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AIDS Scare : Condoms Go to Front of the Market

February 28, 1987|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

LITTLE FALLS, N.J. — Bill Chrzanowski walked to Building 21, a squat, brick structure in the middle of the Schmid Laboratories facility here, and pulled open a big steel door. "Six months ago," he said, "no one knew this place existed." The factory manager headed inside. Inside was where they make the condoms.

The plant was warm and smelled powerfully of ammonia. Chrzanowski picked his way through a labyrinth of storage tanks and test stations, and it all seemed rather nondescript, generically industrial, until he reached the dipping machine. Generality vanished at the dipping machine.

Made of Latex

Zipping along a 250-foot conveyor belt was a procession of more than 2,000 glass and stainless steel phallic molds, called mandrels. Along the way, the mandrels were submerged twice in troughs of latex, natural sap from Malaysian rubber trees. The forms rotated after each dip to ensure a smooth, even spread of the liquid. The latex dried and hardened and finally peeled off, another condom finished. And the ceaseless mandrels glided away for another 17-minute turn around the rectangular circuit.

"How many of these things do you make?" Chrzanowski was asked as he watched the freshly made prophylactics flop down steadily, plop, plop, plop, into collection sacks.

"About a half-million," he said.

"Is that a week, a month, or a year?"

"That's a day."

The Media Crackled

This was a Tuesday morning in mid-February, and everything was crazy in the condom industry. One of those invisible tripwires of the communications age had been activated, and the explosion was at full strength. Time and Newsweek cover stories, television news specials, radio talk shows--the media crackled with condom talk. Ministers and frat houses conducted condom giveaways. Johnny Carson told condom jokes by night, and by day the Surgeon General made front page news publicly promoting condom usage. Condom stock achieved orbit.

Heightened fear about AIDS--particularly among heterosexuals heeding warnings that they, too, should beware of the deadly virus--was of course most responsible for the clamor; while research is still under way, independent studies have found that the AIDS virus cannot penetrate a properly used, unbroken prophylactic.

For those who make and market condoms, it was all rather strange--at once both glorious and frightening. To tour the industry from factory to pharmacy during this frenetic time was to encounter a lot of bewildered people, not quite sure how to react to being heralded as front-line soldiers in a war against the next plague.

The industry had long been content to deliver its modest contribution to the gross national product in obscurity, perhaps with even a faint blush of embarrassment. Three major manufacturers had dominated for decades, and competition was described as "a peaceful co-existence."

Now, everything was fluid, volatile. A war of self-promotion was under way and the potential for success--for redefining the product, for increasing market share of individual brands, for expanding the stakes of the competition--seemed unlimited. Conversely, so did the potential for failure. This was not the time for a marketing miscalculation.

No Overnight Bonanza

Sales were estimated to be running about 10% ahead of 1986. This was the first increase in five years, but it hardly represented an overnight bonanza. And industry executives could recall how, a few years back, herpes blasted briefly through the national consciousness without a discernable impact on condom sales.

"I'm not sure where it's going to go," said Don Falk, the president of Schmid, which markets condoms under the Ramses, Sheik and Fourex brands. "Frankly--and I'm sure every manufacturer of condoms would tell you this--we would be delighted to basically get back to running the business of selling condoms for contraception, which is what we have done for 103 years."

There were few workers in the Schmid factory. Chrzanowski said a crew of only 17 keeps the plant operating 24 hours a day, five days a week. A microbiologist by training, Chrzanowski, 39, has toiled for Schmid for 16 years. His tenure is hardly remarkable. Many of his workers have been there longer, and at least two have made condoms for more than 40 years.

"It's steady work," was how Chrzanowski explained it.

Schmid, a subsidiary of London International, is the second largest producer of condoms for sale in the United States, claiming about 40% of the market. The biggest line is Trojans, which accounts for slightly more than half the market. The Trojans line was purchased last year by Carter Wallace Inc., a New York-based drug company. Ansell-Americas sells a much smaller percentage under its LifeStyles brand, but its volume of government contract work--mainly producing prophylactics for free distribution in the Third World--makes it the nation's largest condom manufacturer.

Imports a New Factor

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