Sales: $320 million
SICs: 3589 Service Industry Machinery Nee; 3635 Household Vacuum Cleaners
BISSELL is best known for its line of mechanical carpet cleaners. These devices, which predate electrical vacuums by 50 years and continue to defy obsolescence, helped build BISSELL into a diversified homecare company. In addition to carpet sweepers, BISSELL Homecare manufactures deep cleaning machines, vacuums, and cleaning agents. The BISSELL Graphics division designs, manufactures, and markets a wide range of custom printed business forms, specialty tags, labels, and other printed products. Finally, the BISSELL Healthcare division markets over 8,000 patient-assist, rehabilitation, orthopedic treatment, and therapeutic products.
The BISSELL carpet sweeper was developed in 1876 by Melville R. Bissell, who operated a crockery store with his wife, Anna, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Bissells received most of their fragile glass and china shipments in crates packed with sawdust, which often spilled onto the floors in their shop. In sweeping up the wood shavings, Mr. Bissell kicked up dust that got into his rugs, prompting him to invest in a carpet sweeper. These devices, which had been available since 1858, used floor wheels to drive rotating brushes that swept dirt out of the pile in rugs. While not perfect, they were infinitely more effective than brooms.
Bissell purchased a model called the “Welcome,” but he noted several deficiencies in the design, and endeavored to develop a better model. The BISSELL design also used floor wheels to drive a brush, but on an improved reduction gear. The bristles bent slightly as they brushed through the carpet. When they rotated off the floor, they sprung whatever debris was in their path up into a compartment. The dirt could be emptied by simply opening the top of the box and shaking it over a garbage can.
Soon, many of the shop’s patrons were asking where they could buy this carpet sweeper, which they had seen work so effectively on sawdust, and Bissell began to wonder if his carpet sweeper was a marketable product. Anna Bissell had no doubt about the product. She eloquently noted that because Americans were clean in mind and body, the carpet sweeper would serve the cause of responsible living while reducing the strain and drudgery of housekeeping.
Melville Bissell couldn’t deny his wife’s logic, or the many customers asking about the sweeper. Beginning to see the device as nothing less than a revolution in housekeeping, Bissell cleared a space on the second floor of their crockery store for an assembly shop, where he supervised a small staff of workers. His wife collected brushes from cottage industry homemakers who were enlisted to assemble them.
The Bissells conducted their own sales visits, choosing to distribute their product through housewares retailers rather than through door-to-door salesmen. It took several months, but Anna Bissell succeeded in getting skeptical shopkeepers to purchase and display the carpet sweeper.
The device performed well in in-store demonstrations, and word of mouth quickly established a strong demand for the product. Soon the Bissells were turning out thirty carpet sweepers a day and shipping them to retailers throughout Michigan, the Midwest, and Eastern states.
The Bissells stumbled onto an effective new sales tool when a young BISSELL bookkeeper named Claude Hopkins suggested a change in the sweeper’s sales brochure. He argued that schematic diagrams and other mechanical details were of less interest to the consumer than the fashion aspects of the product. Hopkins’s brochure focused on the “golden maple, opulent walnut and rich mahogany” used to make the BISSELL sweeper.
The company’s directors feared that Hopkins’s approach undersold the technological superiority of the product: every aspect of the sweeper was patented, and the company vigorously sued those who infringed on its design. But they couldn’t deny the fact that Hopkins drastically boosted sales of the carpet sweeper. Inspired, Hopkins drew up a pamphlet promoting a limited edition of the device made from vermilion, a rare and exotic wood transported out of the jungles of India on the backs of elephants and floated to port on rafts. The stunt produced more sales in six weeks than the company had been able to muster in a year. Hopkins, who developed the strategy of promoting the carpet sweeper as a Christmas gift, later joined a Chicago advertising agency, where he built a career as one of the first masters of his art.
Melville and Anna Bissell incorporated their company in 1883, and built a new factory for making carpet sweepers. They also bought out two competitors, the Michigan Carpet Sweeper Company and the Grand Rapids Carpet Sweeper Company, but only to raid them of their managerial talent.
Soon after the new five-story BISSELL plant was completed, it was leveled in a fire. Melville Bissell mortgaged his entire personal fortune, including his home and his stable of horses, to finance a reconstruction. Shortly after production resumed, it was discovered that the factory’s entire output was defective. In order to protect the brand name, Bissell ordered the recall of every defective model, at a cost of more than $35,000.
The BISSELL name had become so well established by 1889, and had such a strong reputation for quality, that few competitors dared to challenge it. But tragedy struck that year when Melville contracted pneumonia and died at the age of forty-five. When Anna Bissell took control of the company, she became one of America’s first female executives.
After taking over for her husband, Anna decided to build BISSELL into an international brand. The company already had agencies in 20 foreign countries, but its penetration was light. Even though Europeans were more meticulous housekeepers, they had fewer carpet sweepers than Americans.
BISSELL salesmen in England held public demonstrations of the product, gently proving that the carpet sweeper could clean even the most delicate rugs. The big break came when Queen Victoria allowed the BISSELL sweeper to be used in her palace. Following the royal example, thousands of English homemakers ordered their own sweepers. Soon the practice of carpet sweeping became known generically as “Bisselling.”
Anna Bissell remained head of the company into the 1920s, when a new threat to the business emerged. Household electrification swept aside gas lights, hand cranks, and foot pedals and paved the way for hundreds of new appliances, including the vacuum cleaner. Bissell, however, remained confident that the public would not overcome its fear of the strange new power source for many years. She recognized electric vacuum cleaners as unforgiving monstrosities that were capable of shredding frail carpets and expensive Oriental rugs. Many models shorted out through misuse, causing terrifying flashes and even fires. BISSELL’s greatest asset at this point was the carpet sweeper’s well-established position in the retail network. By contrast, vacuum cleaners were sold by door-to-door salesmen, who had reputations as boisterous, imposing cheats.
As better models were developed, vacuum cleaners were accepted in more homes. In addition, vacuum manufacturers gradually eased their way into retail channels, where they made the BISSELL carpet sweeper look ancient by comparison. In order to avoid losing its place in the market, BISSELL introduced its own electric vacuum cleaner, with motorized brushes and a fan blade for sucking up dust. BISSELL vacuum cleaners, like others on the market, were loud and clumsy and kicked up dust.
Convinced that a market remained for the carpet sweeper, BISSELL continued to make improvements to its product line. Earlier innovations included better bearings and a handle that adjusted the sweeping pressure on the brushes. With a design that debuted in 1928, the cleaner automatically adjusted the height of the brushes to different surfaces.
Melville Bissell, Jr., took control of the company from his mother by this time. During the Great Depression, few people had money to spend on an expensive electric vacuum, so they opted for the BISSELL carpet sweeper. As demand for vacuums weakened, causing many manufacturers to go out of business, BISSELL decided to discontinue building electric models.
Bissell believed that the carpet sweeper had a unique place in the home. Where electric vacuums could be used for heavy duty cleaning, the carpet sweeper would be favored for quick touch-ups, in the same way a broom might be used to sweep up a small mess. To reinforce a peaceful coexistence between the two devices, BISSELL emphasized the ease and convenience of using the carpet sweeper instead of a vacuum cleaner for small jobs around the home, and for cleaning the patio, the pool area, and the cottage. There was a place in every home for the lightweight, inexpensive, and portable carpet sweeper.
World War II naturally curtailed production of consumer products. At BISSELL, the raw materials for making a carpet sweeper, including rubber, aluminum, and wood, were diverted for military production. As a manufacturing organization, BISSELL was melded into the military procurement system and given the task of building a variety of light industrial implements.
After the war, with newfound prosperity and a rapidly increasing standard of living, vacuums became a fixture in every home. In England, the practice of carpet cleaning became known as “Hoovering.” The company re-established its European franchise by building—or in some cases rebuilding—factories and distribution facilities in Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, and Switzerland. To these were added sites in Canada and Australia, making Bissell a truly international name.
Melville Bissell III, a nephew of Melville Jr., took over leadership of the company in 1953. Unlike his uncle, this Melville Bissell was determined that the Bissell name should stand for more than just mechanical carpet sweepers. He saw the company’s market as “floor care,” and later, complete home care. Bissell was aware that the carpet sweeper was effective only for topical dirt. Conventional vacuum cleaners, which BISSELL had continued to avoid, could only brush up dirt in the top quarter-inch of a carpet. A more thorough cleaning, down to the nap of a carpet, would require wet shampooing. He ordered the development of a new product called the Shampoomaster, a non-electric device that used only water and detergent. The Shampoomaster was manufactured from 1957 to 1967 and during those years was promoted ahead of BISSELL’s carpet sweeper.
The company’s revenue grew five-fold over this period, but only because of a burst in demand for the carpet sweeper. Sales of the Shampoomaster floundered because few homes were large or consistently dirty enough to warrant shampooing. The device was discontinued, and the company turned back to its traditional carpet sweeper line. In addition, in 1960 BISSELL had introduced the “stick vac,” a lightweight vacuum that could be handled like a broom. The BISSELL stick vac competed with similar models built by vacuum cleaner manufacturers Regina and General Electric. BISSELL also acquired the Ohio-based Wood Shovel and Tool Company in 1965. The firm manufactured more than 300 different garden implements, but after only three years all but the company’s snow shovel line was spun off.
