Past To Present Bissell Maintains Clean Reputation


    WALKER — After 125 years, there is still a Bissell at the helm of Bissell Inc. and the family-owned company continues to do what it has always done best — put dirt in a canister.

    The company estimates its products extract some 10.5 million pounds of dirt from carpets every year, a weight equivalent to that of 1,058 elephants.

    As Bissell Inc. celebrates 125 years in business, its history and products will be featured as part of a home care industry exhibit opening Saturday at the Van Andel Museum Center. A fully catalogued archive of the company’s history and more than 1,000 Bissell products will be on display through March 2002.

    While the museum exhibit focuses on Bissell’s past, the company remains focused on its future.

    On Aug. 23 Bissell announced a new joint marketing venture with 3M Company, the St. Paul. Minn.-based company famous for Scotchgard fabric protectors and Post-it Notes, among other things.

    The joint venture will bring to the market a new residential deep cleaning system that lets consumers deep clean and apply Scotchgard protection to their carpet simultaneously.

    The system includes the Bissell ProHeat Pro-Tech machine, three new Bissell Deep Cleaning formulas with Scotchgard and a protective Scotchgard after-spray. According to Bissell, the system is the first of its kind in carpet care.

    The ProHeat Pro-Tech machine will be available at retail stores nationwide by the middle of the month, and the Bissell Deep Cleaning Formulas with Scotchgard protection will be available in November.

    The two companies actually teamed up in 1998. Their first joint products were the Bissell LiftOff and Pure Air vacuum cleaners that featured 3M’s Filtrete Filtration Technology.

    Jim Krzeminski, Bissell’s executive vice president of sales and marketing, said sales of Bissell’s deep cleaning machines have risen nearly 40 percent in the past five years. He refers to the new deep cleaning system combined with Scotchgard protection as “a do-it-yourselfer’s dream product.”

    According to the company, more than 1.2 million Bissell deep cleaners are sold each year, at a pace of about one every 25 seconds. Today Bissell has 240 trademark registrations in 75 countries.

    And it all started with Melville and Anna Bissell, who originally owned a small crockery shop at 22 Monroe Ave. in downtown Grand Rapids.

    The couple founded Bissell Inc. in 1876 after Anna supplied the inspiration and Melville the engineering know-how that produced a mechanical carpet sweeper much improved over sweepers of the day.

    The secret was a central bearing brush that adapted the sweeper brush to irregularities in floor heights. 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 Co. 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 a production capacity of 300 sweepers per day and employees numbered 90. Sweepers were then selling for the 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 could 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 indicate that under her management, the company began an era of aggressive enterprise, diversifying its product line and expanding business to every continent.

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

    In 1931 Anna transferred Bissell’s reins to son Melville Bissell Jr., who extracted the company from the electric vacuum cleaner market to concentrate on the design, manufacture and marketing of light-weight carpet sweepers.

    Under Melville R. Bissell III, who took over as president in 1958, the company expanded its product line further to include a manual rug shampooer, an electric vacuum cleaner and more than 50 specialty home cleaning products.

    By the mid-1960s, Bissell was acquiring other manufacturing companies, bringing home care, health care and graphics products under its corporate umbrella.

    John M. Bissell, the founders’ grandson, was seated as president and CEO in 1971 as annual sales were topping 35 million units. He continues to serve as company chairman and his son, Mark Bissell, now serves as president.

    The company went through another growth boom in early 1982 when it introduced 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 floor care. 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. The company has since shed the latter two units.

    In 1991 Bissell launched another new product, the Big Green Clean Machine. The company significantly stepped up its export activities in the early 1990s. Records reveal that by 1994 the company was exporting more than $16 million in home care products. Bissell’s Homecare Division saw record sales of more than $275 million that year.

    Between 1996 and 2000, Bissell introduced five new carpet-cleaning machines as well new cleaning products that included pet and allergen formulas. Bissell sales for fiscal 2000 were approximately $500 million, and the company now employs about 1,700.

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