Zippo: The first name in flame
The company that makes the iconic cigarette lighter, famous around the world, is still owned by the family of the inventor and based in a small Pennsylvania town.
By Hedda T. Schupak
Bradford, Pa., is not a place where one would expect an international icon to be made. It’s located about 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, near the New York border, where the landscape is lush with trees and wildflowers, the deer-to-human ratio weighs heavily in favor of the deer and tourists driving along historic U.S. Route 6 can travel for an hour without seeing so much as a single dwelling or gas station.
But three famous products come from this unassuming little mountain town. The first is Brad Penn motor oil, a high-grade, high-performance automotive lubricant that’s probably better known on the racing circuit than to average drivers. The other two—Zippo lighters and Case knives—are collectible icons sought around the world, and both are products of a family-owned business.
Birth of an icon
In 1932, a man named George Blaisdell sat on the porch of the Bradford Country Club and watched a friend fumbling to light a cigarette. Blaisdell was intrigued by the man’s Austrian-made lighter, whose innovative chimney kept it lit even in the wind. But the lighter was cumbersome to use; it required both hands to remove the lid and work the mechanism. Blaisdell, who had a passion for all things mechanical, was inspired to try and build a windproof lighter with a hinged lid that could be opened and operated with one hand.
Thus the first Zippo was born. Blaisdell made some tweaks and refinements to his earliest models, but within five years had settled on the version we’ve come to associate with the brand, and the Zippo lighter’s fundamental mechanical design has remained unchanged ever since. Blaisdell chose the name Zippo because he liked the sound of the word “zipper,” another recent invention; changing the “-er” to “-o” sounded modern to his ear.
It’s a good thing that Blaisdell, who was born in 1895, wanted to work with his hands and had an aptitude for mechanics, because he was not a likely candidate for success otherwise, especially in the Great Depression. He hated school and dropped out in the fifth grade. Next, his father sent him to a military academy but he lasted only two years there before getting himself expelled.
At wits’ end, young George’s father put his recalcitrant son to work in the family business, The Blaisdell Machinery Company. After World War I, George took over the business, but he sold the company in 1920 and put the money into oil, an economic mainstay of northwestern Pennsylvania in those days. Oil made the region feel invulnerable to the increasing winds of economic disaster, but as the Depression hit, those winds did to Bradford’s oil boom what a stiff breeze did to most common lighters.
A reflection by Blaisdell’s daughter Sarah Dorn posted on the company’s website reads, “My father hated the oil business. He wasn’t particularly good at it; in fact, he was a man for whom the boom was bust. He didn’t have the temperament for it. The one thing he did know in the early ’30s was that he needed to do something, because those days were tough. There wasn’t a lot of money lying about then, but he went to everybody to get the money to launch Zippo Manufacturing Company. Nobody had any faith in it. It seemed like a foolish, harebrained idea. And it was. Imagine: manufacturing and marketing a lighter for $1.95 when that amount of money fed a family. What kept him going? I think whatever it was, it was tinged with desperation. He had to make this work. For him and his family, as they say now, there was no Plan B.”
There may have been no Plan B, but luckily there were enough customers who were able to spend money on a windproof lighter, and enough family members (Blaisdell’s wife and two daughters) to help get the lighters made, packed and shipped to customers.
And while he may have lacked formal education, George Blaisdell did have the fundamental elements necessary to build a successful business: an innovative product that both met a need and performed as promised, solid personal ethics and values, and the good sense to stand behind his product with a lifetime guarantee: “It works, or we fix it free.”
If people thought that trying to build a windproof lighter to sell for a price that would feed a family was harebrained, they didn’t think offering to fix it free was much smarter. Again, Blaisdell proved them wrong. “Having that guarantee out there really makes us think about the quality we’re putting out,” says George B. Duke, 57, Blaisdell’s grandson and current owner of the company.
That guarantee is still in force. At the Zippo/Case Museum in Bradford, visitors can trace the history of the company from Blaisdell’s first effort (his original lighter is on display) through its role in World War II and Hollywood, to its evolution as a collectible today. Also on display are Case knives—Zippo acquired Case in 1993—and an array of product extensions bearing the Zippo name. The Zippo Repair Clinic is part of the museum, where visitors can peer through a glass window and watch repairs being made. They can also get a chuckle from a display of Zippos that met their ultimate end through such means as a garbage disposal, a metal press, a steamroller and even a cocker spaniel.
Growing, changing, adapting
Even an icon can become extinct if it doesn’t keep pace with changing times and values. As the anti-smoking movement gained power in the U.S., Zippo could have become a symbol of the past: nostalgic but irrelevant. Instead, in a nation where almost 80% of the population doesn’t smoke, Zippo is on track to sell its 500 millionth lighter.
