A Man with a Vision for Global Growth
Based on this experience, Mark became excited about Johnson’s Emerging Markets Institute (EMI). “It resonated with me because I see so many American companies struggling in Asia. They’re not doing as well there as European and Asian companies.” Mark sees great potential for the Emerging Markets Institute to help students learn how to shape a segment of an industry or even a whole industry in these markets. “It can be so rewarding to have that kind of impact and influence,” he says. He believes so strongly in this kind of opportunity that he recently committed to give $250,000 over the next three years to support the Emerging Markets Institute.
There was no mandate for Mark to join the firm that his great-grandfather founded based on patenting an improved carpet sweeper. His father and predecessor as president and CEO, John Bissell ’52, MBA ’54, had established a policy of requiring family members who wanted to work in the business to earn an MBA and gain relevant experience elsewhere before joining Bissell Inc. So Mark Bissell followed in his father’s footsteps in coming to Cornell for his business degree.
When he finished, he joined JP Morgan, and then moved to Chase Manhattan in a middle market group. “Banks are famous for their credit training programs,” he notes, “and I mixed with students from many different programs. That was a great calibration. I absolutely was not struggling in any area: accounting, finance, business law — they were all solid at Cornell, and I was able to build on that knowledge very quickly.”
In his banking experience, Mark focused on leveraged buyouts and performed analyses on a wide range of companies. He learned how to create value through acquisitions and divestitures, and he used this knowledge after joining Bissell Inc.
Mark has reshaped the firm he has headed since 1994 in several significant ways. He has endeavored not to take the firm’s great legacy for granted, but rather “to recognize what makes it so great and maintain that in a rapidly changing world to make it strong and successful.”
“Every business needs to reinvent itself,” Mark says. “We are still selling the same product the company was founded on in 1876.” And while they’ve grown and added many segments, their focus today is on cleaning products. “The core values and beliefs of the company haven’t changed much, but the tactics have.”
Early in his tenure, Mark saw the need to create a new business model and take advantage of global opportunities that had not existed before. Whereas the company had taken great pride in manufacturing its own products, Mark led the charge to refocus the business around what the consumer valued. “We invested in the front end of the business with product development and marketing and brand, and then we partnered with sourcing partners. That move enabled us to grow the business more quickly and redirect management time and capital. It effectively gave us a more focused view on the marketplace through the eyes of consumers.”
In a related effort to focus on the core, Mark sold off a number of businesses acquired during an earlier period of diversification. He got out of healthcare products, kitchen warming trays, bathroom mats, flagpoles, printed products, and other products in order to expand the company’s floor care product line and increase its market share in this arena. His strategy paid off: Today, Bissell Inc. is the number-one company in floor cleaning in North America.
Another of Mark’s accomplishments was to consolidate ownership in the hands of fewer shareholders who had more interest in the business. “As a family business, the stock had gotten spread out, and shareholders were losing touch with the business.” Mark says that consolidating the stock “was a direct result of the work I did in banking, and my getting into that world was a result of my Cornell MBA.”
So when Dean Joe Thomas reached out to make him more aware of the opportunities to make an impact in addition to his generous support of the Annual Fund, Mark answered the call. “Philanthropy is an important part of the core values of the company and our family,” he says. Indeed, the family has been recognized for multigenerational giving. “As our ability to give has grown, we have given more. It’s important to both my wife, Cathy, and me. Education is one of the segments we support.” Fortunately, his support of the Emerging Markets Institute may yield life-changing impacts for current and future Johnson students.