As the third-generation owner of Zippo Manufacturing Co., one question always dogs George Blaisdell Duke: “You guys are still in business?” It’s not that people want to be nasty, he says. It’s just that America doesn’t light up as much as it used to, so it’s a reasonable question for the most famous maker of cigarette lighters in the world. And he has a well-worn answer handy. “Well, of course we are,” he says, reaching across his office desk for Marlboros and his own personal Zippo, a silver one with waves engraved on it. “Business is doing very, very well.”
Never better, actually. Despite the 50% downturn in the number of U.S. smokers since the heyday of cigarettes in the 1950s, Zippo booked more than $200 million in sales last year – a record – and had the best May and June sales in its history in 2014. FORBES estimates revenue has increased by a compounded 14% in the past three years, thanks to a new, non-smoking CEO, Greg Booth, who pushed the 82-year-old manufacturer’s legendary lighters at a younger audience and expanded business in China. New products – a (legitimately appealing) clothing line and camping gear – and its first retail stores added fuel to the fire. “Zippo has maintained its iconicness,” says Timothy Donahue, an industry observer and editor at Tobacco Reporter, “and it has diversified quite well.” It’s a long way from the first Zippo, created by George Blaisdell after watching a friend struggle to light a cigarette on a windy day in 1932 in Bradford, Pa., a small town in the Allegheny Mountains where Zippo is still based.
He came up with a windproof chimney and the distinctive hinged lid – and guaranteed the lighter for life, meaning Zippo would continue to fix the lighter as long as its owner sent it to the factory. After soldiers received the lighters in WWII, Zippo successfully marketed itself with a utilitarian, made-in-America image for the following half-century.
Nonfamily CEOs ran it after the 1978 death of Blaisdell, who left Zippo to his family. By the 1990s his daughter Sarah Dorn and her son, Duke, had bought out the rest of the clan. “The more family members that are owners, the more directions that they think the company should go. Sometimes the privately owned companies don’t make it,” says Duke, who has since acquired his mother’s stake, too. “Sometimes people get impatient with the lack of temporary success, shall we say.”
Zippo hit just that kind of a rough patch in the 2000s. Duke won’t comment on how far sales plummeted, but his displeasure with Zippo’s performance can be felt in his decision to make Booth CEO in 2001. (Booth had been running Zippo’s knife making subsidiary.) With only himself to please, Duke could wait for Booth to find the solution. The average age of Zippo’s customers then still hovered between 30 and 50 years old. It needed to think younger. Or else, Booth thought at the time, “all the buyers will have Zippos in their caskets, like Frank Sinatra.” (The crooner was buried with his trusty silver Zippo in 1998; replicas were handed out at his wake.)
It needed to reach the generation – ages 18 to 24 – who were children when Sinatra died.
To do it the company shifted ad dollars from print to Google AdWords and sponsored music concert series. They churned out lighters with Jack Daniel’s imagery and others inspired by the TV show Sons of Anarchy. (Skull images have proved especially popular.) All told Zippo produced 30,800 unique designs last year – up from 8,900 a decade ago, a 246% increase partly owing to a new Zippo.com feature where you can design your own lighter from scratch.
Zippo has positioned itself as a maker of talismans, lucky charms – or something akin to customized belt buckles. “The Zippo lighter is a thing of taste,” Booth says. “Sometimes it’s used by folks just as a fashion statement.”
That’s also the guiding light Zippo is following in China. When Booth took over, the Chinese business didn’t exhibit so much as a pulse. Now it’s 13% of Zippo’s revenue (60% of sales come from overseas). Zippo first put boots on the ground there in 2012, and today it has a 15-person team in Beijing. It has opened 14 retail stores in China – Zippo’s first plunge into creating its own stores – with another 35 to come by 2015, all riding the idea of Zippo as an all-American lifestyle brand. The stores carry a Zippo-designed clothing line (logos on the interior tags only), with gear resembling J. Crew’s preppy woodsman style. The stores worked well enough for Zippo to open two Las Vegas stores – in the Luxor hotel and Planet Hollywood casino – earlier this year. Zippo has its eye on several more Vegas locations.
Another brand extension: camping products (grills, stoves, LED lanterns). It launched in 2012, and sales were around $3 million last year; Zippo hopes to hit $20 million by 2016. For now those products are partly made in China. Greater sales would make it economically feasible to move those overseas jobs to Bradford (pop. 8,600), where Zippo remains the greatest source of blue-collar jobs, employing around 950 workers. The Blaisdell family remains the town’s greatest patron, even making up the difference at the perennially lossmaking country club.
Not everything Zippo tried caught fire. Booth originally created an ambitious plan to hit $300 million in sales by 2010: “We had the economic downturn. That set us back dramatically in terms of sales.” Zippo also planned to acquire more companies. It largely hasn’t.
Success enough, though, for Duke to dread Booth’s retirement at the end of 2015. A replacement will likely come from within the company. Duke has no plans to step down himself, but he is actively cajoling both his twentysomething sons to take his place. One has already worked at developing new lighter designs while on his college breaks. “This is just a metal box,” Duke says, twirling his Zippo in his hands and drawing deep on a cigarette. But, he says, “there’s a lot you can do with a metal box.”
Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania
How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.
When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.
But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.
“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.
With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.
“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.
“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”
Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.
But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.
Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”
The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.
An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.
“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”
It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.
Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.
Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.
“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.
Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.
In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.
“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.
And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.
– By Inaara Gangji
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.
With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.
The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.
The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.
Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.
But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.
“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.
On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.
Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.
“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.
“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.
Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.
All For Grooming Future Leaders
Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.
He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.
Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.
“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.
He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.
Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.
“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”
Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.
“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.
Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.
Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.
“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.
But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.
Download issues of Forbes Africa
- Single Digital Issue: James Mwangi Cover - Forbes Africa Aug/Sep2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa June/July 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa April 2020 - 30 Under 30 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa March 2020 R50.00
- Single Digital Issue: Forbes Africa February 2020 R50.00
Subscribe to Forbes Africa
Ink Is In: Tattoos In The Time Of Covid
How Fine Art Is Closing Deals On Multi-Million Dollar Homes | Forbes
Bill And Melinda Gates On The Dangers Of Coronavirus and Vaccine Conspiracy Theories | Forbes
Mauritius-Africa, a partnership for shared prosperity
THE FUTURE JUST ARRIVED: THE ROLE OF BANKS IN A POST-COVID WORLD
- Health4 days ago
[IN NUMBERS] Coronavirus Update: COVID-19 In Africa
- Cover Story2 days ago
The People’s Banker: ‘Entrepreneurship Means Folding Up Your Sleeves And Working’
- Brand Voice1 day ago
THE FUTURE JUST ARRIVED: THE ROLE OF BANKS IN A POST-COVID WORLD
- Strategies3 days ago
From The C-Suite: ‘The Digital Economy Is An Extremely Powerful, Transparent Tool’
- Brand Voice7 days ago
Focus on Namibia: The Vision Which Is Breaking Down Boundaries To Expand Namibia’s Infinite Horizons
- Entrepreneurs1 day ago
Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania
- Brand Voice7 days ago
Egypt’s Blueprint For A Better Tomorrow
- Entrepreneurs4 days ago
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’