In 1970 BISSELL purchased a Swiss electric shaver company. But when European currencies were allowed to float in 1973, manufacturing costs skyrocketed. BISSELL sold all of the company’s assets, but kept an electric motor technology which was developed into a headlight wiper motor for BISSELL’s French subsidiary RIAM S.A. In 1971 BISSELL entered the printing industry by taking over the Michigan Tag Company, which was renamed BISSELL Printed Products. A second firm, Imperial Business Forms, was acquired by BISSELL, and was followed by two more firms, Atlas Tag & Label and Marion Manufacturing, all of which are now part of BISSELL Graphics.
John M. Bissell, a cousin to Melville III, assumed leadership of the company in 1971. Unlike Melville, he believed that the company should not risk losing the business it knew first: floorcare. In his mind, the center of that business was the carpet sweeper. Based on that business, BISSELL focused its acquisitions on new ways to protect and grow its floorcare business. BISSELL purchased the Penn Champ Company, a manufacturer of aerosol cleaners and fabric shampoo, in 1974. Hoping to provide retailers with an entire family of BISSELL floor care products, the company developed another token line of vacuum cleaners and in 1980 re-introduced the carpet shampoo concept, but as a simple household wet extraction device called The Carpet Machine.
In 1981 BISSELL rolled out a second wet carpet cleaner called “It’s Magic.” The product contained no pump (the part most likely to fail on such devices), but drew its water pressure from a sink faucet. While the wet carpet cleaner filled out the BISSELL line, it performed below expectations and was phased out of production.
Resuming its diversification in 1976, BISSELL purchased Venturi, Inc., a manufacturer of plant foods and other organic products. In 1978 BISSELL purchased the Atlantic Precision Works, a manufacturer of kitchen warming trays, and relocated the factory from New York to Grand Rapids. BISSELL later added two other companies to the operation, Slip-X Safety Treads, a bathroom mat maker, and the E&B Company, which made flag poles and clothesline supports. Eventually BISSELL sold off all of these operations.
BISSELL acquired the Fred Sammons Company of Chicago in 1982. Involved in the manufacture of self-help aids for the disabled community, Sammons sold primarily to institutional markets until a new Enrichments line was established for individuals. To support sales of these products, BISSELL created a small network of retail stores under the same name, which it placed in shopping malls. By the early 1990s, Sammons products were largely sold via direct-mail catalogs.
BISSELL’s diversification was necessary, not because of weakness in the floor care segment, but because the floor care market had stagnated. John Bissell told the Grand Rapids Press, “If we’re going to achieve the growth rate we want, we’ll have to do it through acquisitions.” BISSELL acquired Chicago-based Maxi Vac, Inc., a maker of wet/dry vacuum cleaners, in 1982, boosting its manufacturing and research capabilities in the deep cleaning market. In 1985 BISSELL introduced a three-in-one vacuum cleaner, intended for use on stairs and on the second level of homes, where a heavy vacuum cleaner would be less practical and more cumbersome. In 1992 the company rolled out a new carpet shampoo device called the BISSELL Promax (since renamed Powerlifter due to a copyright battle with Hoover). This was followed a year later by another product with more attachments and capabilities, called the BISSELL Big Green Clean Machine.
The BISSELL Big Green Clean Machine was promoted through the much-maligned but effective medium of the “infomercial.” While the ad harkened back to the sweeper demonstrations of the 1880s, BISSELL risked damaging its good name in such an ad. Nevertheless, the infomercial gave the BISSELL Big Green Clean Machine a more successful launch than other mediums might have. In fact, a smaller version of the device, the BISSELL Little Green Clean Machine, was introduced the same way in October 1993.
While the deep cleaning machines replaced the carpet sweepers as the core BISSELL business, the carpet sweeper remained a large portion of BISSELL’s business. The sweeper continued to be promoted as an essential accessory to be used daily, like a broom, to sweep up small messes before they are stepped on and ground into carpet. By contrast, the use of a vacuum was portrayed as a greater household chore.
Despite competition from Royal and Hoky, BISSELL maintained a commanding lead in the market for carpet sweepers in the early 1990s. The company accounted for about 70 percent of domestic carpet sweeper market and about 40 percent of the international market. In addition, BISSELL manufactured carpet cleaners and a variety of carpet and upholstery cleaning products.
BISSELL Ltd. (Canada); Penn Champ, Inc.; Barcolene, Inc.; BISSELL Homecare (Overseas), Inc.; BISSELL Housewares (England); BISSELL S.A. (France); BISSELL Ireland; BISSELL-Sabco (Pty) Ltd. (Australia).
“Bissell, Inc. Finds Niches—and Grows,” Grand Rapids Press, June 2, 1985, p. Gl.
“The Bustling Business of Bissell,” Michigan Business, September 1984, pp. 40–42.
“More ‘Filth’ on TV,” Advertising Age, February 3, 1992, p. 10.
Powers, David Cleary, “Bissell Carpet Sweepers,” Great American Brands, New York: Fairchild Publications, 1981.