Ross Born was, well, born to make and sell candy — lots of it.
It wasn’t part of his original plan. He was in law school at Hofstra University when his father and uncle — who had taken over the Just Born candy company from Ross’s grandfather (and company founder) Sam and Sam’s two brothers-in-law — told Born they were thinking of selling.
But, they said, they would take it off the market if Ross and his cousin, David Shaffer, wanted to get in the business. They did, but only after finishing their educations, in 1978. It took another 14 years before Born and Shaffer became co-presidents. “We kind of fell into it and made a decision from the first day that we’d do what we can to make this work,” says Born, who is active in numerous Jewish organizations, and whose wife, Wendy, is president of the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley. “We have great respect for one another and have never had arguments. And this is our 34th year.”
Born’s zayda Sam emigrated from Russia in 1905 because “he wasn’t going to fight the czar’s wars,” says Born. He was making candy in New York by 1908 and opened a small candy-making operation in Brooklyn in 1923, calling it Just Born because everything was manufactured daily. The operation moved to Bethlehem, Pa., in 1932, where it remains headquartered and where most of its 500 employees work.
The company has grown steadily, with its most popular brands being Mike and Ike, a chewy candy in numerous flavors; Hot Tamales, a cinnamon-flavored chewy candy; and Peeps, a marshmallow candy, more than 5 million of which are produced each day.
In 2003, Just Born bought Goldenberg’s, producers of Philly’s own Peanut Chews. And that, Born says, put the company on a rocky road for a while.
Just Born’s first problem was trying to reposition Peanut Chews from a brand sold regionally in the Mid-Atlantic states to one sold nationally. As part of that effort, they took the name “Goldenberg” off the wrapper and tried to sell the candy as just “Peanut Chews.” In this, Born says, “we screwed up” twice. They never created a national market and they managed to lose the Philadelphia base, where people knew the candy they grew up with as Goldenberg’s.
Now, they’ve come full circle. The Goldenberg name has returned to the label and Just Born is concentrating on the original market. “Thank goodness, people have fond memories,” Born says. “We’re doing what Philadelphia wanted and the plant is humming.” (In fact, Goldenberg’s is the only company brand made in Philadelphia, not Bethlehem.)
Born, 58, who is married with two daughters and two grandchildren, says he and Shaffer act as “the heart and soul” of the firm. By that, he means, they set the “values,” while a talented management team makes things work.
“The ‘how’ is just as important as the ‘what’ — not just making money or getting the goods out. But how do we do it that’s right — that takes care of customers, consumers and the people here. We make an effort to show that we care about our employees. If we attain certain goals everyone gets a piece.” He says the company also helps employees financially to continue their educations. “Some have gotten business degrees,” he says proudly.