Big league changes

Stege in a conference room at the Ford Gum & Machine Co. factory. Photo: Tom Wolf

As president of Ford Gum and Machine Co., George Stege, MBA ’86, leads the only company in the U.S. that produces gumballs.

But these days, gumballs aren’t the only thing Ford makes in its factory in Akron, New York. As buying trends have shifted away from vending machine purchases, Stege has guided Ford Gum into retail, with licensed gum products featuring names you’ll recognize like Smarties, JellyBelly, Warheads and Big League Chew.

It’s a big change for a company that dates back to 1913. Back then, founder Ford Mason saw a vending machine for the first time during a visit to New York City and inspiration struck. He purchased some of the machines to operate in Buffalo, but he wasn’t happy with their quality, so Mason and his father created and patented the Ford Gum machine in 1916.

Mason owned the company until 1970, and over the next 25 years, it would change hands through a series of owners.

Stege joined Ford as its director of marketing in 1980, and began pursuing his MBA in the evenings at the UB School of Management to build his business acumen.

“I had dabbled a little in business, but my background was in education—I was a high school teacher in Illinois for about 10 years,” says Stege. “With this new director role, I needed to be grounded in the fundamentals of business and UB offered the best opportunity for the broad spectrum I needed.”

After graduating, Stege was promoted to vice president under Ford’s then-parent company Leaf Inc. Leaf later sold the company to Hershey Holdings in 1996.

Then, in 1997, Stege used some critical advice he received from a faculty mentor when he was a UB MBA student about how to lead a management buyout. He employed the technique to purchase Ford from Hershey that year.

One thing Stege quickly learned was the power of established brands.

After the buyout, Ford launched a new retail product called Yowser that resulted in lackluster sales. Stege decided to try licensing another candy name to put on the tube of gumballs.

“We made a deal with Smarties, but because we had to pay for licensing fees, we removed two gumballs and increased the price,” says Stege. “We didn’t think it’d work, but in our first quarter of Smarties, we outsold the entire previous year of Yowser. That told me that people buy products they know, and if we could get enough licenses, we’d be able to grow the company.”

Today, Ford Gum employs more than 120 people and is a leading manufacturer and distributor of gumballs and gumball machines. They also manufacture private label confections and health-related products for leading U.S. brands, such as a gum that stimulates saliva for people with dry mouths, and a nicotine gum that helps people trying to quit smoking.

“The combination of these private label and licensed retail sales has propelled the company,” says Stege. “The vending side, which was what Ford Mason started, is now less than 10% of the business.”

Outside the office, Stege enjoys playing golf and tennis, and going on cruises to see the world with his wife, Mary Lou.

“I’ve been fortunate in that—believe it or not—gum has taken me to all sorts of places,” he says. “My one claim to fame in golf is that I’ve lost golf balls on five continents.”

Written by Kevin Manne