When George Stege, MBA ’86, became director of marketing at the Akron, N.Y., Ford Gum & Machine Co. in 1980, he pragmatically viewed the job as a transitional one. Now, 25 years later, Stege is president of the company and strategically positioning it for the future.
Stege modestly downplays his corporate success, saying, “Things just happened to materialize here and I stayed.” Under his management Ford Gum is a leading U.S. manufacturer of gumballs, private label gums and retail confections and toys. What few people know is that the company is also the only gumball manufacturer in the country.
Ford Gum & Machine Co. was founded in 1913 when roofing salesman Ford Mason, looking to make money during the slow winter season, began leasing chewing gum vending machines to stores and shops in Western New York. Mason soon realized that he could develop his part-time venture into a thriving business by improving the gumball product and the reliability of the machines. From one man’s vision the company grew into a large firm that today has manufacturing facilities in Akron, offices in Illinois and retail space in California.
For many years various parent firms owned the company, but in 1997 Ford Gum orchestrated a management buyout, which Stege says “significantly changed the face of the company.” He explains, “Before, we were a gum manufacturer that serviced the bulk vending industry and we did some private label sales. The buyout also added a retail division to the company.”
Unlike Mason’s vision, Stege believes that the company’s future viability rests primarily with its unique capabilities in the private label area, rather than with bulk vending or retail sales. He says, “That’s largely because of our experience with sugarless gums, which are becoming more prominent, and our manufacturing expertise in areas of adding vitamins and supplements to gum. We have had a lengthy experience in that, and we believe it is our strength over other gum companies.” Examples of Ford Gum’s private label products are Arm and Hammer’s Dental Care, Advanced White gum and Perfect Smile’s antioxidant gum line.
Stege pursued his MBA part-time at UB while working as an executive at Ford Gum. UB’s School of Management was a perfect fit for him because he says, “it fulfilled the need that I had for [a program with] a more empirical, statistical emphasis. I did choose UB first of all because it had a better reputation and it [was strong] in those areas that I needed the most help.” He maintains many close ties to the university, including membership on the UB Alumni Association’s Board of Directors. (In fact, he supplies the office of alumni relations staff with special blue-and-white gumballs!) Stege also regularly attends on-campus events such as football and basketball games, concerts and theatrical productions. A native of Chicago, Stege has found Western New York a great place to live and raise his two children. His family particularly appreciates Buffalo’s easy mobility and friendly people. Although running a large company provides him with limited downtime, Stege loves to play golf and tennis, and enjoys taking cruises with his wife.
Interestingly enough, when Stege first graduated from college, he was a teacher. Why the switch to business? Stege laughs, “Because everyone in education always believes the grass is greener on the other side.” Does he ever miss teaching? “Sure,” he says, “there are times, particularly when sales aren’t going well that I wish I were back in the classroom.” But clearly Stege has found the grass to be greener in the corporate world. As he says, “I think that the risks are greater, and I think that the rewards are greater as well.”
Written by Jessica Dudek