Incorporated: 1982 as Ronson International Ltd.
Sales: £8.98 million (2001)
Stock Exchanges: London
Ticker Symbol: RON.L
NAIC: 339999 All Other Miscellaneous Manufacturing
Ronson Plc is the holding company for Ronson International Limited, distributor of Ronson brand lighters and associated products throughout most of the world (excluding the United States, Australia, and Japan). The Ronson name became famous through the innovative and stylish lighters produced since 1913. Metal wares made by the Art Metal Works and other predecessor companies are also collector’s items.
Ronson PLC, based in England, is independent from New Jersey-based Ronson Corporation, which produces Ronson-branded lighters and affiliated products for U.S. consumption. The British company was spun off from Ronson Corporation in 1981.
Louis V. Aronson was born in New York City on Christmas Day 1869 to Jewish immigrant parents. He was drawn to metallurgy at a young age, and in the 1880s developed the Ormolu process of gold plating.
Aronson sold the rights to the Ormolu process and formed the Art Metal Company in 1886. Although the firm would become best known for cigarette lighters, at this time it made a diverse array of metal wares, sometimes on contract for other manufacturers.
Originally based in New York City, the firm relocated to the rapidly growing, industry-friendly city of Newark, New Jersey, in 1897, when it was renamed Art Metal Works (AMW). In the same year, Aronson patented a “Safety Match” that used sulfur instead of phosphorus.
In 1910, AMW trademarked the name “Ronson,” an abbreviation of the founder’s name. This trademark was first used on toys and other products, rather than lighters.
The company’s first pocket lighter, the Wonderliter, was introduced in 1913. It used a wick and a striker made with a newly invented metal alloy. AMW made military products during World War I, and expanded as well. A booming world economy after the war helped sales reach $1 million in 1920.
The company thrived as the Art Deco movement swept the world of design in the 1920s. The style was apparent in AMW’s hood ornaments, bookends, clocks, and other products.
Introduction of Banjo Lighter: 1928
Two significant events happened in 1928: the company listed on the stock exchange, and it introduced its $5 Banjo lighter. The Banjo, which could be operated with one motion of the hand, was an instant success; it would fuel the company’s growth for years. In 1929, AMW recycled the design in a perfume atomizer called the “Perfu-Mist.”
Art Metal Works launched a worldwide expansion in 1929, building a plant in Canada. A U.K. subsidiary, Ronson Products Limited, was established in Battersea in 1930. By this time, the company was focusing on the lucrative cigarette lighter business.
Alexander Harris became the second president of Ronson Art Metal Works in 1940 after the death of Louis Aronson. Harris had begun working for the company 32 years earlier.
During World War II, the company’s output was directed towards military products, including, appropriately, flame throwers, as well as fuses for bombs and small components for the aircraft industry. GI humor used the Ronson name as an epithet for the M4 Sherman tank, which caught fire easily when hit. The company’s slogan then was “always lights the first time.” Ronson’s own factory in England was nearly destroyed by German bombing; due to its strategic importance, it was relocated to an old boarding school in London.
The parent company’s name was changed to Ronson Art Metal Works, Inc. in 1945. The British subsidiary was relocated to a giant new factory in Leatherhead, south London, in 1952. Employment there was 2,500 during the 1950s.
Louis V. Aronson II, born in 1923 to the son of the founder, became the firm’s third president in 1953 upon the retirement of Alexander Harris. The firm became simply Ronson Corporation in 1954. Sales reached $26 million.
Between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, Ronson diversified its manufacturing, particularly in the United States, into a wide range for consumers and industry. These included such obvious spinoffs as torches and lighter fluid and extended into specialized pneumatic and hydraulic valves for the aerospace industry. Ronson also extended the brand into the bathroom with shavers, toothbrushes, and hair dryers, and into the kitchen with carving knives, blenders, can openers, and other appliances.
Varaflame pocket lighters, using the new Multi-Fill fueling system, were introduced in 1957. They were a blazing success; the company was producing 15,000 a day around the world by the end of the decade. The Varaflame Premier was the best-known model; the Adonis Varaflame was a smaller version for women. The plastic, butane-filled “Comet” pocket lighter came out in 1965. Ronson ended the 1960s with 11,000 people working at 17 plants around the world.
Ronson continued to refine the technology for lighting cigarettes. Electronic ignition was introduced in 1970. One innovation that did not work very well was the Varachem ignition cartridge, which used highly reactive rocket fuel. This system was pulled shortly after its 1976 launch due to dangerous leakage problems.
Sales reached $128 million in 1974. The British unit was particularly successful in the mid-1970s. However, several factories in the United States were closed as competition from cheap disposable lighters cut into sales. Ronson USA found its diversified businesses in serious trouble as well, and decided to liquidate all the foreign subsidiaries. Ronson rolled out its own Magnum disposable lighter in 1980.
British Unit Spun Off in 1981
Ronson lost $5.5 million in 1980, $3.6 million of it from the U.K. subsidiary Ronson Products. Jeffrey Port bought the business for $6.1 million that September, reorganizing it as Ronson International a couple of months later. The company entered receivership in July 1982.
Geoffrey Richmond acquired the company in 1983, renaming it Ronson Exports Limited. The company began importing lighters from Asia in 1986. The high value of the British pound depressed sales for a few years.
Halkin Holdings plc acquired Ronson Exports for £10 million in 1994. It was soon renamed Ronson PLC. The CEO of Halkin was Howard Hodgson, who had in the 1980s transformed his family’s mortuary into something of a conglomerate.
