Eight decades ago, an oil man named George Blaisdell observed a friend try—and fail—to light a lady’s cigarette on a windy day in rural northwest Pennsylvania. The futile attempt sparked an idea in Blaisdell’s mind: He’d create a windproof lighter. The Zippo Manufacturing Co. today remains the first name in flame, and Blaisdell’s descendants still own it. How they’ve kept it going as America stopped smoking is instructive for anyone trying to retain control of a family business. Blaisdell’s grandson, George Duke, explains:
After your grandfather died in 1978, who owned the company—and what happened next? It passed to my mother, Sarah, her sister, Harriett Wick, and their families. We then went through a period of very rapid growth in the 1990s by pricing our lighters between $13 and $40 and appealing to collectors. Our sales went from $30 million in 1985 to about $150 million a decade later. And then the Wick family decided they wanted to do something else with their lives. My brother did, too.
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