Ford Gum & Machine Celebrates 100 Years Of Innovation In Bulk Vending

Posted On: 2/25/2013

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TAGS: bulk vending, vending machine, gumball machine, Ford Gum & Machine Co., Ford Gum, Ford Gum & Machine 100 years, Ford S. Mason, ball gum, gum manufacturer, U.S. manufacturing pioneer, charitable vending, George Stege, Ronald Regan, R.W. Hartnett, Carousel vending machines, Big League Chew, Smarties gum, W.N. Mason, Tomy vending

Ford Gum, Bulk Vending, Old Vending Pictures

AKRON, NY -- Since 1934, Ford Gum has produced more than three million pounds of gumballs a year. That's a total of 234 million pounds, so far. This converts into 50 billion gumballs, or seven gumballs for every person on earth.

This year, Ford Gum & Machine Co. is marking its 100th year in business. While it is rare to find a company with that kind of longevity, it's more uncommon to find one that has achieved the level of consistent innovation exhibited by Ford Gum. Its story has been punctuated by remarkable vending industry milestones that extend from its start to the present day.

The origins of this 100-year-old business are the stuff of bulk vending legends. Ford S. Mason, a roofing salesman from upstate New York (near Buffalo), traveled to Manhattan to attend a conference at the newly constructed Flatiron Building (175 Fifth Ave.). It was in the Big Apple that Ford first encountered bulk vending machines; he saw in them a way to supplement his income during the cold winter months, when work in the roofing business traditionally tapered off.

Starting out modestly with 102 penny gumball venders, Mason began building a route in western New York. "It was fun to try to figure out which locations would be the most productive," he would recall years later.

A few years later, he quit the roofing business entirely, in order to devote full time to bulk vending. The concept was solid, but Mason quickly learned that the machines he operated were flawed. The mechanisms not only were overly complicated, but also susceptible to malfunction, especially in bad weather conditions. Broken coin mechanisms and rusted springs not only shortened the life of the machines, but also cut into sales.

It was the early part of the 20th century, the era of the largely self-taught inventor, when Henry Ford and Thomas Edison were celebrated heroes. A brainstorming session with his father, W.N. Mason, a Baptist minister in Lockport, NY, led to the Masons' decision to develop a better bulk vender. The resulting design employed only a single sturdy, rust-resistant spring; the patent was assigned to W.N. Mason. The new machine, which began hitting the streets in 1917, was the first in a long line of improvements and initiated a tradition of innovation for the company.

In 1923, Mason formed the Ford Vending Machine Co. to sell his venders. The problem, of course, was that well-built, reliable machines naturally meant that their operators would require fewer replacement machines and parts. The future, Mason discovered, wasn't solely in manufacturing and marketing machines, but largely would depend on the product the machines vended. By the late 1920s, he began producing his own line of ball gum. Adopting the same strategy as he had applied to his machines, he sought to improve the quality of the gum in order to improve sales. Over time, this led him to seek out a printing company that could invent a method for printing the brand name on the curved surface of a gumball. That company was R.W. Hartnett (Philadelphia). The "Ford"-imprinted gumballs were another industry first -- and Hartnett went on to become a specialist manufacturer of printing equipment for confectioners and pharmaceutical firms. Today, Ford still has the first two Hartnett machines, which date back to the end of World War II.

Insisting on quality and innovation in bulk products, as in equipment, was again successful for Ford. By 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Mason began marketing the penny venders as charity machines. The concept was simple: Charitable organizations and operators placed machines on location, splitting the profit between the client and the operator.

For Mason, charitable enterprises were not unfamiliar. As the son of a pastor, he had always been generous with charities, particularly his church. It was reasonable for him to include charities in his business plan. And, as one who thought big, Mason marketed the concept nationwide.

He hired solicitors to travel the country selling the charity venders. Once a territory had a sufficient number of machines, he would then sell the route to an operator under a distributorship agreement. For bulk vending, which had always been a mom-and-pop business, the concept was far ahead of its time, establishing Ford as the first nationwide bulk vending concern. Ford machines became a standard feature in stores, on pipe-rack stands and countertops; they are estimated to have numbered more than 500,000 at their peak.

This distribution concept carried the company from the 1930s to the 1960s. In 1970, after more than half a century in bulk vending, Mason retired and sold the firm to Automatic Service Co., which also owned a chain of Canteen distributorships, vending companies and a 7-Up bottling operation.

Ford was sold again in 1985 to Leaf Inc. (Lake Forest, IL), a gum and candy manufacturer which also acquired Carousel Industries (Morton Grove, IL) a few years later. Leaf then was purchased by Hershey Holdings, bringing Ford and Carousel along with it. In 1997, Ford's management bought back the company (and Carousel, too); the bulk business once again was independent.

Today, the company known as Ford Gum & Machine is headed by George Stege, who has served it in a variety of capacities since 1980. It's headquartered in a 100,000-sq.ft.facility on six acres in Akron, NY; it maintains a 40,000-sq.ft. branch office in Lincolnshire, IL, and a smaller 6,000-sq.ft walk-in facility in Bell Gardens, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles.