How did it manage to sell more and more of a product that fewer and fewer people need?
The anti-smoking movement certainly affected the company’s sales, company executives say. But a combination of tactics helped keep sales on track: The company diversified into related products and put a particular emphasis on the outside, not the inside, of its core lighter. Since the basic mechanism hasn’t changed and it’s guaranteed to work, what sets each lighter apart from the next is the artwork on the outer case. That can range from a plain brushed or polished finish to ornate engravings to butterflies to sports or military logos. Seven graphic artists and three trend-spotters work to constantly add new relevant designs to the line.
“People worldwide collect them as pocket art,” says Linda Meabon, the company’s archivist and curator of the Zippo/Case museum.
According to company statistics, approximately 4 million people qualify as Zippo collectors, defined as those who own five or more of the lighters. It’s not uncommon to find Zippos in high-end auctions, either. The highest price paid to date for one was $37,000, at the company’s 75th anniversary auction, which was held at the museum in Bradford. Not bad for a product that George Blaisdell initially priced at $1.95!
Other products the company has launched include outdoor fire starters, hand warmers and candle lighters, as well as non-flame products like watches and pens. Some of the newer products are outsourced, but never the iconic lighters. Those are still made entirely—from raw metal to final packaging—in Bradford.
More accurately, a genuine Zippo lighter is made entirely in Bradford. Like many other highly popular branded goods, Zippo is a target for counterfeiters, and the company spends a good deal of time and money fighting them.
Company archivist Meabon says that most of the time she can tell a fake Zippo from the real thing in an instant, but she concedes that some of the newer fakes are very good. Telling the difference lies in knowing how Zippo imparts its designs onto the lighter case, she says, not whether the design itself is accurate. In addition, she explains, there are certain identifying traits and welds on the inner mechanism that will give away a fake if they’re not done exactly correctly.
One business, many families
George Blaisdell, who passed away in 1978, had two daughters, Sarah B. Dorn and Harriet B. Wick. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the company was owned by Dorn, Wick and their children: a total of six family members. Over time, various family members bought out others’ shares, and today, George B. Duke, Sarah Dorn’s son and George Blaisdell’s grandson, is the sole remaining family owner. He serves as chairman of the board. Gregory W. Booth, a non-family member, is president and CEO.
Duke has two sons, George Blaisdell Duke Jr. and Grant Duke. Grant, the younger, is currently studying mechanical engineering and has worked in the plant during school breaks, doing some of the CAD work with the machines that apply decorative elements to the lighters.
“I do hope my sons will come into the business, but I won’t require it,” says George Duke. He’s particularly concerned that his sons not take a position at the company for granted or try to sidestep the rules because of their family status, and says he would encourage them to work somewhere else before coming into the business. It’s a good idea for a lot of reasons, he says.
“If you run a family business, be careful of nepotism,” Duke says. “It can be a very negative for a business if people get into positions they shouldn’t be in, aren’t educated enough or make decisions that shouldn’t be made and hurt the company.” He’s watched it happen in other family businesses—including some in Bradford, he says.
“The other problem is that if you have six different owners, you can have six different decisions being made and six different directions that people want the business to go in,” Duke says. “The family members have to sit down, talk together and work something out, but even that can be difficult because everyone thinks they’re right and that they have the crystal ball.”
If neither son comes into the business, the company has a solid succession and management plan in place, Zippo executives say. The company’s employees, 788 in all, are like a big extended family—in many cases, literally as well as figuratively. For example, Linda Meabon’s mother, sister and son have all worked at Zippo, her daughter currently works there and she herself is a 43-year company veteran. The average employee tenure is 25 years.
This is great for morale, says Duke, but it has made some already tough decisions even harder. In 2008, the company hired a consulting firm to review the business top to bottom with an eye toward becoming more efficient and increasing productivity. That reorganization called for elimination of some positions. Then the recession hit, necessitating even more staff reductions. In a few cases, both husband and wife lost their jobs.
“It was a double whammy,” says Duke. “It’s very hard for a private business to go through that. We’re like a big family, and it affected the town very much.” The good news, he says, is that sales picked up considerably in 2010. In September 2010, the company announced that 49 workers who had been laid off from full-time positions and were working part-time for the company would be restored to full-time work through the end of the year.
Today, Zippo’s business is truly global, with collectors around the world, but Duke is continually looking for ways to grow the brand. He believes that smoking levels are probably as low as they’re going to get in the U.S. (About 21% of Americans smoke, according to a recent Gallup poll.) Smoking levels also have fallen in Western Europe, but cigarettes are still prevalent in places like China and Russia, which Duke sees as big growth opportunities for Zippo. Still, he says, the smart strategy is to move into other products, and he wouldn’t rule out something as different as, say, a snowboard. He’s constantly challenging both employees and his sons to come up with ideas for product extensions that make sense for the brand.
