I was recently checking up on one of my favourite CEOs/founders, Melvin Gordon, who headed up Tootsie Roll Industries, and was saddened to discover he passed away earlier this year at the age of 95. Melvin was the oldest CEO on the NYSE and retained a commitment to the vintage ethos of his 116-year-old candy company, eschewing buyouts through all manner of economic climates.
It’s a business model that is more of a rarity now than ever, so it was with great delight that I chanced upon an article about Edward Dee and the Smarties Candy Company.
Smarties has recently turned 65, and its founder and CEO Edward Dee still comes to the office – aged 91! Mr Dee’s business was always known as Ce De Candy, before being renamed ‘Smarties’ in 2011, after its most famous product. On this side of the channel ‘Smarties’ usually means the colourful Nestle chocolate buttons, but the hard-pressed fizzy candies made by the Dee family in Union, New Jersey, have been American staples since the late 40s.
And business is still thriving! The factory now has a second site in Canada, where the candies are marketed as ‘Rockets’. The company is now run primarily by Edward Dee’s two granddaughters, Liz Dee and Jessica Dee Sawyer, and their cousin, Sarah Dee. Not to mention two of Mr Dee’s sons, Jonathan and Michael, who are president and executive vice president of Smarties today. It’s an old-fashioned business structure, and it’s fascinating to hear a young, smart generation so keen to preserve it! The young Dee women describe being born with the business in their blood in a manner as nostalgic as the company’s products themselves.
What I had never quite realised is just how closely Mr Dee’s company is connected to its British counterpart, Swizzels Matlow. The fizzy tablet-shaped confectionary is shared by the companies, and so is a family sweet-making history dating back to the 30s. Edward’s brother David Dee joined forces with the Matlow brothers to manufacture the first Smarties-style sweet, ‘Fizzers’, in 1933. Edward Dee’s Ce De Candy wasn’t founded until 1949, when he emigrated to the States.
Swizzels Matlow is now most famous for Love Heart sweets, retro favourites first launched in 1954. Love Hearts are now a British icon – boasting messages from the predictable (‘I Love You’) to the markedly antiquated (‘Canny Lad’) to the slightly contrary (‘Too Much’) – which family members still take responsibility for coining. The company is, incredibly, still run by members of both the Dee and Matlow families. Whilst reading up on the Dee legacy I came across a Telegraph article from a few years ago, running a remarkably similar story to the New York Times, describing the family management and historic backdrop of Swizzels Matlow.
Both Smarties Candy Company and Swizzels Matlow are centred primarily around a single factory, both have passed the business down through generations, and both – of course – originated in the same generation of the same family. Edward and David Dee have created and developed a product that has found its way into British and American cultural history with equal tenacity.
I find these kinds of steadfastly traditional, family-oriented, businesses compelling because we now live in a world where they seem almost impossible to sustain successfully. Yet both these companies are doing well, have happy, dedicated employees and maintain an appeal that seems to have stood the test of time.
I have found myself beginning to wonder if these companies are testament to product streamlining as much as they are to keeping things in the family. Neither business has branched out far from the original pressed fizzy tablet, despite having a range of products, and both claim to have hardly changed their recipes since inception. For the child within us all, the Dee family dynasties are a reminder that for some the childhood ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ dream might just live on.
Did you grow up with either Smarties or Swizzels? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and have a fantastic weekend.