Bathing in Blue Oceans

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

In 1917, Harry Bradley, founder of the Allen Bradley Corp., had a blue ocean idea. He wanted to create a better way for factory workers to wash their hands at break times. Conventional sinks took too long because only one person could use them at a time. They also used too much water to be efficient for large groups. Instead, Bradley designed a circular fountain which allowed multiple users to wash up at the same time.

Bradley patented his wash fountain sink idea in 1918 and eventually sold the patent. In 1920, the Bradley Washfountain Co. opened and started selling wash fountains to factories, schools and other places where many people need to wash their hands at the same time.

The company was opened by founding partners Gustav Grossenbach, Louis Schlesinger and Howard Mullett. The Mullett family still owns the company, and third- and fourth-generation family members hold key positions at the firm.

The Bradley Corp., headquartered in Menomonee Falls, has relied upon a series of blue ocean products over the 85 years it has been in business. By developing new products and improving on its existing ideas, the company has been able to continually offer new solutions to its customers.

The company still makes wash fountain designs similar to its original models from the 1920s.

In the early 1940s, the company developed a column shower design still in use by schools, factories and the YMCA. In 1972, Bradley Corp. developed an eye wash shower. That initial product has been developed into a whole line of eye wash station products, including a mobile model.

In the mid 1990s, the company developed its Express Lavatory Systems, a series of wash fountains it has sold to retail stores, movie theaters, amusement parks and highway rest stops.

"It was a hybrid between our wash fountains and a traditional sink," said Jon Dommisse, director of marketing and product development. "It was a huge untapped area. We weren’t trying to take over areas covered by American Standard or Kohler. We found a middle road area that was not being addressed."

Over the past 12 years, the Express Lavatory Systems have achieved double-digit annual growth in sales, Dommisse said.

Today, Bradley Corp. has grown to 521 employees working in four different facilities. Its headquarters in Menomonee Falls are used for administrative offices and manufacturing, and a facility on Milwaukee’s northwest side makes accessories. Two Ohio manufacturing facilities make lockers and dividing partitions. Bradley Corp. also has a distribution facility near Los Angeles.

Over the past six years, Bradley Corp. has averaged between seven and 10 percent annual revenue growth, Dommisse said. The company had about $113 million in revenues for 2005.

One of the reasons for that growth in the past six years has been the company’s tighter focus on developing new products.

It now takes Bradley Corp. less than 10 months to begin production of new lines. The system also allows products that aren’t viable to be stopped, even if the development process has begun, Dommisse said.

"You have to have the guts to kill the things that didn’t make it through the stone gates," he said.

The keystone of the company’s new system is its Design Development Steering Committee (DDSC), which has members from each of the company’s teams. That means engineering, marketing, sales, and manufacturing are looking at the product while it is being developed.

"It involves the experts, those who have been on the machines for years," said William Andersen, president and chief operating officer. "It gets them involved and empowered to make changes."

The DDSC meets every month to review products.

"(The new system) allows us to focus on fewer things that will drive higher revenues for the company," Dommisse said. "It’s not easy to say we won’t do the easy ‘me too’ product and walk away from an immediate sale and possibly irritate a single customer. The short-term ROI (return on investment) looks a lot better on paper than the long-term. But it gives us a much better chance of making the next blue ocean product."

Last year, the company introduced a new line of Express Lavatory Systems that features photo-voltaic cells on top. Through improved technology, those cells are able to gather enough energy to power the sink via diffused sunlight or fluorescent light. The improved Express Lavatory Systems are able to store gathered energy for extended periods of time, Dommisse said.

Bradley Corp. officials believe the wash basins that use the photo-voltaic technology could be a large area for future growth because of the current focus on renewable energy and green buildings.

"This is a blue ocean product because it is a green product," Dommisse said. "Through the use of different technologies, this is the first (wash fountain) to run fully off of ambient room light."

Editor’s note: In this special report, Small Business Times is exploring how southeastern Wisconsin companies are enacting "Blue Ocean Strategies" to grow their businesses. See page 9 for more information.

Go Blue!

Bradley Corp.

Address: W142 N9101 Fountain Blvd., Menomonee Falls

Industry: Designs and manufactures wash basins, showers and eye wash stations for industrial, school and retail applications.

Leadership: Donald Mullett, CEO; William Andersen, president and chief operating officer.

Employees: 521    

Annual revenue: $113 million in 2005

Blue Ocean Strategies:

• Develops product lines that did not exist before.

• Developed brand identity to the point where fountain-style wash basins are commonly called "Bradleys."

• Created and implemented a streamlined process for developing new products, which has given the company a much higher new product success rate. One of those products, a wash basin that uses photo-voltaic cells to gather electricity, has been identified for significant future growth.

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