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Bissell Still Growing After Ending U.S. Production
Mar 28, 2005
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It was a year ago that Bissell Homecare Inc.'s last U.S.-produced appliance rolled off the assembly line in Grand Rapids, where the company's first factory opened in 1883.

Mark Bissell, president and CEO of the family owned company, says the decision to move all manufacturing of Bissell Homecare's floor-cleaning machines overseas was the right one, just not an easy one. About 200 full-time employees lost their jobs.

"We did it at a time of strength, but we did it later than we probably would have otherwise done it if we had been struggling," Mr. Bissell says. "I think, for years we saw the opportunity to produce product or procure product cheaper and, really, because of the flexibility of our work force and the quality of our work force here, we really kept the jobs in Grand Rapids longer than we otherwise would have."

Bissell Homecare retains about 1,500 employees globally and still has a production operation in its hometown. About 50 hourly workers mix and bottle chemical formulas used in its floor-cleaning machines.

Another 300 employees work at Bissell Homecare's world headquarters in Grand Rapids, MI, U.S. Many perform research and development for the company's increasingly high-tech product lineup. A key reason for Bissell Homecare's success has been its willingness to continue investing in R&D, market research and product innovation, Mr. Bissell says.

"I think what we've tried to do all along is be proactive on the front end of the business," he says. "What does our customer want? Who is our customer, what is she looking for and how can we best serve her? Okay, once you know that, now, where are you going to get the product and who's going to make it?"

Among the Bissell Homecare appliances released during the past year are the Lift-Off, a bagless upright vacuum cleaner with a detachable, portable canister for cleaning hard-to-reach spaces, and Flip-!t, a hard-floor cleaner that operates as both a dry vacuum and, with a flip of the handle, a wet cleaner.

Bissell sold more vacuum cleaners in the U.S. in 2004 than any other brand, according to The NPD Group Inc., a consumer research group. Last year, $3.4 billion worth of vacuum cleaners were sold in the United States, the NPD Group said.

Bissell Homecare has a global presence that it hopes to increase. It sells a lot of products in Canada and the United Kingdom and does fairly well in Australia and the Middle East, Mr. Bissell says. It has factories in Mexico and China and contracts with Chinese and South Korean companies to do some manufacturing.

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., a regional, non-profit economic development organization based in Grand Rapids, says Bissell's corporate leadership and strong understanding of its market have helped make it a global company.

"We as a community and a region have to understand that the company had to make some very tough decisions as to where to make their products in order to stay alive and thriving," she said.

Bissell says, excluding some acquisitions that Bissell Homecare made along the way -- such as its $62 million purchase late last year of Playtex Products Inc.'s Woolite rug- and upholstery-cleaning business -- the company has enjoyed steady double-digit growth for two decades.

Because Bissell Homecare is a privately held company -- Mark Bissell is the fourth generation of his family to run it since founders Melville and Anna Bissell -- it does not publicly release profit figures. But company officials say sales grew from $35 million in 1985 to $535 million in 2003 to $700 million last year.

Bissell Homecare plans to continue expanding its core cleaning business as it tries to gain more business here and abroad. Mr. Bissell says while the company will "try to be lean and flexible and adjust quickly to changes in the marketplace," its fundamentals will remain the same.

"If we continue to really focus on our customer, be innovative and execute well, I think we'll continue to flourish," he says. (Associated Press)

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