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Britons Find Nestle Bid Distasteful : Town Petitions Thatcher to Save Beloved Candy Maker

May 25, 1988|From Reuters

YORK, England — For more than 250 years, the Rowntree candies company has taken care of the people of York.

Now, with Swiss food giant Nestle SA bidding $3.9 billion (2.1 billion pounds) to take over Rowntree PLC, the people of York say it is their turn to help the company.

Britons are nostalgic about Rowntree products--its "Don't forget the fruit gums, Mum" was one of the most famous British advertising slogans. Several generations got Kit Kat candy bars or Smarties candies as rewards for being good children.

But Rowntree has played a special role in York, a cathedral town of 110,000 people in northeastern England.

In a town where 40% of the young are out of work, locally based industry is critical, said John Cairns, chief executive of York's Guildhall--the medieval name for city hall.

Philanthropy Cited

'We've got to hold onto Rowntree to protect jobs," he said. "It is important for us not to have Rowntree become a fringe plant run from Geneva."

The Yorkshire Evening Press, York's local daily, has run a "Hands off Rowntree" campaign and sent 14,500 signatures petitioning Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher not to allow the takeover.

"Rowntree is more than an employer to us," said Martin King, deputy editor of the paper. "The company has endeared itself to York through its philanthropic work. People fear that Nestle would not show the same benevolence."

Rowntree, which traces its roots back to the grocery shop set up by Quaker matron Mary Tuke in 1725, provides nearly one-third of the manufacturing jobs in town. But the firm has in recent years trimmed its York work force almost by half to 5,500, largely because of automation.

In years past, it built whole districts of working class housing and supports programs ranging from holidays for the handicapped to convalescence homes.

It spends about $450,000 (250,000 pounds)a year in charitable donations.

"Success brought riches to the company's founders and, as devout Quakers, this caused them considerable embarrassment," said Gavin Russell, Rowntree public affairs director. "They set up trusts to put part of their wealth into community welfare projects," he said.

"The company's concern for the family is one of the most important things," said Judy Cox, who along with her husband, Ted, and daughter Sharon, works at Rowntree. "They look after you and even send you a birthday card each year," she said.

Her husband said he feared Nestle would cut jobs even further, although Nestle Managing Director Helmut Maucher has said there would not be fewer jobs under Swiss ownership.

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