D.D. BEAN:  The Last of its Kind in North America

In the ranks of the region’s longest running businesses is D.D. Bean and Sons in Jaffrey, a match manufacturer that has withstood dramatic industry changes in its eight decades to become the last company of its kind in the United States and Canada.

It currently produces on average, one million matches per day that are sold all around the world.

Its staying power can be attributed to savvy business moves, a willingness to explore new avenues of revenue, and, most importantly, a dedicated family ownership that deftly steers the ship. A new generation of Beans now co-own and run the business; Mark C., Christopher V., and the eldest sibling, Delcie D., who shares his name with the founder of the company, Delcie D. Bean Sr. (1883-1964) who founded the company in 1938 with his two sons, Vernon and Delcie D. “Jack” Bean, Jr.

Throughout its history, D.D. Bean specialized in commodity plain-white matchbooks that are resold in grocery stores in boxes of 50 or distributed in convenience stores and handed out with cigarette sales.

“That business has been declining for a very very long time,” says Mark C. Bean.

That’s partially because of the decline in smoking, Bean notes, but “more importantly on account of disposable cigarette lighters which, when they came along in the mid-1970s, just sort of wiped out the whole match industry.”

THE BEANS BROADEN THEIR MARKET

By the turn of the millennium, D.D. Bean and Texas-based Atlas Match LLC were the last match manufacturers standing in the U.S.; in Canada, one company stood standing, Eddy Match, which made custom matches, coasters and other promotional items.

D.D. Bean acquired both. In April 2016, D.D. Bean purchased Atlas, a company on the other end of the spectrum making custom matches in small quantities for hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants. D.D. Bean acquired Eddy Match in the same deal through which it acquired Atlas. Now it distributes book matches, wooden matches and all of the other Atlas products throughout Canada.

“So even though they make matches — both companies make matches — we’re very much in different segments of the industry,” Bean says.

The Atlas acquisition gave D.D. Bean the mantle of the last manufacturer standing in the U.S. But there was an important decision to make: Does the company stay in Jaffrey or move to Texas?

Making custom matchbooks requires different equipment and a process that was foreign to D.D. Bean. It would be an entirely new business to learn, Bean says, and for the first year or so the leadership was leaning toward the Lone Star State.

But along with the heartstrings keeping the family business tied to Jaffrey, there were practical reasons to stay. In 2017, for instance, the company landed a contract making fire starters and brought in new equipment and employees for the job. After that, Bean says, it seemed silly to move all that to a new location.

The transfer of Atlas Match to Jaffrey began in November 2018, and Bean says it’s about 95 percent done. The Texas plant is closed and most of the company’s equipment is now located in Jaffrey — some of which required building new rooms and cutting holes in floors to make it all fit. The business also used the transition as a chance to upgrade to digital printers, Bean adds.

And the company went from 35 to about 80 employees during the acquisition.

“When we made the announcement that we were going to be closing the Texas facility, we offered jobs to everybody. We had zero takers,” Bean says with a laugh. “No one wanted to move from Texas to New Hampshire.”

THE BEANS OF JAFFREY, N.H.

The current owners’ grandfather, Delcie David Bean, founded the company in 1938 with Mark Bean’s father and uncle, but Delcie’s sights had been set on matches for years prior.

Delcie worked in the lumber business in the early 1900s and sold large amounts of white pine to companies making wooden matches, piquing his interest. In the early 1920s, Mark Bean says Delcie launched N.H. Match Co. in a factory building downtown Jaffrey, but later sold that company.

While Delcie’s first company, N.H. Match Co. made wooden light sources, his new company, D.D. Bean & Sons, right from the start made paper matches. Bean says the industry started to shift from wood to paper right around the time his grandfather entered the business as people realized paper matches were more convenient, cheaper to make and offered advertising space on the front.

Delcie and his sons began their legacy in a Jaffrey mill building that still houses much of the operation today. Originally a gristmill, Bean says the building became a textile mill until it was severely damaged in a 1936 flood. The men bought the facility two years later with the help of government financing during the Great Depression.

For years, that mill contained the whole operation, Bean says, before the company added a second building nearby in 1960, and renovations were completed around the 1990s for more office space.

Sitting off Peterborough Street, a small road runs between the old mill and the newer facility, and a short underground tunnel connects the two buildings. Bean says that tunnel was likely needed decades ago when that road was the thoroughfare to Peterborough and Jaffrey. Two years ago, Bean worked with the town for a warrant article discontinuing the portion of Cheshire Road that runs through the company’s property, concerned about a tunnel collapse. Employees use the underground tunnel to go between the facilities, and conveyor belts carry matches through during the production process.

