Editor’s Note: Chief Executive is kicking off a new annual tradition this year by celebrating every sizable (over $100 million in annual revenues) standalone company turning 100 in 2023. Check out the rest of this year’s class for tips, insights and, above all else, the inspiration you need to keep going….and going.
HQ: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Revenues: ~$300 million
From humble beginnings to global recognition, Just Born’s story is a testament to the power of innovation, perseverance and dedication to a simple goal: bringing happiness-inducing confectionary perfection to the masses. The company was founded by Sam Born, a Russian candymaker who immigrated to the U.S. and set up shop in Brooklyn, New York, displaying his “just born” creations in his store’s window each day.
Born, who won early recognition as the creator of a “Born Sucker” machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops, recruited his brothers-in-law Jack and Irv Shaffer as partners and set about building a candy empire. Realizing that expansion would require a large facility and access to rail connections, the trio bought an empty printing factory in 1932 and moved the company to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Bolstered by its sizable new facility and the steel town’s strong labor market, Just Born continued inventing and acquiring candy products, including top-sellers Mike & Ike fruit chew candies in 1940 and Hot Tamales cinnamon-flavored chew candies in 1950. But while Mike & Ike and Hot Tamales remain its top-selling products, it was the acquisition of Rodda Candy Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that netted the company the gooey marshmallow chicks for which it is best known: Peeps.
While Just Born didn’t invent Peeps, the company did turn them into a pop culture phenomenon. Bob Born, who had taken over for his father, Sam, famously revolutionized production of the sugar-coated chicks, replacing a labor-intensive process that took 27 hours per tray with a machine capable of turning out a tray every six minutes. Freed from the limitations of its onerous production process, Peeps evolved from a limited seasonal specialty to a year-round sensation available in a wide range of colors, sizes and varieties, including gluten-free and sugar-free options. But even as gooey white ghosts, green Christmas trees and red strawberry hearts extend the brand’s market opportunities, the Peeps’ yellow chick remains by far the company’s most famous product.
A Family Focus
Just Born is now in its third generation of family leadership, led by co-CEOs David N. Shaffer and his son-in-law Gardner Jett, Jr. The duo are continuing the company’s tradition of expanding through invention and acquisition. In 2003, the company acquired the legendary Philadelphia brand Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews.
But it hasn’t been all sweetness and light at the confectionary powerhouse. In the early 2000s, a fire destroyed one of its key production facilities. Then, in 2016, an effort to shift away from enrolling new employees in the company’s long-standing multi-employer pension plan blew up into two years of strife. Just Born suffered through a union strike and related court battles for two years before a federal appeals court dismissed the suit.
Just Born has proven resilient, rebuilding and emerging from these setbacks. And the company is committed to remaining agile and innovative as it moves into its next century of operations, says co-CEO David Shaffer. “Just Born is humbled to have reached this huge milestone in our company’s history,” he said in a recent company report, in which he credited giving back to the community, being good environmental stewards and creating a culture where people want to work for the company’s longevity. “Looking forward to the next century, our goal remains the same—to bring sweetness to people’s lives through the family traditions and beloved memories that fans create with our brands.”