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Meet the 89-year old billionaire CEO behind one of this year’s wildest stocks: Tootsie Roll

February 1, 2021, 12:30 AM UTC

In her 53 years running sweets maker Tootsie Roll Industries, CEO Ellen Gordon has seen a lot of things. But one thing she hadn’t before this week was her company’s stock getting swept up in stock market madness as day traders feuded with hedge funds.

While GameStop and AMC Entertainment were the headline grabbers, Tootsie Roll was briefly pulled along by retail traders swapping tips on a Reddit board, r/WallStreetBets. Tootsie Roll’s stock had been minding its own business last week, trading steadily around the $30 mark, and then the stock exploded in the following days, almost doubling to an all-time high of $58.98 on Wednesday before giving some of that gain back. And all that on no news at all (Tootsie Roll’s sales declines caused by the pandemic had long been known).

At one point this week, the stock moves made Tootsie Roll worth more than $4 billion. And in turn, it made Gordon, who became CEO in 2015 at the age of 83 when she replaced her deceased husband, a multibillionaire with her 55% stake, according to Bloomberg Data, worth $2.2 billion. Not bad for a company taking in about $500 million a year in sales.

The media-shy Gordon who eschews the quarterly conference calls with Wall Street analysts customary for public companies, has not yet responded to a request for an interview from Fortune.

Deeply ingrained in American culture, the candy maker’s namesake product was invented in New York in 1896 from a recipe concocted by Austrian immigrant Leo Hirschfield and named after his daughter’s nickname. (The Tootsie Pop came in 1931.)

Before this week, many hasn’t realized Tootsie Rolls was even a standalone company listed on the stock market. Yet indeed it is. Tootsie Roll made its New York Stock Exchange debut in 1922.

For Gordon, née Rubin in 1932, becoming CEO was not simply a matter of a wife inheriting a company from her husband. On the contrary, Ellen and her family were involved with Tootsie Roll long before she ever met him: The Rubins bought shares in the company the year it went public and by the time Ellen was a tot, they were majority shareholders, with her father eventually becoming president of Sweets Co of America, as the company was known at the time.

Ellen and Melvin, who married in 1950, later inherited the company and eventually started running it as equals from the get-go. After her studies, which included a graduate degree from Harvard University, she began working at Tootsie Roll in 1968 in pension planning and product development, showing a knack for the latter. By 1978, she was president and chief operating officer, while her husband, 12 years her senior, was CEO. (When he died 2015 at 95, he was the oldest CEO of any company listed on either the NYSE or Nasdaq.)

At most companies, her president title would have suggested she was the company’s No. 2. But the couple were equals in running the company. And she was certainly a trailblazer: she was only the second woman president of a NYSE-listed company ever.

Together, they navigated the eat-or-be-eaten world of confectionary M&A that saw mega deals like Mars buy William Wrigley and Kraft Foods buy Cadbury in the late aughts. Instead, Tootsie Roll, despite its small size and allure as a potential target and determined to stay independent, was an acquirer over the years, buying brands like Junior Mints and DOTS.

Upon her husband’s death, Ellen Gordon became CEO and, according to Chicago newspapers, has continued to run the company, focused on safeguarding what has made Tootsie Rolls dear to many consumers.

“It’s basically the same Tootsie Roll all these years,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1996. “People like to give it to their children, pass on the candy, and the memories that go with it, from one generation to the next.”