Cloquet Mill One of Two Major Wooden Matchmakers Left In U.S.
CLOQUET, Minn. (AP) _ The impact of disposable cigarette lighters on the wooden match business is painfully obvious to Don Bronikowski when the night shift arrives at the match plant where he’s worked for 33 years.
″We were geared up years ago to make matches until hell freezes over. Three shifts, five days a week,″ says Bronikowski of Diamond Brands Inc., one of only two large-scale wooden matchmakers left in the United States. ″Now we’re down to one shift, five days a week.″
So instead of cranking out the familiar strike-anywhere splints, Diamond’s second-shift workers spend the night making corn dog sticks, ice pop sticks, toothpicks, tongue depressors and other small products.
Diamond and Universal Match Co., of Kenner, La., the only other major wooden matchmaker in the United States, survived the early 1970s onslaught of disposable lighters by closing plants and consolidating manufacturing.
The growing popularity of electric stoves and foreign-made wooden matches also have taken away business, but throwaway lighters took by far the biggest cut, reducing the wooden match’s 50 percent market share to about 20 percent.
″When Bic and Cricket (lighters) and all them came out they raised hell with the market,″ said Bronikowski, 57, who is quality control manager. ″Our business just went down, down, down.″
Industry watchers estimate about 650 billion wooden matches are used annually in the United States. Lighters control about 65 percent of the market, while book matches and other sources account for the remainder, Bronikowski said.
From peak employment of about 450 in the 1950s when the Cloquet plant made matches only, the Diamond workforce shrank to slightly more than 100 in the mid-1970s.
At least seven wooden matchmakers have closed their doors in recent years, Bronikowski said.
Universal, a subsidiary of Stockholm-based Swedish Match Corp., has closed a book match plant in Hudson, N.Y. Diamond has closed two plants in Maine.
By consolidating, Diamond has equipped the Cloquet plant to produce items such as corn dog sticks - demand for which has skyrocketed because of the food’s use in school hot lunch programs, Bronikowski said - and non-match items now account for about half of the plant’s sales.
Previous unsuccessful attempts to diversify included a chopsticks-making venture in 1980. Bronikowski said the plant couldn’t meet the precise specifications of Japanese buyers and aborted the operation in less than two years.
The successful diversification efforts have boosted employment at the Cloquet plant, some 15 miles west of Duluth in northeastern Minnesota, to 325 from 160 in 1985.
Most of the improvement at Diamond has occurred in the past six years, a period that included two ownership changes. Jefferson Smurfit Inc. of Alton, Ill., bought the company in 1983 and sold it in October 1986 to St. Louis Park-based Diamond Brands, a privately-held company.
Irene Rudnicki, a plant supervisor who has been active in the employees’ union, said the Cloquet plant survived partly because the union agreed to major wage concessions for new employees. About 60 percent of the workers at Cloquet are women and wages range from $5.97 to $10.60 an hour.
Bronikowski said it takes about 75 minutes to convert ribbons of poplar into wooden matches and the plant makes about 60 million a day. In addition to the large strike-anywhere variety, the plant makes smaller ″penny″ matches that are struck against the box. An average tree from the surrounding hillsides can produce about 1.1 million matches, he said.
Unlike Universal, Diamond doesn’t manufacture book matches, even though it sells them. Richard C. Jones, Universal’s national sales manager, said the only other large scale U.S. book match maker is D.D. Bean Co. in Jaffrey, N.H.