Fairfield’s manufacturer of quality brushes marks its first century in 2000
In 1899, having observed his mother’s daily struggle to scrub the floors and keep the family’s house tidy, 21-year-old Alphonso K. Harper designed a five-piece combination brush kit from horse hair. It became so popular among family and friends that A.K. soon began peddling his creation throughout Fairfield and neighboring towns.
As demand grew, he also began selling brooms and other brush kits designed for special purposes. An astute businessman even at a young age, A.K. expanded his sales force, hiring college students to sell his products door to door.
His sales staff, knows as “Harper Men,” served as the primary marketing channel for over 89 years for Harper Brush Works, Inc. His technique of direct selling through independent distributors has become an icon of American business, and it remains central to the company’s overall business plan, according to Barry Harper, A.K.’s grandson and current President and CEO.
“We now have over 160 distributors across the country,” says Harper, “and they are without question our defining competitive strengths. They are valuable sources of information about how customers use their Harper brooms and brushes, as well as how our products perform under day-to-day use and abuse. And at the same time, their suggestions have served as the catalyst for numerous product developments.”
Today, the company offers over 600 products in categories ranging from industrial cleaning tools to household, auto, and horse care brushes. “Most of the people who use our brushes use them to make a living,” explains Barry Harper. Stories abound of Harper Brush working closely with clients to solve their cleaning problems.
An Early Niche Marketer
One innovation came in 1935, when the company introduced what is now a hallmark of Harper brooms: a heavy-duty brace and iron connector. This made the broom much more durable, and soon Harper Brush became one of the leading suppliers to service stations, automotive garages, appliance repair shops, and other small businesses.
“He used to say that survival depends on being quick,” says Stan Long, A.K.’s grandson and a third-generation Harper who lives in Florida. A.K.’s innate ability to recognized consumer needs and seize opportunities helped establish Harper Brush’s reputation as a manufacturer of quality useful tools.
Beloved Founder, 1878-1970
A.K.’s keen business sense didn’t end with marketing—he always made sure to treat his employees well. “He had to make some tough business decisions, but he always put people first,” says Stan. “Even during the dark days of the Great Depression, he refused to close down the plant. Employees reported to work at 11 a.m. and punched out at 2 p.m.—after an hour-long lunch break. A.K. felt strongly that people needed to feel productive and have a sense of purpose, even though there was little demand at the time for brushes and brooms.”
Well known and respected as a devoted husband and father, A.K. and his wife, Beatrice, raised three children, Paul, Portia, and Dale. When he wasn’t winning new customers for Harper Brush Works, he was winning souls as a self-proclaimed evangelist. He once preached with Billy Sunday to a flock of 5,000 people at a revival held on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Until the early 1970s, Thursday afternoons at the plant were reserved for “chapel time,” a tradition that A.K. started in the company’s early years. This gave him the chance to enjoy what he often described as his two favorite passions, “Praising the Lord and settling down to a big dish of ice cream.” Rather than ringing a bell, the start of chapel was announced across the factory floor by proclaiming, “Ice cream in the office, ice cream in the office!” Attendance was voluntary, but more often than not, the announcement usually cleared the entire factory floor.
The company grieved at their founder’s death in 1970, but A.K.’s successors have stayed true to his leadership style and vision. “Shorty” Long, Portia’s husband, had already been at the helm of Harper Brush for nearly 10 years. The company continued to thrive under his direction, maintaining steady growth by increasing its nationwide network of distributors throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
One of the company’s most significant changes came in 1989. Recognizing the tremendous potential for increasing sales, Harper Brush made the decision to enter the retail market.
In 1991, Barry D. Harper, A.K.’s grandson, assumed leadership. He is credited with injecting new enthusiasm into the company while continuing to focus on the retail expansion.
“While independent distributors give the company its soul and its essential contact with end-users, retail offers Harper Brush and its employees a tremendous opportunity for growth in the road ahead,” says Barry Harper. “In fact, just last year, our sales records went right off the charts.”
Adds CFO Daniel Thurtell, “If it wasn’t for the local community, Harper would not be the company it is today. We owe all of our success to our employees and local supporters.”