A child's wooden wagon figures prominently in the history of Bemis Manufacturing Co. Arthur White, an inventor, launched the business that would be the precursor to Bemis in 1901 when he incorporated White Wagon Works in Sheboygan Falls, Wis.
Two years later Otis Trowbridge bought an interest in the company. He was the husband of Luella Bemis Trowbridge and brother-in-law to Albert Bemis, who is considered the founder of Bemis Manufacturing Co.
The Trowbridge family led the company from 1908 to 1924. Al Bemis and George Riddell, partners in Bemis-Riddell Fibre Co., of Sheboygan Falls, Wis., acquired the majority share in White Wagon Works in 1924. They renamed it White Coaster Wagon Works.
Bemis Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1925 to act as a sales organization for White Coaster Wagon Works. Bemis and Riddell parted ways in 1928, with Bemis retaining his ownership in the Wagon Works. As business waned during the Great Depression, the company purchased toilet seat machinery and patents from Crocker Chair Co. in 1932.
At that time, A. Carl Jensen, a former purchasing agent for Crocker, entered into a partnership with Al Bemis. Jensen was instrumental in Bemis gaining the Kohler Co. as a customer in 1935.
When Al Bemis' son, F.K. (Pete) Bemis, joined the business as production manager in 1935, he changed the company's focus from furniture factory to plumbing products supplier.
The organization was realigned in 1938, terminating the Wagon Works name and creating the business entity that exists today.
Upon Al Bemis' death in 1946, Pete Bemis became president and chairman of Bemis. He spearheaded efforts to convert the company's operations from woodworking to compression molding.
Jack Nelson (Pete Bemis' brother-in-law), Walt Trowbridge (son of Otis and Luella) and Jeff Trowbridge (Walt's son) developed manufacturing processes for compression and injection molding of toilet seats in the early 1950s. By the mid-1950s Bemis was making both seat lids and seat rings from a wood flour and resin mix.
Dick Bemis, the oldest son of Pete Bemis and current president/CEO, joined the company in 1963; his brother, Peter, executive vice president and president/contract group, entered the family business in 1969.
Bemis Manufacturing Co. made its first acquisition in 1971 when it purchased Wisconsin Plastics, a contract extrusion firm.
The company acquired a competitor based in New Jersey, Standard Tank and Seat Co., and its Stasco brand in 1975. Between 1983 and 1994 Bemis acquired eight firms, half of which were competitors. Church Seats was purchased in 1983. Bemis' first international acquisition involved a majority interest in Harrison/Cavalier, a British plumbing products distributor, in 1987.
Pete Bemis retired as chairman in 1986, ending a 50-year career with the company. He died in December 1987.
In the mid-1990s Bemis adopted a modernized logo and a new branding strategy that included retaining two toilet seat brands for the wholesale channel: Bemis and Church.
Today the company has global operations on four continents and remains committed to becoming the premier supplier of toilet seats in the world.
SIDEBAR: An interview with Dick BemisDick Bemis, president/CEO of Bemis Manufacturing Co., discussed the company's relations with wholesalers and its growth plans in a telephone interview.
"Wholesalers have always played a key role in our strategy for going to market with our products," Bemis said. He explained that one of the advantages of using wholesalers is having access to a showroom where products such as Bemis' slow-close hinge toilet seat or the easy lift-off seat can be demonstrated. "Showroom salespeople can do wonders in promoting the value-added features," he said.
"One of the unique things we do is go to market in the plumbing wholesale industry with two brands: Bemis and Church," Bemis said. "In some respects it's helpful if competing wholesalers in a trading area don't want to carry the same product. We give them a choice. The difference is not only in the brand names. They also are tooled differently and have different styles."
The Bemis Web site contains the catalogs for both Bemis and Church, he said. A feature on the site enables specifying engineers to obtain and print specification sheets that address the dimensions, weights and features of the seats.
"We also call on architects and specifying engineers," Bemis said. "Not everybody in our industry makes this effort because it's an expensive proposition for the sales staff."
Advertising is one of the tools Bemis has used to strengthen its relationships with wholesalers. Also, the company has charged its manufacturers reps to nurture relationships with contractors and plumbers in their territories, thus creating pull-through sales for the wholesaler. "We want to be the brand in demand," he said.
"The position we have in the industry as the leader of seats in North America requires that we reinvest in product development to move the category ahead," Bemis said. A bidet-type toilet seat, available under both the Bemis and Church brands, and the Proseat, specifically earmarked for the wholesale industry, are examples of product introductions intended to enhance the category's position.
"We are totally committed to this category," he said.
In the last few years Bemis has taken more of a global approach. "We have a new plant in Monterrey, Mexico and we built a state-of-the-art plant in Barrie, Ontario," Bemis said. "We have a plant in Burnley, England and just purchased plants in Italy. We are one of the leading toilet seat manufacturers in Europe. Our intent is to also be a leader in the South American markets."