Obitaury: William Wrigley Jnr

Tim Bullamore
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:28

WHILE HIS half-chewed products turned up on clothes, shoes, and the underside of school desks, paradoxically the man behind Wrigley's gum was a passionate conservationist who cared dearly that his company's products should not litter the streets nor its manufacturing process damage the environment.

Those products also happened to make William Wrigley Jnr, chief executive and president of Wrigley's from 1961, a personal fortune, estimated last year by Forbes magazine to be in the region of $2.7bn.

Wrigley oversaw the expansion of the company from a $100m enterprise serving a handful of countries to a multinational conglomerate with sales of more than $2bn whose products retailed in more than 140 countries. Wrigley became one of the best-known brand names in the world. The individual products - white Spearmint, yellow-wrapped Juicy Fruit and green-covered Doublemint, each containing seven sticks of gum - became instantly recognisable whether on a Third World market stall or in a hi-tech airport departure lounge.

It wasn't all plain sailing. The company's market share, which reached a high of 70 per cent in the 1920s, slipped to a dangerously low 30 per cent in the late 1970s and this was only reversed by aggressive marketing. Not long after that scare, Wrigley was forced by the burden of inheritance tax to sell the family's baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, which they had acquired in the 1920s. Despite these setbacks, Wrigley remained a devoted fan of the Cubs and the team's home ground is still called the Wrigley Field.

Modern chewing gum first appeared for sale in the 1860s and was originally offered by Wrigley's grandfather - also called William Wrigley Jnr - as a free gift with the cans of baking powder he sold in Chicago. At that time there were at least a dozen chewing gum companies in the United States but, spotting the potential for expansion and development, Wrigley formed the Wm Wrigley Jr Company in 1891. Despite many offers to sell out or join cartels, he maintained the company's independence saying: "We propose to keep our identity and if we cannot do business by fair and square methods, we prefer not to do business at all."

The first Wrigley factory outside the United States was established in 1910, and the company began producing in Britain in 1927. The elder William Wrigley Jnr died five years later and the business passed to his son, Philip K. Wrigley (P.K.), who built a reputation as one of Chicago's most progressive employers. The company was the first in the city, possibly in the United States, to allow employees to take Saturday as a day of rest in addition to Sunday. And, as long ago as 1933, Wrigley's printed messages on its gum wrappers reminding customers to dispose of both gum and paper responsibly.

Wrigley was born in 1933, and at school was a quiet boy with a penchant for magic tricks. He read Psychology at Yale University before serving with the US Navy in the Asiatic Sea. He joined the family firm where he became known for his steady, low-key approach to the business. One interviewer in the 1960s referred to his, "slow, but pleasant, deliberate manner", while another called him "quiet, shy, diffident and unfailingly polite".

He was of a rare breed in the corporate world, answering his own telephone, replying personally to dissatisfied customers, and commuting to work by bus. From the outset, he realised that the world was rapidly becoming a smaller place and that if his company did not seize the initiative, others would. Instead of expanding into other lines of manufacture, Wrigley pursued a policy of what he called "geographic diversification". "To our way of thinking, the increasing importance of overseas markets represents a logical type of diversification," he said.

When the company hit its sticky patch in the 1970s, Wrigley introduced new brands, including Big Red and Hubba Bubba, which helped restore the market share. Nevertheless, the basic shape, form and packaging of the key brands remained unchanged. The firm's corporate literature extolled the purported benefits of chewing gum to health, for relaxing muscles, and even for dental hygiene.

Wrigley had a deep concern for the environment and spent 40 years as a director of the Santa Catalina Island Company, an organisation that manages one of the channel islands of California. He donated pounds 15m to the University of Southern California to establish the Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies.

Wrigley's son, William Wrigley Jnr, has been named acting president of the company.

William Wrigley, chewing gum manufacturer: born Chicago 21 January 1933; president and chief executive officer, Wm Wrigley Jr Company 1961-99; married 1957 Alison Hunter (three children; marriage dissolved 1969), 1970 Joan Fisher (marriage annulled 1978), 1981 Julie Burns; died Chicago 8 March 1999.

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