Sparkler firm finds the old dazzle Elkton company won key ruling against its foreign competition

July 04, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

NORTH EAST -- Charles "Bud" Shivery won't light one sparkler today. He's already had his fill of sparklers for this July Fourth.

Mr. Shivery heads the Elkton Sparkler Co., the family-owned and -operated company near this Cecil County town that until the mid-1980s was the world's largest maker of sparklers.

Mr. Shivery, his two sons and their 50 to 60 employees have worked since September producing the sparklers that millions of Americans will wave in celebration of this most patriotic of holidays.

The Shivery family has made sparklers for America since 1945.

"It's in my blood and my children's blood," says Mr. Shivery, 62.

His father, William, started the company after working in the sparkler section of an old Cecil County fireworks plant.

At the end of World War II, the sale of sparklers was illegal in about half the states, including Maryland.

"We had the whole United States market -- what there was of it --for a couple of years," Bud Shivery says.

The founder hired more workers for his factory, and in the early 1950s took on a partner, Walter Arrants. His son, Walter Jr., is now the factory manager.

Bud Shivery came aboard in 1951. He had just graduated from the Johns Hopkins University with a degree in electrical engineering and, he says, "with the idea of not working in the sparkler business." But his father was sick and asked him to help out temporarily.

"So my temporary job started in 1951," Bud Shivery says. He became president and general manager when his father died in 1958. He is still president, although he began reducing his role three years ago.

"I grew up with it and learned to love it," he says. "And I guess my kids did, too."

His sons, Charles, 35, and David, 28, manage the company now. Charles, a business administration major in college, had thought he might become an accountant.

"But the more I saw of the three-piece suits and all the bureaucracy, the more I turned to this," he says. "This is a little more exciting -- a lot more exciting, actually. And you're helping a lot of people celebrate. That's part of it, too."

Inside the three small concrete-block buildings on Sparkler Lane, Elkton Sparkler Co. employees have worked diligently the past few weeks filling last-minute orders.

In one, workers cut wire into sparkler lengths of 8, 10, 14, 18 and 32 inches. The 8- and 10-inch sparklers are 80 percent of the business, he says.

In another building, the workers dip the wires, 500 at a time, into vats of chemicals.

Mr. Shivery won't tell everything about the method. After all, he says, there are two other companies in the United States making sparklers -- one in Youngstown, Ohio, that makes only sparklers, and one right here in Cecil County that makes sparklers and other fireworks.

But basically, he says, the mixture in the vats contains barium nitrate (the oxidizer), aluminum (the fuel) and iron (the sparks).

"A sparkler's a match that has sparks on it; that's what it really is," he says. "A sparkler can set on fire anything a match can."

In the third building, workers put sparklers into boxes. Trucks carry the boxes across town to the company's warehouse, which, this time of year, is nearly empty.

Mr. Shivery's workers ship 75 percent of their sparklers in April, May and June. In September, sometimes late August, they begin making sparklers for the coming Fourth of July.

But first, they take at least a month off.

By July 4 they're exhausted, because the rush that inevitably occurs brings six-day weeks and the deadline pressure.

In its peak in the late 1970s, the company was the world's largest sparkler company, with 80 to 85 employees turning out 1 million sparklers a day.

By then most states had legalized the sale of sparklers. Maryland made it legal in 1976. Today, Mr. Shivery says, 36 or 37 states allow the sale of sparklers, and you can buy Elkton Sparkler Co. sparklers in about 30 of them.

But foreign competition, especially from China, began taking its toll in the early 1980s. The Chinese government cut the price of its sparklers 50 percent, Mr. Shivery says.

It got so bad, Mr. Shivery says, that China was shipping sparklers to the United States and selling them for less than it cost him to buy the raw materials.

The Elkton Sparkler Co. faced a crossroads.

"We could have become one of their distributors," Mr. Shivery says, referring to the Chinese factories. "We could join them, or we could fight them."

They fought. His company petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission to take action against China by adding an import duty to its price.

After a three-year battle, the Shivery company won. Just two weeks ago, Mr. Shivery says, the commission ruled that China must pay a penalty ranging from 42 percent to 94 percent of the price of its sparklers. That, Mr Shivery says, levels the playing field once again -- and just in time.

For he says, sales at the Elkton firm had "dropped off drastically." The company survived by importing snakes, poppers, snappers from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Brazil and China and packaging them with its own sparklers in variety packs. Already, he says, the company is getting back some of the business it lost to China.

Today, the boss and the workers alike are pretty much weary of sparklers.

Betty Clark, 61, is the supervisor in the packing house.

"I tell all the employees if they want them, they can take some sparklers home," she says. "But nobody ever takes them.

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