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Chicago-based Tootsie Roll Industries uses contemporary techniques to manage its traditional brand and employs the latest technology to produce a classic formula.

“While we think it’s great that Tootsie Rolls evoke a feeling of nostalgia, we also know that as a modern-day, 21 st century company, it’s imperative that we evolve to meet the challenging needs of the 21 st century consumer,” said Ellen Gordon, president and chief operating officer, who spoke April 8 at Harper Center at a student-led Marketing Group event. To that end, the company uses social networking techniques, she said.

“We have a page on Facebook with thousands of fans, which is continuously growing,” she said. Tootsie Roll has counted on celebrity support as well, from the late Frank Sinatra and Telly Sevalas, whose character Kojak used to suck on a Tootsie Pop in his TV detective show, to current stars Joe Jonas, whose favorite candy is Tootsie Rolls, and Whoopi Goldberg, “who can go through a bag of (Tootsie Roll) Midgees a day,” Gordon said.

The Tootsie Roll brand is sold around the world including Europe, Asia, and South and Central America. Sales reached $492 million in 2008. “As all of you know, figuring out how to market to a global audience is critical to the success of any large corporation in today’s global marketplace,” Gordon said. “Our goal is to make Tootsie Roll a household word in more countries throughout the world.”

The main product, the Tootsie Roll, has “basically the same ingredients” as it always has, she said. Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfield made the first wrapped penny candy in 1896, naming it after his daughter Clara, whom he called “Tootsie.” Many executive signatures are required before any minor change can be made to the recipe, Gordon said.

To produce that recipe, the company invests in the latest manufacturing equipment. It runs an in-house machinery company.

“Every ten years or so, (the equipment) is completely rebuilt,” Gordon said, “because it’s very important for us, when you sell penny and inexpensive candy, to make sure you’re very efficient.”

Keeping a lean-running business is one of a set of principles the company uses to govern itself. Other goals include growing by acquiring companies that make unique candies and protecting, promoting, and strengthening the Tootsie brand.

She showed videos of Tootsie Roll advertising throughout the years, including the classic commercial that raised the question, “How many licks does it take to get to the chewy center of a Tootsie Pop?”

“Every year we get thousands of letters telling us just how many licks it does take,” Gordon said. The answer supplied by Tootsie Roll Industries and the commercial: “The world may never know.”

Karen Suszko, second-year student in marketing in the Full-Time MBA Program, said she liked the fact that the company does “principle-based decision-making rather than just what feels right,” and that the company is aware of the need to innovate and reach the new consumer.

Suszko asked Gordon, who in 1978 was the second woman to be named president of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, about her decision to go back to school and join the business world after having had children.

Gordon’s father’s box company had a client relationship with the Tootsie Roll company, and Gordon’s mother became the first family member to buy Tootsie Roll stock, she said.

Ellen Gordon said she clearly remembers her dream as a 16 year old to become a businesswoman. She married Melvin Gordon, now chairman of Tootsie Roll Industries, and the couple had three daughters. She attended graduate school at Harvard and had a fourth daughter. She started working at Tootsie Roll in company pensions when that daughter was a baby, moving on to quality control, then product development, reaching executive positions in the 1970s.

— Mary Sue Penn