Alfred Fuller had it tough. As a door-to-door salesman, he knew most people looked at his line of work as lower than low.
“Door-to-door selling was the worst imaginable type of merchandising,” Fuller (1885-1973) said. “For 200 years, Yankee peddlers had given direct selling a bad name. Most urban housewives had a firm rule never to open their doors to a salesman. To purchase from one was an invitation to be defrauded.”
Fuller didn’t look at his business as sales; his business was his customers. And he believed in the products he sold. He had a desire, he said, to free his customers from the “drudgery of domestic life.”
“Thus I discovered the basic truth on which the Fuller Brush Company was to be founded . . . that the product must sell itself. Whenever a housewife saw that I had a superior brush or mop which she needed, at a price she could pay, she bought it,” Fuller wrote in his 1960 autobiography, “A Foot in the Door.”
“The trick was not to make her buy, but to show her what the brush could do. This required actions rather than words. I washed babies with a back brush, swept stairs, cleaned radiators and milk bottles, dusted floors–anything that would prove the worth of what I had to sell.”
Selling household items house to house, Fuller had numerous customers ask him for top-quality brushes–scrub brushes, hairbrushes, clothes brushes, brooms–that he didn’t carry as a sales rep.
Seeing opportunity in his employer’s neglect, Fuller went to work from his sister’s house in Somerville, Mass. On New Year’s Day in 1906, he started his own business, aiming to fill a need he saw among the people he sold to.
He began making brushes–the kind his employer didn’t make but his customers asked for. He bought a hand-cranked machine that could attach brush bristles tightly. And he made a pledge to make “the best products of their kind in the world.” “By the time I began to sell brushes in 1906, most of the cheaper brands on the market were of twisted-in wire. The fiber materials employed were as haphazard as the techniques of fabrication. For most processors, anything they could lay their hands on was good enough; they did not want their wares to endure too long, or there would be no repeat business. This philosophy has become known as calculated obsolescence,” Fuller said.
By combining a sales philosophy of serving the customer first and using modern mass production methods to turn out “the best brushes in the world,” Fuller grew from $8,500 in sales in his first year to $15 million by 1923 to $100 million by 1960. When he started in 1906, the brush industry totaled $19 million in sales. Today the company is owned by CPAC Inc. of Leicester, N.Y.
He had definite ideas about integrity in sales. “The successful seller must feel some commitment that his product offers mankind as much altruistic benefit as it yields the seller in money,” he said.
His methods helped create such a positive image that “The Fuller Brush Man” became part of the American lexicon. The spirited, independent businessman that was Fuller was depicted in comic strips and on film. Two successful movies were made called “The Fuller Brush Man” and “The Fuller Brush Woman” starring Red Skelton and Lucille Ball, respectively.
As his sales force grew from just himself to 1,000 representatives, Fuller recalled that “those who thought only of financial return failed promptly; those who, like myself, were enthused with mission as well prospered materially far beyond their dreams. That is a fact.”
Fuller insisted on the highest standard for those salesmen who represented the company. “Any dealer who did not conduct himself like a gentleman, who did not dress neatly and speak politely, could not represent me,” Fuller said. “I concentrated on the ethics of door-to-door salesmanship and the necessity to maintain impeccable deportment.”
Fuller was born on a Nova Scotia farm, the 11th of 12 children. Farm life was hard, but yielded a simple lesson: “The only way I learned to earn money was by giving a definite measure of production for it.
“He had only a high school education and no formal business training. But he had his faith. “I relied on the Bible as my textbook in every conceivable problem that arose,” Fuller wrote.
Fuller Brush Men were all over, selling even to John D. Rockefeller, who bought $42 worth of merchandise. One Fuller whiz talked his way into Franklin Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y., and sold the president brushes.
This story originally ran Oct. 11, 2002, on Leaders & Success.