American Match Industry – Part 1B

The next installment of our History of the American Match Industry (Part II) was due last week.  The company historian, Mark Bean, was writing the series.  Mark had collected hundreds of pages of newspaper articles, magazine stories, books, letters, and company reports.  In addition, he listened to dozens of anecdotes, many first-hand from the major figures in the industry.

Sadly, our own Match-King passed away on August 12, 2019, unexpectedly.  The historical record of the American Match Industry is now incomplete.  Mark was creating and writing the record for us, as we went along.  He was working the story forward to the present day; to the current time, when the industry has consolidated into one plant and one company, led by the Bean Family.  Mark accepted the role of industry steward with honor and respect.

We will continue to tell the story, picking up where we left off in the last installment American Match Industry – Part I.  But for the moment, we will pause to reflect on the legacy of Mark Bean.

If you read the first blog Prelude to the American Match Industry, you learned about Ivar Kreugar.  Ivar was titled the Match King.  He was an imposing and almost fantastical character.  He was considered a business titan, being both ruthless and unwavering.  There are books and business case studies about this early day entrepreneur.

Mark was the anti-Kreugar.  His intentions were noble, where Kreugar’s were profit driven.  Mark cared more about the people than the profits.  His agenda was transparent and true.  Mark wanted the industry to succeed, for the people and for the nostalgic mark we made on the country.  Mark appreciated the thread of humanity that drove the story from the beginning.  He was fascinated by Kreugar.  But also by the other leaders, especially those who developed the book match industry.  Such as, Diamond Match’s O.C. Barber.  And the leaders of Eddy Match in Canada, and Universal Match from Hudson, New York.

In 1990, Mark brought together the leaders of the match companies, and created the American Match Council.  In the 2000s, he again brought the industry together to develop supply agreements that would leverage the strengths of the remaining factories.  He reached out to Diamond Match, when closing their 100-year old factory in 2017.  Mark salvaged a piece of that legacy, and brought their fire-starter line to New Hampshire.  And it was 2016, when he facilitated the final chapter in the paper match story by purchasing the last plant, Atlas Match, and folding it into the D.D. Bean family.  In 2018, he gathered a team of historians, town and state leaders, match collectors, and museum experts to explore the viability of a Match Museum.  At his urging and persistence, the project grew legs and is deep in development now.

The thread is obvious.  Since he came on the scene in 1978, Mark Bean actively and passionately worked to better the industry.  He was a true stakeholder, working tirelessly for the betterment of us all.  His vision was for the people who built the industry, ran the machinery, talked to the customers, and developed the relationships with suppliers and distributors, to succeed in keeping the industry’s flame burning bright.

Prelude to the American Match Industry Story

Matches

The Global Match Kickoff of 1912

The story of the American Match Industry could read like a suspense novel.  There are villains and heroes; there is suffering and victory. There is planning and conniving, deception, and old-fashioned bad luck.

The 100-year saga takes place across the globe, in countries from Sweden to India to Australia to Brazil.  In those days, when travel was primarily by train and boat, it took tremendous persistence and motivation, to grow an industry and replicate a newly mechanized production model.  The American Match Industry is a subset of a much larger, more complex global economy of matches and the production of portable, convenient, reliable fire.

In the beginning, there was fire.  And to harness that fire, strapping it to a wooden stick for maximizing profits, was Ivar Kreuger (monopolistic Swedish financier).  Ivar Krueger was the engineer behind the Swedish Match domination of the world match commodity market.  [To read the Swedish Match version of the company’s history, visit www.swedishmatch.com].  Apparently, Ivar was driven by profits, and didn’t always care how it was delivered.  Some say his plan was to acquire and/or build every match factory in the world, at which point he would raise the prices [and spend his days counting all his money].  Maybe that is true.  Or just maybe he was a very clever, overly successful business leader and entrepreneur.  We can’t really know.  I can only glean so much from his Wikipedia page.

Ivar died by suicide in 1932, he was just 52 years old.  His family thought the circumstances were suspicious, but the investigation didn’t pan out.  For an interesting read about the life and death of this business titan, try The Match King, by Frank Partnoy

Over the decades, the match industry underwent multiple mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies.  Even Ivar’s beloved Swedish Match evolved and transformed itself multiple times across every continent.  Almost every wooden match factory in the world had some association with Swedish Match, including our very own Beal Industries, in Kingston Jamaica.  The Bean Family partnered with Swedish Match to run a factory in Jamaica producing Comet brand matches for the local market.  The factory closed just 10-years ago, due to competition from imports.   

Few industries have a history dominated by so many mergers, acquisitions, and bankruptcies.  The industry refuses to wink- out without a fight.  After all, the world still needs fire and matches are portable, dependable, and comparatively inexpensive.  Today, in 2019, there is just one match factory in America.  You guessed it – D.D. Bean – which acquired Atlas Match and Eddy Match in 2016.  The final chapter in a long sequence of mergers and acquisitions. The industry consolidated.  Keeping the flame alive.

Fortunately, D.D. Bean / Atlas Match, the Bean family, and the 84 Bean-family-of-workers, are here to tell the story of the American Match Industry.  Being the only surviving match factory in America, gives D.D. Bean an editorial right and obligation to tell the story in all its anecdotal glory.  In subsequent blogs, we will try to fairly and honestly tell the tale of the industry.  We will provide some facts and statistics, maybe even dazzle with charts and graphs.  But in the end, it will be the personal stories and nostalgic tales that capture the essence of this old-fashioned, smoke-stack industry.

As you read about our story, and the story of the American Match industry, you might think “who really cares?”  “I never thought about matches before, so why now?” And maybe you don’t really care.  But you should, and here’s why. 

  • The story of matches is the story of bringing fire to the homes of millions of people in far-away, even remote parts of the world, as well as our own communities here. 
  • Matches were the invention that boosted the quality of human life. 
  • Matches brought cooking indoors, and light where there was none. 
  • Matches could be easily carried from place to place – portable fire. 
  • Cooking food and staying warm was never more convenient. 
  • Reading and writing long into the night was made possible by matches and candles and lamps.
  • Matches are sometimes given away for free (what else can you get for free today?)

Looking back to 1912, and how the Swedish Match empire grew, it was inevitable that match production would spread, because match production was like providing water or oxygen.  Matches were affordable for even the poorest households and people needed matches.  But that may not be why Ivar Kreuger and his team built match factories around the globe.  Without the rise of the Swedish Match production model and Ivar Kreuger’s thirst for profits, the global match industry would look much different today. 

Let’s imagine that for a minute.  In 1918, Swedish Match installed the first continuous match machine in the Kalmar, Sweden.  Next, this was rapidly duplicated globally.  The company had created the most efficient match machinery ever used (still in use today), trained local staff on how to operate and fix it, and provided all the raw materials needed (at a cost) for the factory to operate.  Sounds a little like a modern-day McDonald’s franchise.  A complete turn-key setup.  It was destined to succeed.  Locals were paid for important work, and managers were often recruited from the local communities.

What if Swedish Match had not globalized match production, but each nation was left to evolve their own match production.  I think it would look much different today.  Instead of wooden matches in Brazil, you might have something like Mexico – Wax “Vesta” matches.  Or maybe the South American countries would have innovated something completely different given their natural resources.  We will never know.  Swedish Match equipment (branded ARENCO) is still operating today in Chile, Brazil, Sweden, and India.  Maybe even Pakistan and South Africa.

As it turns out, Swedish Match also operated wooden match factories in America.  But for some reason, a different trend emerged.  Call it match-industry evolution.  Paper matches emerged in the 1940’s and coexisted with the wooden match industry in America until 2017 (when the last wooden match factory closed).

To learn more about the paper match industry in America – the sole surviving segment of the match industry today – look for the next blog installment titled “The American Match Industry”.  And if you have any comments regarding this prelude to the American Match Industry Story, please email me at jbartlett@ddbean.com.