that the face of poker was changing? He says he remembers the moment.
One evening Greg was watching one of the earlier segments of the World Poker Tour. His wife, Tracy, came into the room and sat down for a moment. Soon she said, "I can't believe he's going all in on a 6,9 offsuit." Greg said, "At that moment I knew we needed to get the license for the World Poker Tour products . . . especially if it could catch the interest of my wife."
When we asked Greg Simko where US Playing Card was going in the future, he said, "Grow through new product lines. I'm kind of a steward in this business. I want to tell your readers to buy our cards because they are made in the USA. We need to keep jobs here in the US."
"We have 550 jobs here at our facility. We have a lot of people working here for 30 and 40 years. We do everything we can to keep our products here.
"Real high-end poker chips made in the US run $1 a piece. Theirs are 10 cents each. Yes, they are clay, but there's clay, and then there's clay.
"When you feel the chips we make, they feel good. Doyle Brunson says our chips are 'over the top'."
Over the years United States Playing Cards has contributed to America's military efforts. One of the most significant contributions was a special "Escape Route" deck the company produced during World War II. When soaked in water, you could remove the faces of the cards to reveal a map with escape routes out of Germany. During Vietnam, at the request of the US government, USPC produced and shipped thousands of decks containing only the Ace of Spades. Since the Viet Cong were very superstitious and frightened by this Ace, the cards were deliberately scattered in the jungle and in hostile villages during raids causing may Viet Cong to flee at the sight of them.
One last word from Greg Simko, "We could make our cards cheaper in China, but we don't choose to go that way. The U.S. needs a middle class!"