Zippo Manufacturing Co., the northwestern Pennsylvania company that makes metal-cased cigarette lighters with lids known for their distinctive "click," is on schedule to produce its 500 millionth lighter later this year.
And by ramping up production, Zippo is projecting it can make that happen on June 5 _ the birthday of the late George Blaisdell. He founded the company in 1932 in Bradford, a city tucked next to the Allegheny National Forest, about 130 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
Blaisdell died in 1978, but his grandson, company owner George Duke, 59, said the 500 million milestone "is just a testament to the ingenuity my grandfather had when he built the lighter originally."
"It's a product that works, it's a product that is relatively the same exact lighter it was in late 1932," Duke said. "It's a huge milestone to us and it's a huge milestone to our Zippo fans around the world."
The company counts millions of collectors, who are drawn to the lighters' retro-chic design, in addition to cigarette smokers who actually use the lighters.
Paul J. Lucas, a brand consultant who founded his self-named PaulJLucas.com in Washington D.C., said the kind of publicity that comes with such a milestone is more valuable than typical advertising, because it has built-in credibility.
"Five-hundred million tells a big story," Lucas said. "It means 500 million times a decision was made by someone to buy a Zippo lighter. That's really a `wow' number."
To celebrate the milestone, Zippo will produce roughly 60,000 replica lighters that day, each with a commemorative stamp.
About 50,000 replicas of the 500 millionth lighter produced that day will come with the company's well-known brushed nickel chrome finish. Another 10,000 or so will be made with high-polished Armor cases with gold engraving to mark the occasion. The chrome replicas will sell for $50 and the Armor for $100.
Zippo's basic, brushed chrome lighters retail for $14.95 and, like all Zippos, comes with a lifetime replacement guarantee.
The company took 10 years to produce its 1 millionth lighter _ becoming a staple of Americana when Zippos were issued to U.S. soldiers during World War II _ and 37 years to hit the 100 million mark.
The 400 millionth was produced on Sept. 4, 2003, meaning the company will take about three months less than nine years to produce its last 100 million lighters.
The company took just over seven years to produce its previous 100 million lighters, a slowdown the company attributes to anti-smoking pressure in some markets. That's one reason why the company last year launched a series of Zippo-branded products _ ranging from watches, to leisure clothing to cologne _ to bolster the brand.
Lucas said the lighter milestone should increase interest in all those products because it makes the brand more valuable.
"There's all kinds of things people can deduce from that number without having advertising copy rammed down their throat," Lucas said, including that Zippo lighters are reliable and durable.
There's even a positive message for the company's 620 employees. "If you sell your successes internally, it can really make a big difference to employee morale," Lucas said.
"There are employees whose fathers and grandfathers have worked for this company," Duke said. "It really is kind of an achievement, but not only (what) Zippo has done and the employees, but something that Bradford has achieved."
"We're kind of a big family here in this town."