The acquisition of Atlas increased activity at the Jaffrey company and brought in more workers, but Bean noted that the business was once much larger. By the 1970s, D.D. Bean had four factories, including one in Canada — and the company was just a drop in the bucket, he says. In the company’s heyday, D.D. Bean was making more than 10 million matches a day in just the Jaffrey facility.

THE DECLINE OF THE PAPER MATCH

Disposable lighters hit stores in the mid- to late-1970s and destroyed the market for matches as ignition sources. Manufacturers didn’t fully realize the impact lighters would have for nearly a decade, Bean says, before it became clear that they weren’t a fad or a fluke.

It was a “disruption, like what vinyl records had when they came out with CDs, and then CDs had when iTunes came out, you know,” Bean notes. “I mean, it was a complete change (to) the whole industry. A replacement product came along.”

Facing this new future — and watching competitors close their doors — D.D. Bean decided to focus on making its production as cheap and efficient as possible, he says. His family’s company spent decades making ignition sources, and now it would have to regroup.

“It’s the idea of, I think, of having to keep reinventing ourselves, to be able to adapt to what the market is now,” he says.

Acquiring Atlas is only the most recent step in a years-long strategic effort to stay relevant, buying a company that takes a different approach to the same item. Atlas has traditionally seen its work as an “advertising specialty product that happens to be matches,” Bean says.

The business also makes coasters, another promotional material for bars and restaurants that Bean says his company is eager to delve into. Coasters represent an opportunity to branch into new products while keeping close to D.D. Bean’s printing and advertising roots.

In 1998 — when the company was still reeling from the pervasive popularity of disposable lighters — a new hurdle befell the industry.

ROLLING WITH THE TIMES

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bean says his company had a contract with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for advertisements on matchbooks, which were often given away at convenience store counters with the purchase of a pack of cigarettes.

“So if they could have an ad for a Camel cigarette or a Winston cigarette on that matchbook, that made a lot of sense,” Bean says.

It was a lucrative deal for D.D. Bean that lasted more than a decade and kept its matches in wide distribution, he adds.

But the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement changed all that. Signed at the end of 1998 between the attorneys general of 46 states and the four largest tobacco companies in the U.S. (including R.J. Reynolds), the largest civil settlement in the country’s history, in part, banned most advertising and product marketing.

“That was a devastating blow for us,” Bean says. “It was a huge part of our total revenue, selling all of that advertising, and it all just went away.”

As a consequence, Bean says the company had to raise its prices, and in the years that followed the market was flooded with imported matchbooks from India. To combat the underpriced products, D.D. Bean worked with the U.S. International Trade Commission, which conducted an anti-dumping investigation and imposed tariffs.

Going forward, Bean says he expects his company to keep match sales stable, partially through a potential new market: marijuana dispensaries.

In states that have legalized recreational or medical cannabis use, shops are ordering matchbooks with their store logo on the front to hand out with purchases, presumably. Generally, marijuana users tend to be more environmentally conscious, Bean says, and the fact that matches are made of recycled materials and biodegradable after use might make them a more appealing than plastic lighters.

A HOME TOWN SUCCESS STORY

In many respects, Bean says the decision to stay in Jaffrey was a practical one, but the Bean family also has deep roots in town, and the company’s workforce consisted mostly of years-long employees, before the new-hires. Along with the brothers that run the operation, Bean says all the employees had really made it a “family business” over the decades.

“It was going to be awfully hard to close down here and move to Texas,” he says.

As a side project, Bean is working with a group in Jaffrey to establish a museum in town dedicated to the history of matches, including the manufacturers, materials and the artwork on matchbooks.

“It was such an important, iconic component of the 20th century,” Bean says. “Everything, every kind of product advertised on matches, and everybody used matches.”

Having worked with his family’s company for so long, he remembers its heyday in town, when D.D. Bean was a top employer in the region and the business was a big fish in a much bigger pond.

Now, while he acknowledges that the plant may not seem as much of an asset locally, Bean and his brothers sit at the helm of their grandfather’s company — the sole survivor of a long-standing industry in the U.S. — in their hometown.

“We’re very committed to Jaffrey,” Bean says, “and we’re glad that, despite not having the economic impact that we once did, we’re glad to be having the impact that we are now.” T

Sierra Hubbard is a staff writer at The Keene Sentinel.