“It’s a great lighter company, but the world is changing and we have to adapt,” Duke says. “Where can the brand be in ten to 20 years?”
Wherever that is, it won’t be far from its core values introduced by George Blaisdell. “I often find myself thinking, ‘Is this what Grandpa would want?’” before making a decision, says Duke. “He always said, if you build with integrity and stand behind it, the sales will come.”
Given that Zippo has sold nearly half a billion lighters, George Blaisdell clearly was right.
Hedda T. Schupak, former editor-in-chief of Jewelers’ Circular Keystone magazine, is a retail analyst focusing on the fine jewelry, fashion and luxury markets.
How to become an icon
World War II propelled Zippo from just a handy lighter to an American icon. During the war, Zippo ceased all civilian supply and turned 100% of its production toward the war effort. It supplied lighters for the GIs, who loved their reliability in any kind of weather. Though Zippo never actually had a contract with the military, the company developed a close relationship with Ernie Pyle, the great wartime journalist, and would ship him between 50 and 100 lighters a month to distribute to the GIs he met. The soldiers and armed forces personnel insisted that they be made available in all the military’s base-exchange stores, and the distinctive click of a Zippo was a signal between U.S. soldiers and allies that they were friends. It was one of the few personal possessions a soldier could take into combat, and it became popular for soldiers in World War II and later in Vietnam to decorate their lighters with their own personal medallions or mottoes. Today, wartime lighters with their distinctive black crackle finish are highly sought as collectibles, and the Zippo/Case museum boasts laudatory letters from Generals MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley.
Zippo also became an icon for celebrities. Because of the lighters’ reliability, Hollywood producers used them often. John Wayne carried one in every movie he made, and Frank Sinatra reportedly was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, a pack of Camels, a dime and a Zippo. Today, a Zippo is part of every Bruce Willis movie; the actor won’t use any other brand.
“Zippo has never paid for [movie or television] product placement,” marketing and communications manager Patrick Grandy says proudly.
Zippo made a name in advertising too, after the Kendall Oil Company (also based in Bradford and a forerunner to Brad Penn) ordered a series of lighters with its logo on front. Many other companies and organizations followed suit and, while far less today than in the heyday of smoking, corporate sales still are part of Zippo’s business.
Speaking of advertising, Zippo plays a role in the popular AMC television series Mad Men, about an advertising agency in the early 1960s. It was a golden age for both advertising and smoking, and the characters naturally use Zippos to light their frequent cigarettes. In keeping with the mood of the show, the first season’s DVD collection even came packaged in a box shaped like a Zippo lighter.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the Zippo shape, not just the name and logo, is trademarked. The matter could have ended up in court, but instead of a legal showdown, Zippo walked away with an agreement to create a special limited-edition Mad Men logo lighter, and order forms were packaged inside the DVD sets. A thousand logo lighters were made and quickly sold out; a less expensive model also is available.
It’s not the first time Zippo turned a would-be lawsuit into a profit center. In 2004, an Italian leather-goods company was using the Zippo name on its products without authorization. Instead of suing the company, Zippo bought it. It’s now Zippo Fashion Italia, and its leather goods are sold in the museum shop, online and in Europe.
Finally, a word about the other Bradford icon: Case knives. Case is an esteemed, high-quality cutlery company that makes a variety of utility knives including the Boy Scout knife. It, too, had been family-owned, but without the smooth management of Zippo. It went through a series of owners, until Zippo stepped in. “In a small town, you know your neighbors,” says the welcome film at the museum, and thus the company acquired Case and kept it in Bradford.
Zippo’s most recent acquisition, in 2010, was competitor Ronson. It plans to retain the Ronson brand, though it’s done some modifications to the logo and packaging.
Apple and Zippo: Two icons together
Those who remember waving lighters at a rock concert will be amused to see the virtual Zippo app for the iPhone. With a swoop of the finger—just like the real thing—the virtual lighter opens its lid. With another swoop on the flywheel it lights, and the flame dances as the phone moves. Swoop the lid back and it closes—and yes, the distinctive Zippo click is part of the app. The only thing it doesn’t do is get confiscated at airport security like a real lighter would.
Within the first three months of its launch in September 2008, the iPhone app hit 1 million downloads. After six months, it hit 3 million, and has now topped 11 million downloads worldwide. The company has introduced a premium level app, available for a small fee.
Who works where
Total employees: 788
Zippo USA: 540 (including Ronson employees)
Case Knives: 221
ZFI (Italy): 20
Zippo U.K.: 7