Bissell Homecare evolves over 140 years
Beginning with the carpet sweeper, Grand Rapids-based firm embraces new direction developing pet hair vacuums.
It’s oft repeated “necessity is the mother of invention” and in the case of Bissell Homecare Inc., it was a case of really bad allergies that led to the invention of the carpet sweeper, which would become the company’s first product.
Melville R. Bissell owned a crockery shop in Grand Rapids and needed a way of cleaning sawdust from the carpeted shop floors without stirring the dust into the air, triggering his allergies.
“He created a device that would attract and trap the dust,” said Jim Krzeminski, president of Bissell Homecare North America.
Bissell, with encouragement from his wife, Anna, took the newly patented device to Philadelphia’s Wanamaker department store, one of the first department stores in the United States, to drum up business for the carpet sweeper.
When Bissell boarded the train for home, he had his first order in hand — and the start of what eventually would become a multimillion-dollar business.
In 1889, Bissell passed away, and Anna Bissell took over the company, becoming the first female CEO in the country.
While serving as CEO, she is said to have introduced innovative labor relations policies, such as employee compensation, insurance, paid sick leave and pension plans — policies that were not widespread at the time.
She also “aggressively defended” the company’s patents and marketed the sweepers throughout North America and Europe.
Today, Bissell remains a family-owned company, with Mark Bissell serving at its helm as CEO and chairman, and his wife, Cathy Bissell, serving as director of corporate affairs.
The couple’s son and fifth-generation Bissell family member, Max Bissell, also is employed at Bissell as an account manager for Amazon International, and Matt Kruer, their son-in-law, works as director of strategic development.
Krzeminski, who has been employed with Bissell for the past 32 years, said he thinks the combination of family support and also their openness to bringing in outsiders account for the company’s longevity.
“The extended family has always been supportive of the company,” he said.
He said the second-, third- and fourth-generation family members always have believed in the company’s products and have wanted the company to thrive.
At the same time, he said Bissell has worked hard to attract the best and the brightest talent to join the company.
Krzeminski said it was particularly important to third-generation leader John Bissell that nonfamily members could “join the company and contribute and thrive.”
The company also has been successful at innovating and staying true to its mission, which is to provide cleaning solutions that ultimately help families spend less time cleaning.
Krzeminski said while the carpet sweeper remained Bissell’s key product in its early years, the shampoo master in the 1950s and investments in other deep cleaning products in the 1970s and ’80s kept the company competitive and in growth mode during its first 100 years.
“Then when Mark came in, we entered aggressively into our branded upright vacuum business and expanded it,” Krzeminski said. “We had a global footprint, but we began expanding more aggressively around the world.”
Krzeminski said up until 1996, Bissell only made private label upright vacuums, though the company did have a line of stick vacuums, which it sold under the Bissell brand.
“In 1996, we purchased assets from Singer — the sewing machine brand — which had a line of vacuums,” he said.
Over the next eight years, Bissell improved its upright vacuum line and eventually surpassed Hoover as the “best-selling” upright vacuum brand in the United States.
The company also began to learn something interesting about its customers.
“It became obvious that almost 90 percent of the people buying our deep cleaners owned pets,” Krzeminski said.
Once Bissell started thinking about its customers in terms of their pets, the company embraced yet another new direction.
It began working on product innovations specifically for the pet owner, and the company began focusing many of its philanthropic efforts on pets.
“We were one of the first sponsors of the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet, and we began giving back to pet families through Petfinder.com,” Krzeminski said. “One of the biggest deterrents to pet adoption is clean up. It all ties together.”
Cathy Bissell also launched the Bissell Pet Foundation in 2011 with a mission of helping “every pet find a home.”
Krzeminski said Cathy Bissell’s commitment to pets isn’t superficial, which has been important for Bissell, as it has gained a reputation as the “pet company.”
“Other companies were just throwing a pet on their packaging and calling it a pet vacuum,” he said. “Cathy personally gets involved, and she knows the shelters. She is involved in Operation Spring Break, and last year, she helped close down a puppy mill in Illinois. She helped rescue 82 pets living in terrible conditions.”
In addition to the more than $1 million in donations provided to organizations by the Bissell Pet Foundation, the company also makes products geared toward tackling pet hair.
“If we say it’s a pet vacuum, it is a pet vacuum,” Krzeminski said. “The Pet Hair Eraser has real technology that is protected through intellectual property.”
In fact, when the Business Journal visited Krzeminski at Bissell’s Walker headquarters, he demonstrated improvements on the Pet Hair Eraser — the company’s newest upright vacuum.
He said pet owners were struggling with hair getting caught in the vacuum’s bristles and also in its canister, forcing them to have to detangle the hair and reach into the canister to free the clogged hair.
He said the new vacuum remedies both of those issues for pet owners through its “tangle-free brush roll” and patented technology for a “hands-free empty.”
Bissell also offers its employees a fun perk — their dogs are welcome in the office.
“When we built the Bissell Innovation Center six years ago, Cathy wanted a pet spot where associates could bring their pets in for the day,” Krzeminski said.
The pet spot at Bissell has multiple kennels equipped with outdoor dog runs, as well as an open space for pets to play indoors and desk spaces for their owners to continue working throughout the day.
Krzeminski said Bissell’s dog-friendly policy evolved, so dogs are welcome not just in the pet spot, but in their owners’ workspaces as well. He said allowing pets in the workplace has been a great employee perk and adds even more authenticity to Bissell’s culture as a pet company.
“It creates greater satisfaction, lightens up the workplace, makes people smile and creates a friendly, positive environment,” he said. “I think it creates an environment of innovation and a positive environment of where you want to work.
“More and more, we have to engage great people, keep them, retain them and provide great benefits. Being able to bring your pet in not only benefits the owner, but people enjoy having them around. It’s living the pet culture, not just creating the pet product.”
He said over 70 percent of Bissell’s associates have a pet.
Krzeminski said it’s interesting the company was founded due to allergies and today is focused on developing a product that tackles pet hair, in many ways staying true to the carpet sweeper’s original goal.