According to Stege, Ford continues to prosper. It is the only ball gum manufacturer in the U.S. Its lines include Carousel, Big League Chew and Smarties gum; it plans to introduce several new flavors in 2013.

"There have been a lot of changes in the business," Stege said. "But every business changes; nothing stays the same. Those who survive are those who adapt to those changes. You can't stay with the same model forever."

Stege pointed to his own time at Ford to illustrate the changes bulk vending has undergone. Since joining the company more than 30 years ago, the traditional Ford vender has been replaced by a newer version that was adapted to quarter vending. More recently, the company took on the Tomy line, supplying equipment, parts and product for the $1 capsule vender that features such licensed products as Hello Kitty and the download sensation Angry Birds.

Stege sees big changes ahead for Ford, and the entire bulk vending industry. "I think the industry is going to become more adept at marketing in and to locations; that means maximizing revenue per location rather than just putting in the standard mix," he explained. "I do see continued strength in licensing, as well as in toys with significant play value. I think gum will continue to be there and I think candy will continue to be there, but [gum and candy] will continue to play a secondary role to capsule vends. But I think that that there will continue to be a market for all three -- gum, candy and toys."

If longevity has been the hallmark of Ford, it has spread to the company's operators. According to Stege, the active customer with the longest history of involvement is located in Wisconsin and can trace its Ford roots back three generations, to the 1920s. Hundreds of 20- and 30-year customers are not uncommon. Stege added that many employees have worked with the company for 25 or 30 years.

1913-2013 Ford Gum & Machine Co.

1913: Ford S. Mason, 20, meets man who introduces him to the gum vending business. Takes loan and leases 102 vending machines he services during winter months. Gumballs vend for a penny.

1951: Entertainer Phyllis Daye, 24, is named Miss Fordway.

1916: Ford Mason quits roofing job and pursues gumball profession. Mason's father, a Baptist minister, creates new gumball machine.

1960: Ford Gum moves all operations to Akron. Begins contract manufacturing of tablet chewing gum for private-label brands.

1916: Church building becomes headquarters of gum business.

1970: Automatic Service Co. acquires Ford Gum.

1917: Mason manufactures and introduces gumball vending machine designed by his father. Company becomes Ford Vending Machine Co.

1980: Ford Gum division of Automatic Service acquires Astro Operators Vending Machines & Supply Co.

1919: Patent No. 1,316,492 for "certain new and useful Improvements in Vending Machines" is issued to Wallace N. Mason on Sept. 16.

1980: Adds toys and capsules to vending line.

1927: Ford Vending Machine Co. names Norris Rowbotham of Walworth, WI, its first distributor.

1985: Leaf Inc. purchases Ford Gum. Relationship between Ford Gum and Carousel Industries begins. (Carousel had been a Leaf customer.)

1934: Changes name to Ford Gum & Machine Co. and moves to Lockport, NY. New HQ houses R&D, vending machine assembly and gumball production.

1989: Ford S. Mason dies on Aug. 18 in Delray Beach, FL. He was 95.

1939: The Fordway Profit Sharing Plan (later, Fordway Plan) begins in Columbus, OH, raising money for children's hospital. The plan, aligned with charitable and civic organizations, still exists today.

1996: Ford Gum and Carousel are purchased by Hershey Holdings.

1940s: Believing his is the best gum on the market, Mason begins branding "Ford" on every gumball.

1997: Ford Gum and Carousel are purchased in a management buyout by John Kennelly, Steve Greene, Steve Gold, Warren Clark and George Stege; Ford Gum is again privately owned. Enters retail.

1945: Purchases two DC-3 transport planes to speed deliveries of gumballs and machines around the country. (Orders were on backlog due to wartime shortages of metal and sugar.)

1997: Opens office in Vernon Hills, IL, near Chicago.

1947: Backlogs begin to diminish.

1998: Ford Gum and Machine Co. unveils new logo. Redesigns Carousel packaging.

1948: Lockport plant now produces six gumball flavors at rate of 187,500 per hour, using 10,000 lbs. of sugar a day.

2001: Moves Chicago-area office to Lincolnshire.

1948: Mason is elected president of the National Automatic Merchandising Association.

2003: Ford becomes only manufacturer of gumballs in U.S.

1950: Ford Gum opens a branch gumball plant in Puerto Rico, giving it closer access to raw sugar. This is the first gum plant on the island.

2010: Acquires Big League Chew from Wm. Wrigley Co. Moves production from Mexico back to U.S.

1950s: Mason hires Ronald Reagan to record radio spots promoting charitable Ford Gum's machines. "This is a real American way of serving our needy neighbors," Reagan's script read. "Keeping our nation great with people getting satisfaction from doing and chewing."

2010: Becomes Tomy distributor.

1950s: Acquires and renovates dairy in Akron, NY; moves HQ and gum production there. Machine manufacturing remains in Lockport.

2013: Ford Gum and Machine Co. turns 100.