Bissell Celebrates 125 Years In Business Here

June 5, 2002
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WALKER –As Bissell Inc. marks its 125th year, business as usual is still all in the family. Now in a third century of doing business, the firm has a fourth-generation Bissell at the helm.

John Bissell, the company’s chairman and grandson of founders Melville and Anna Bissell, said a Bissell family member has always been in the CEO position. Melville and Anna have 75 living descendents, many of whom are shareholders, he said.

The reins of the company have remained in family hands for a very practical reason.

“Estate planning by the owners has kept death taxes from breaking the cycle of success from generation to generation,” Bissell said.

Melville and Anna, who owned a small crockery shop at 22 Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, founded Bissell in 1876 after Anna supplied the inspiration and Melville the engineering know-how that produced a mechanical carpet sweeper much improved over the sweepers available at the time.

The secret was a central bearing brush that adapted the sweeper brush to irregularities in floors, giving greatly increased performance. It was simply a better picker-upper, and it became the first in what was to be a long line of patented Bissell products.   

According to company archives, the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was incorporated in February 1883 with capital of $150,000 and was housed in a new five-story facility on the bank of the Grand River. It had 90 employees and sweepers were selling for a tidy sum of $1.50.

The company employed 250 people by the late 1880s, and could boast the capacity to produce “a sweeper a minute.” By that time Bissell also was able to lay claim to a 75 percent world market share in the carpet sweeper industry.

Anna Bissell took control of the company after Melville’s death in 1889, becoming one of the first women CEOs in the country.

The firm's records say that under her management, the company began an era of aggressive enterprise, diversifying its product line while expanding business to every continent.

The matriarch of the Bissell family also became known for initiating progressive employee programs. Bissell was one of the first companies in the nation to provide its employees with a pension plan, as well as sickness and disability pay.

At the dawn of the 20th Century, the company was producing nearly 40 sweeper models under 30 registered patents and had broadened its line to include electric vacuum products.

Around that time, Anna established Bissell in the international market. Shortly thereafter, Queen Victoria of England endorsed the sweeper for her palace and English housewives began referring to sweeping as “bisselling.”

By 1905 Bissell was operating factories not only in its hometown, but also in Toronto and Paris, while having showrooms in New York and London. It was duly noted in company logs of 1905 that the firm was using “the bristles of 20 million hogs annually in the production of sweepers.”

In 1931 Anna’s son, Melville Bissell, Jr., took over the reins of the company, pulling it out of the electric vacuum cleaner market to concentrate on the design, manufacture and marketing of light-weight carpet sweepers. By 1953 the company had grown into a $4 million enterprise (that's pushing $26 million in today's terms).

Melville R. Bissell III was named company president in 1958. His claim to fame was strengthening Bissell’s marketing strategy. During his tenure, the company built a new factory on the outskirts of Grand Rapids and expanded the product line farther to include a manual rug shampooer, an electric vacuum cleaner and more than 50 specialty home cleaning products.

In the early 1960s, the original Bissell manufacturing facility fell victim to urban renewal. By the mid-1960s, Bissel was acquiring other manufacturing companies, bringing homecare, healthcare and graphics products under its corporate umbrella.

John M. Bissell, the founder’s grandson, was seated as president and CEO in 1971 as annual sales were topping $35 million (nearly $150 million in current money). He continues to serve as the company’s chairman today and his son, Mark Bissell, steers the company as its  president.

Bissell went through another growth boom in early 1982 when it introduced to the home care market the carpet extraction cleaning machine, which was a cross between a manual carpet shampooer and a vacuum cleaner. 

By the late 1980s, Bissell deep cleaners had become hot sellers and had given rise to a new product category in floorcare. Deep cleaners eventually replaced the carpet sweeper as the company’s leading homecare product. By the end of the 1980s, Bissell employed 775 people and was operating three divisions: Homecare, Healthcare and Graphics.

In 1991 Bissell launched another new product, the Big Green Clean Machine, and marketed it via infomercials — a first for the company.

The company significantly stepped up its export activities in the early 1990s and grew its export business substantially in markets such as South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and Africa. Records reveal that that by 1994 the company was exporting more than $16 million in Homecare products. Bissell’s Homecare Division saw record sales of more than $275 million that year.

As the company celebrates its 125th year in business, its history and products will be featured as part of an exhibit on the home care industry slated to open Sept. 7, at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.

A fully catalogued archive of Bissell’s history, more than 1,000 Bissell products, and past advertising and marketing paraphernalia will be on display through March of next year.

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