Sept. 14--Roald Dahl, best-selling author of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," sharpened six of them each day before he started writing. ESPN football analyst Lee Corso often holds one on TV.
The iconic yellow Ticonderoga pencil is a century old, and the Seminole County company that makes it says that even in a world dominated by technology, pencil sales are sharp.
"We're doing really well," Chief Executive Officer Timothy Gomez said. "We're by far the dominant manufacturer and distributor of pencils in the U.S. market."
Made of cedar wood with glued-on erasers so kids can't chew them off, Ticonderoga pencils cost more than many competitors. At Walmart in Altamonte Springs last week, a box of 10 cost $2.27, compared with a generic 10-pack for 94 cents.
The extra cost is worth it to Joey Rodriguez of St. Cloud. He said he quickly tired of cheap pencils with broken lead and smudgy erasers after his 7-year-old son, E.J., started attending school.
"If I find something good quality that doesn't irritate me, I don't mind spending the money on it," said Rodriguez, 38. "It's easier to have a good-quality pencil."
Dixon proclaims the Ticonderoga "The World's Best Pencil." It markets heavily to teachers and parents through a revamped loyalty program that provides frequent buyers with free products.
The strategy appears to be working.
The company is taking market share from other pencil makers, even as it focuses more on making paints and markers, Gomez said.
The privately held company wouldn't disclose current revenues, but Gomez said they have increased 45 percent during five years. Year-over-year sales of pencils shot up 18.8 percent in 2012, Dixon says.
U.S. pencil sales reached $452.8 million in 2013, up 7 percent from a year earlier, according to the research company NPD Group. Pricier products drove that growth, with the number of pencils sold declining 4.7 percent to 2.8 billion. Dixon Ticonderoga says it sells about 1.5 billion pencils a year here annually.
Companies such as Dixon Ticonderoga are "marketing the fact there's better-quality pencils out there," said Lora Morsovillo, president of NPD's office-supplies division. "They sharpen better, have better erasers on them."
Dixon is one of America's oldest companies, created by the merger of the Joseph Dixon Crucible Co. with the Bryn Mawr Corp., a Pennsylvania company dating back to 1795. Joseph Dixon began making pencils in the 1830s -- more than 200 years after folks in England discovered they could scribble with the material. (It's graphite, not lead, that makes a pencil write.)
The company moved to Vero Beach in 1983 from Jersey City, N.J., where it had its headquarters for 127 years, and to Central Florida in 1990.
Corso, who lives in Central Florida, is a former director of business development and now a consultant.
Dixon produces other types of pencils, including store brands for retailers such as Office Max and Office Depot. The company has about 3,000 employees and has operations from China to Macon, Ga. It does not make products in Central Florida, where its headquarters employs more than 50 people.
Dixon has had its struggles. Sales were flat, hovering at $88 million for several years, before FILA-Fabbrica Italiana Lapis ed Affini S.p.A., an Italian manufacturer of writing equipment, bought the company in 2005. During the economic downturn, Dixon laid off 80 U.S. employees, half of them at the Heathrow headquarters.
Now back in growth mode, Dixon said it has hired 20 people during the past four months in its U.S. operations, which include Heathrow and Macon, Ga.
Dixon is working on new products, including its first pencil sharpener and a pencil-shaped eraser. But because overall demand for pencils isn't growing, Dixon wants to make its mark even more with art products.
Right now, pencils make up three-quarters of Dixon's business. Gomez expects that to drop to 60 percent in the next five years.
The company has for years sold Prang markers and paints. As it has with Ticonderoga pencils, Dixon has been promoting the quality of those products.
It bought the Lyra line of colored pencils a few years ago and is working on another acquisition. Gomez gave few details but said it involves paint.
"We are a company that's not just a pencil company," he said. "We're also an arts-and-crafts company. We intend to have a portfolio starting from the time you're in the 0-to-3 age group, on to becoming an amateur or professional artist."
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