Hodgson appointed Colgate-Palmolive and Johnson Wax veteran Arthur Till as Ronson’s managing director in March 1994. With an eye to capturing the attention of a new generation of consumers, the product line was expanded to 19 lighters, including the Premier Varaflame, and the brand was soon reintroduced in 50 countries. An updated version of the Comet was rolled out in 1995.
The Newcastle factory suffered a devastating fire in January 1996. Production was restored within a month. Another disaster was the large-scale expansion of the brand into lifestyle products such as watches, pens, luggage, and sunglasses, and the launch of the Rebel, Retro, and Racer lighters. The company lost £11 million in 1997. Hodgson was ousted in the middle of the year.
Victor Kiam, the owner of Remington Products Company and the TV pitchman for the namesake electric razor, acquired a controlling interest in the company and became CEO in July 1998. (He replaced Richard Furse, who had only been confirmed as CEO himself four months earlier.) Kiam presided over a difficult period of cost-cutting, including shutting down production of the Varaflame Premier in England. He died in May 2001.
Turning Around After 2000
Ronson posted a pretax loss of £1.65 million on turnover down 30 percent to £7.25 million for 2000. The company had lost money on an aborted e-commerce venture, as well as a comprehensive restructuring designed to reorient its products toward the contemporary marketplace. Ronson hired design firms Karim Rashid of New York and London’s Factory Design to develop new models. Ronson also dropped a license agreement to distribute Pierre Cardin costume jewelry, focusing on the lighter business.
Ronson cut manufacturing costs and trimmed less aggressive distributors from its network. It signed a new deal to supply disposable lighters for Tesco, among others. Disposables accounted for 60 percent of sales. After a few years of losses, Ronson was able to show a profit of £384,000 on turnover up 24 percent to £8.98 million in 2001.
The Ronson Brand name is world renowned as being synonymous with expertly engineered products having unique and innovative designs and offering the consumer a desirable quality product.
New products included childproof and windproof lighters and a stylish, refillable one aimed at the growing youth market, along with a new line of cigarette papers. There was also the
“Xtreme” line of lighters; the V2citrus lighter, based on the Premier Varaflame; and the Shark lighter, shaped like the marine predator.
The future for Ronson PLC was anything but clear. However, there could be no doubt that the Ronson name and product line had made a significant impression in the minds of consumers and collectors during the course of its history.
Ronson International Limited; Ronson Polska SP z.o.o. (Poland).
Alfred Dunhill Ltd.; Bic Corp.; Colibri Corporation; Gillette Corp.; Scripto-Tokai Corporation; Zippo Manufacturing Co.
- Art Metal Company is formed in New York by Louis V. Aronson.
- Art Metal Works, as the company is now known, relocates to New Jersey.
- Pocket Lighter is patented.
- Company goes public.
- U.K. subsidiary is opened.
- Varaflame refillable lighters are introduced.
- U.K. subsidiary enters liquidation.
- Ronson Exports Limited is formed.
- Halkin Holdings plc acquires Ronson Exports.
- Ronson Exports becomes Ronson plc.
- Victor Kiam becomes Ronson plc chairman.
- Ronson plc begins to show a profit again as it aims at a younger market.
Batchelor, Charles, “Ronson Suffers from e-Venture,” Financial Times (London), Companies & Finance, April 10, 2001, p. 24.
Blackwell, David, “Hodgson Pushed Off Board at Ronson,” Financial Times (London), Companies & Markets, June 3, 1997, p. 21.
——, “Kiam Steps Up As Ronson Directors Leave,” Financial Times (London), Companies & Finance, July 8, 1998, p. 23.
——, “Ronson Burned by Lighter Launch,” Financial Times (London), Companies & Finance, October 16, 1997, p. 23.
——, “Ronson Shares Set to Resume Trading Today,” Financial Times (London), Companies & Finance, September 21, 1998, p. 27.
Booth, Hannah, “Factory Ignites Ronson’s Range of Cigarette Lighters,” Design Week, October 25, 2001, p. 7.
Cummings, Urban K., The Ronson Book: The World’s Greatest Lighter: Wick Lighters 1913–2000, 2nd ed., n.p., 2001.
“Halkin Gains Further Rights Over Ronson Products,” Extel Examiner, July 15, 1994.
“Hodgson: Resuscitating Another Dying Brand,” Financial Times, March 10, 1994, p. 17.
“The Investment Column: High Debt Levels and Increased Borrowings Make Ronson One to Avoid,” Independent (London), April 18, 2002, p. 19.
“Repayment Hopes for Ronson Intl. Creditors,” Financial Times (London), Sec. I, September 10, 1983, p. 18.
Rigby, Elizabeth, “Ronson Warning As Simon Russell Alights,” Financial Times (London), Companies & Finance, December 6, 2000, p. 30.
Schneider, Stuart L., Ronson’s Art Metal Works, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 2001.
Schneider, Stuart L., and George Fischler, Cigarette Lighters, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1996.
Schneider, Stuart L., and Ira Pilossof, Handbook of Lighters, Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer Publishing, 1999.
Thackray, Rachelle, “Cigarette Lighters Drag Ronson Sales Down by 31% to £3.5m,” Independent (UK), September 28, 2000, p. 22.
“Turnaround in Results Sparks Hope at Ronson,” Evening News (Edinburgh), August 31, 2001, p. B8.
—Frederick C. Ingram