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Fleer Corp. Closes Plant In City That Pioneered Bubble Gum

November 28, 1995 GMT

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ The company that manufactured the first batch of bubble gum ever sold is closing the plant that has turned out the gooey pink stuff known as Dubble Bubble Gum for more than 65 years.

The Fleer Corp. becomes the latest in a string of companies that have abandoned factories and towns they called home for decades and moved their production elsewhere.

Just last month, Unilever, a Netherlands-based conglomerate, closed the Breyer’s ice cream plant in Philadelphia, where William A. Breyer hand-churned his first batch of ice cream. And many in the city still mourn the loss of the Whitman’s Chocolate factory, which closed in 1993 after a competitor bought the name and moved the operation to Kansas.

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The phenomenon is not confined to Philadelphia, says Raj Chaganti, a professor of strategic management at Temple University.

``What I am seeing here is a trend toward becoming competitive at any cost _ even if it means severing your emotional ties to a particular site,″ Chaganti said. ``History, in a way, is becoming irrelevant.″

Bethlehem, Pa., no longer has a Bethlehem Steel Corp. mill. Earlier this month, the company extinguished its last blast furnace in Bethlehem, idling 1,800 workers and closing an operation that began before the Civil War.

The Jolly Green Giant no longer packs vegetables at his original plant in Le Sueur, Minn.; it was closed in 1994 by Pillsbury. And in 1991, Akron, Ohio, lost the headquarters of Bridgestone-Firestone Inc., the descendant of the company that pioneered rubber tires.

Fleer employees reporting for work Monday found the North Philadelphia plant roped off and locked up, said Barry Fields, secretary-treasurer of Local 6 of the Bakery Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union.

The roughly 90 workers _ whose salaries average $24,000 a year _ were allowed inside the plant and given the bad news.

``It was like a wake,″ Fields said.

Fleer was founded by German immigrants in 1885 as the Frank H. Fleer Co., a candy company. In 1928, a company accountant named Walter Diemer invented the first batch of bubble gum and Fleer began mass-producing it two years later.

A group of investors bought the company from the family in 1989 and moved the headquarters to Mount Laurel, N.J., in 1991.

Now the company’s exodus is extending to the factory, a squat, four-story brick building built in 1930 in the city’s Olney section, about seven miles north of City Hall.

Fleer executive vice president William H. Hardie said the company decided to close the plant _ which also cut and packaged sports and collectible trading cards _ to focus its effort on the marketing of the cards.

The company sold $38 million worth of gum and candy in 1994, but it sold $245 million worth of trading cards.

Labor rancor in professional sports has hurt Fleer and its corporate parent, Marvel Entertainment Group Inc., said Jill Krutick, an analyst with Smith Barney in New York City.

``The baseball strike and the basketball negotiations have really hurt them,″ Krutick said.

Fleer spokeswoman Sonia Moyer said the company will focus on design and sales of cards and turn all card-packaging work over to outside contractors, which already handled about 75 percent of the cards.

Dubble Bubble and other candy will be made in an existing Fleer factory in Byhalia, Miss., Moyer said. Its work force of 70 will not be expanded.

The Philadelphia workers will be paid through January, Moyer said.

Fields, the union official, said that work at the plant, which employed 650 workers five years ago, was always unsteady because seasonal demands in both the candy and trading card business meant frequent layoffs.

``Unfortunately a lot of people tended to be specialists,″ Fields said. ``What’s left now is mostly a senior work force and it’s devastating to them.″