Melvin Gordon, who led Tootsie Roll Industries on a highly successful, fiercely independent and obsessively tight-lipped journey for more than 50 years after his wife Ellen inherited the candy maker from her father, William Rubin, died Tuesday at 95. Ellen, 82, was named to succeed him as CEO and chairman in a document filed with the SEC yesterday; she is also COO of the company.
“The couple closely guarded publicly traded Tootsie Roll,” writes Laura Lorenzetti in Fortune. “They have granted extremely few interviews over the years, hold no quarterly earnings calls with analysts and release few details in the company’s mandated filings.”
Gordon managed the Chicago-based company “through a slew of successful acquisitions,” report Bob Goldsborough and Corilyn Shropshire in the Chicago Tribune. “In the process he broadened the company's product line from its eponymous single-bite treat and its sibling lollipops, Tootsie Pops, to a diversified confectioner manufacturing two dozen or so candy brands.”
Gordon changed the company's name from Sweets Co. Of America to Tootsie Roll in 1966. Yesterday, its shares “jumped more than 7% … on speculation that Mr. Gordon’s passing could bring the coveted company a step closer to a sale,” writes Ben Kesling in the Wall Street Journal. Kesling wrote an oft-cited profile of the Gordons and their enterprise in 2012.
In addition to the Tootsie Roll line of products, the company also markets such old-school brand names as Caramel Apple Pops, Child’s Play, Charms, Blow Pop, Candy Carnival, Cella’s chocolate covered cherries, Dots, Crows, Junior Mints, Junior Caramels, Charleston Chew, Sugar Daddy, Sugar Babies, Andes, Fluffy Stuff cotton candy, Dubble Bubble, Razzles, Cry Baby and Nik-L-Nip.
“Its dual-share structure, which gave the Gordons control, frustrated even the most sharp-elbowed investors, many of whom thought the company was worth more in pieces,” observes Stephanie Strom in the New York Times. “They also accused the Gordons of using company funds to support an extravagant lifestyle.”
The Gordons established a second class of stock in the 1980s, Strom reports, with each Class B share worth 10 votes to the common stock’s one vote. “The family reportedly owns more than 80% of those shares,” she writes.
Leo Hirschfield, who invented the Tootsie Roll in 1896, named it for his daughter (5-year-old Clara, his “little Tootsie"). It sold it for a penny, according to a timeline on the company website.
Gordon “celebrated the Tootsie Roll's 100th anniversary in 1996 by touring the Chicago factory with an Associated Press reporter,” reports the AP’s Carla K. Johnson. “He scooped up one of the warm, gooey candies from the assembly line and tasted it, saying: ‘There's nothing like a hot Tootsie Roll.’” He also claimed to still be eating some product that was made in 1938. “If you can't bite it when it's that old, you certainly can lick it,” he said.
Indeed, a 1914 ad carries the USP that “Tootsie Rolls stand any weather — stand any test — and sell at all times.” A more colorful 1918 ad features troops returning from WWI; we’re told in the timeline copy that the company has always “supported America’s troops.” By 1920 the tagline “Making the World Sweeter” evidently justified a bump to two cents.
By the Forties, big-named celebrities such as Gene Autry were touting the candy. One of the most popular crooners of the day was apparently signed to a long-term deal. “It is said that Frank Sinatra's favorite candy was the Tootsie Roll and he was even buried with them,” according to the entry for 1942. By the ’50s, the company was sponsoring children’s shows on the new medium of television and advertising in mass-circulation magazines such as Life.
The company moved from the New Jersey to Chicago in 1968. Mr. Owl — @MrOwl on Twitter — first attempted to find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of Tootsie Pop in 1970. Gordon began his acquisition spree with Mason Dots and Crows in 1972. The last timeline entry, for 2008, heralds the company “[joining] the World of Social Media on August 26th, 2008. With a You Tube Channel, Multiple Brand Pages on Facebook and Twitter, Tootsie Roll has expanded into Pinterest as well as Instagram and continues to expand its reach.”
The couple was married for 65 years. In addition to Ellen, Gordon is survived by “their four daughters and their spouses, six grandchildren, “a large extended family, and many friends and colleagues,” according to the statement on the SEC site.