February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Alfred Fuller

The man whose name meant successful selling in the 20th century was self-described as “devoid of a salesman’s personality.” He never had a practiced line of sales patter and, hailing from Nova Scotia, his speech was peppered with “oots” and “aboots” rather than “outs” and “abouts.”

Alfred Carl Fuller came to selling brushes because no one else would hire him. After leaving the family farm in 1903 for Boston the 18-year old Fuller struggled to find his place in the world. He moved in with his sister and her husband and was a most undesirable boarder: he brought with him $75, no discernible skills and no prospects.

Fuller landed a job as a trolley conductor but after 18 months, eager to prove he could be a motorman he commandeered a trolley, failed to negotiate a switch and was fired. He tried life as a gardener and groom but was dismissed in short time. A stint as a deliveryman for his brother-in-law ended after two months. Fuller had demonstrated a knack for forgetting pick-ups and leaving packages at the wrong address.

He came to brushes because it seemed so simple. A brother had peddled household brushes before he contracted tuberculosis and died. Six days before his 20th birthday Fuller went to his brother’s former partner to ask for a chance to sell brushes. He sold $6 worth on his first day and was off.

Although brushes were constantly used nobody seemed to be paying much attention to their manufacture. Fuller’s customers made suggestions for new brushes but neither his employer or other suppliers would deviate from their traditional line of top-sellers. Fuller soon realized that these specialized brushes could “be made in fifteen minutes out of a few cents worth of materials and sold for fifty cents.”

In 1906, after only a year in the brush trade, Fuller used $375 in saved capital and pieced together a small workshop in his sister’s basement. He planned to sell from samples for future delivery, making only what he had already sold on his tiny hand-operated wire-twisting brush machine.

The formula, simplicity itself, was parlayed to success by Fuller’s indefatigable ways. To Fuller selling was merely a mathematical proposition. Ring enough doorbells and you will eventually have more orders than you can handle. Fuller possessed an honest, unsophisticated approach, a neat appearance and an unassuming attitude. But he learned early on that a quality product - and its demonstration - sold itself. His first week out he cleared $42.15 in profits.

Soon Fuller was in Hartford, Connecticut with its long avenues of big, old Victorian residences filled with dust-catching grillwork, steam radiators and elaborate woodwork. His Capitol Brush Company, soon to be renamed Fuller Brush, now featured one laborer and one salesman - and a backlog of orders.

In 1908 Fuller brought home a wife, a Nova Scotia girl he had courted over the glove counter at a Boston department store. There was no time for a honeymoon and the couple briskly expanded the business. A chance newspaper ad in 1910 for agents brought a flood of orders and soon Fuller had a national network of 260 dealers, most of whom he had never met.

Each dealer paid for his sample kit and advanced the money for his first order. When he delivered the order, he collected the amount due and sent the proceeds to Hartford less his commission of 50%. Fuller delivered nothing until he had received cash. Within ten years sales vaulted from $30,000 a year to over a million.

In 1922 the Saturday Evening Post coined the phrase “Fuller Brush Man,” and launched the army of Fuller representatives into the popular lexicon. A veritable gold mine of free publicity in editorials, cartoons and jokes followed. In 1948 Columbia Pictures released a paean to Fuller Brush with the release of The Fuller Brush Man starring Red Skeleton. Skeleton prepared for the part by taking a sample kit and making some calls. Unrecognized, the Hollywood star rang up four sales to the ten housewives he called on.

The star of Fuller Brush was always the free sample. “Without the free sample I couldn’t possibly make a living. It’s the best merchandising device ever uncovered,” said one Fuller Brush dealer. Fuller Brush men were revered for their professional ability to gain access to a home. One salesman persuaded the household staff of the presidential residence at Hyde Park to admit him inside. Franklin Roosevelt bought $13 worth of brushes.

Fuller became affectionately known as “Dad” throughout his company but his own family life was not as successful. He was divorced in 1930. Remarried two years later Fuller began to indulge in the arts and music and wound down his business activities. He retired in 1943, turning the door-to-door business over to his son Howard.

Under Howard’s aggressive leadership the company flourished in expanding suburbia, topping $100,000,000 in sales by 1960. But times were changing. When Alfred Fuller died in 1973, one month short of his 89th birthday, strangers were no longer welcome in the home, two-income houses were deserted during the day and the Fuller Brush Man, now 75% women, were Fuller Brush representatives.

No comments: