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Cherries atop global sundae Tree plantings in Orchard Park mark Mentholatum's 120th anniversary

Mentholatum Co. is celebrating its 120th anniversary, a milestone few businesses can match.

The company will mark the occasion in a novel way, planting 120 cherry trees on the grounds of its world headquarters in Orchard Park.

Each tree will symbolize a year in the history of the health care and wellness products company, but the imagery is suitable for an additional reason. Mentholatum has been owned by a Japanese parent company since the late 1980s, and the cherry trees evoke Japan's famous gifts to the United States that became a Washington, D.C., tourist attraction.

Mentholatum is also donating $20,000 each to the Food Bank of Western New York and the Buffalo Zoo as part of its celebration planned for Thursday.

Representatives of Mentholatum and its parent company, Rohto, from around the world are scheduled to attend, including Rohto's chairman.

Akiyoshi Yoshida, who has served as president and chief executive officer of Mentholatum since moving here from Japan in 1999, said the anniversary offers the company an opportunity to share its good fortune with the region.

"Mentholatum has received a lot of support from the community," Yoshida said. "That is what has kept us here."

The company's origins date from 1889 in Wichita, Kan., where A.A. Hyde founded Yucca Co., a maker of soap and shaving cream. The company added a second Yucca factory in Buffalo in 1903, attracted by the city's extensive railroad service and port access to Great Lakes.

The company changed its name to Mentholatum in 1906. The Wichita plant was later phased out, and Buffalo became the headquarters in the mid-1940s.

In 1919, Mentholatum finished building a new location on Niagara Street, where it would remain until 1998, when it moved into its current home on Sterling Drive in Orchard Park, near Route 219.

The company has 225 local employees, a mix of manufacturing and office jobs. The Orchard Park site's production includes Mentholatum deep-heating rub and ointment, Soft-lips, Natural Ice lip balm, Oxy-branded products, and Phisoderm cleansers and body washes. Mentholatum also has other plants worldwide, with a total work force of more than 1,500.

In the late 1980s, Mentholatum approached Rohto Pharmaceutical Co. about buying the company, Yoshida said. The two companies already had a business relationship, and a deal was struck in 1988. Today, Rohto Group has annual sales of more than $1 billion.

Mentholatum is familiar locally because of its decades-old presence. But the company's top market is the Far East, which accounts for half of Mentholatum's $300 million in annual sales.

Mentholatum is a household name in Japan because it started distributing its products in Japan in the early 1900s, Yoshida said. "That's one of the reasons that the Mentholatum name and ointment is so well-loved by the Japanese people."

Yoshida travels frequently for his job, going to Japan about six times a year, as well as other cities where Mentholatum has operations. The company's products are sold in 130 countries.

While Mentholatum has lots of history behind its name, the company needs to keep developing new products to remain competitive with other health care products companies, Yoshida said. He said he emphasizes the need for innovation to maintain that growth.

"I promote the innovation everywhere in the company, not only in the new products and technology, but in marketing, in sales," he said.

Mentholatum considered a number of worthy candidates for its two $20,000 donations before choosing the Food Bank and the Zoo, Yoshida said. It viewed the Food Bank as a way to help those in need, Yoshida said.

"During these difficult economic times, people are suffering lost jobs, and maybe people are in need of assistance," he said.

For the Food Bank, the donation "couldn't come at a better time," said Mary Lou Borowiak, president and CEO. The organization sent large shipments of food, water and cleaning supplies to support flooding victims in the Southern Tier.

With $20,000, she said, the organization can distribute nearly 110,000 meals to people in need. "We're just thrilled to have them as a neighbor."

On a lighter note, Borowiak acknowledged being regular user of Mentholatum's lip balm.

The Zoo donation was a way to promote a message of conservation "for the benefit of both animal and humankind," Yoshida said.

The donation will help pay for a barn owl exhibit that will be part of a heritage farm exhibit scheduled to open next spring, said Adair Saviola, director of development and marketing. Mentholatum was already a Zoo supporter, but the large donation was a pleasant surprise, she said.

Yoshida said Mentholatum will continue to enhance its history on the grounds. Each year, he said, the company will plant another cherry tree. "It's not only for Mentholatum," he said, "it's for the people, the neighbors in our community."

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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