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Will the Wrigley brand survive scion's departure?

Bill Wrigley Jr made a big decision for his company and his shareholders when he agreed in 2008 to sell the family firm to Mars Inc, another family-owned company, for $23 billion, writes Darrell Delamaide.

According to news reports, the deal left Bill Jr with shares valued at $1 billion. Other reports say there was a $20 million bonus for him if he voluntarily left the job of chairman of the Wrigley company, which operates as an autonomous unit within the Mars empire.

In any case, Bill Jr, 46, has announced that he will step down as chairman of the manufacturer of chewing gum and other confectionery products that has been family run since it was founded in 1891 by his great-grandfather. (Click here to read our coverage of the story) The company said Bill Jr plans to "focus on business and philanthropic interests in Chicago and around the world."

The chief executive Bill Jr had installed in 2006 as the first non-family CEO, William Perez, left just two weeks after the Mars acquisition closed in October 2008. Dushan "Duke" Petrovich replaced him but reported directly to Mars CEO Paul Michaels, bypassing chairman Bill Jr. There are, in fact, no plans to appoint a new chairman of the Wrigley unit, the company said.

Last year, he put two Chicago residences on the market. One was a 13,200-square-foot Gold Coast penthouse combining three units that he listed for $14 million, making it the highest-priced listing in the city. The space was still raw, though Bill Jr was willing to throw in architect plans he had commissioned. He also listed his seven-bedroom mansion in Lake Forest for $14.5 million.

At the same time he bought residences in North Palm Beach, Florida and Aspen, Colorado for a combined $22 million. These property dealings implied he was going to be spending less time in Chicago, where Wrigley has been headquartered since it was founded 119 years ago as a maker of soap and baking powder. Chicago is Wrigley land, with the landmark Wrigley Building skyscraper on its Magnificent Mile and Wrigley Field as home to the baseball Chicago Cubs.

Bill Jr is the son of William Wrigley III (1933–1999), the grandson of Philip K Wrigley (1894–1977) and the great-grandson of William Wrigley Jr (1861–1932). He is a graduate of Duke University, with an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

Bill Jr took charge of the firm after his father died in 1999. While he was at the helm, the company diversified beyond chewing gum to acquire Altoids, a breath mint that originated in the UK, and Life Savers ring-shaped candies from Kraft.

In 2007, Bill Jr, who was divorced and billed as Chicago's most eligible bachelor, married a former model and sometime movie actress, Heather Ann Rosbeck, who has also worked in some philanthropic organisations. The second marriage prompted speculation in Chicago that Bill Jr, who had a reputation for avoiding the social spotlight, might become less private.

Perhaps he will, but it might be in a town other than Chicago. That doesn't mean, however, that the Wrigley name will disappear either from Chicago or from the confectionery market.

When Warren Buffett, the legendary investor who chairs Berkshire Hathaway, stepped in with a $6.5 billion stake to help finance the Mars-Wrigley deal it was because he believes in tried and tested global brands such as Coca-Cola and Gillette. These two particular brands, he joked with interviewers, had passed his own personal taste test for 70-some years, and nothing was likely to happen to them. (Buffett, who also has a stake in Kraft, is much less enthused about the deal with Cadbury.)

Two of Wrigley's best-known products, Juicy Fruit and Spearmint, date back to 1893, making them almost as old as the company. The original William Wrigley Jr slipped a couple of sticks of chewing gum into the baking soda he sold as an extra incentive. When he realised the gum was more popular that the baking soda, he got rid of that product and focused on gum.

When shortages forced Wrigley to curtail gum production during World War II, the company took the products off the market altogether and channeled the entire supply to the armed forces. Wrigley kept running its marketing during the war, though, so when it could resume sales in 1946, the market for its brand was still there.

The strength of the Wrigley brand is emphasiesd by a recent surveys, which states Juicy Fruit gum is recognised by 99% of Americans.

So it looks like William Wrigley Jr Co and the Wrigley brand will survive the departure of the last family member, and Bill Jr can make his own mark, if he chooses, in other business or philanthropic endeavors. 

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