Born to Nova Scotian entrepreneur Alfred Fuller in 1906, Fuller Brush Co.’s fortunes were linked inexorably with those of the travelling salesman. Determined to combat the drudgery of household cleaning, Fuller started making brushes at a bench in his sister’s basement, but quickly moved to a rented shop in Hartford,Conn. Gradually, he assembled a horde of polite, roving men (Dick Clark and Joe DiMaggio among them) who peddled his scrub brushes, mops, chemicals and a host of other cleaning aids out of their briefcases. By its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, the company employed tens of thousands of salesmen, and Fuller’s status as a legendary pioneer of direct sales could not be assailed.
Fuller Brush adapted well to changing circumstances; as men retreated from door-to-door sales jobs during the 1960s, it followed Avon Products’ example and hired women instead. Fuller also demonstrated a knack for obtaining free advertising for his products and company, the1948 film The Fuller Brush Man being a prime example (little matter that the film satirized his salesmen).
The company remained in family hands until 1968, when Sara Lee Corp. bought it out, introducing the first of several owners who failed to reverse the company’s gradual decline. By the mid-1980s, the weaknesses in an exclusively door-to-door business model were evident; with women increasingly working outside the home, roving salespeople found their knocks unanswered. Fuller Brush began experimenting with other channels, including a mail-order catalogue, outlet stores and, eventually, the Internet.
But nothing could restore the magic. In recent history, all 2,000of the company’s products were manufactured at a plant near Great Bend, Kan.—unprofitably. As with so many other fading brands, the harbinger of demise arrived in the form of a leveraged buyout. Private equity firm Buckingham Capital Partners seized proclaiming in a press release that “the Fuller Brush Company is back,” the company filed for protection from creditors. Fuller Brush plans to halve its product line in a desperate bid for viability. Its decomposing business model, though, is too pungent to be brushed under the carpet.