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BIC: The Company Behind the Pen

BIC: The Company Behind the Pen

Writing lies at the foundation of modern society. It is a technology that few of us think about,
and today, we will explore the company behind the pen, BIC. Before the advent of metal pens, the western
world’s writing instrument of choice was the quill. Finding bird feathers wasn’t very hard,
and ever since 600 AD that’s how most writing was done. Once the Industrial Revolution got underway,
improved metallurgy and mass production techniques resulted in the dip pen. It was essentially a metal nib mounted on
a handle; it could barely hold more ink than a quill and it’s practical use was about
the same. The first truly practical pens appeared at
the end of the 19th century. They are what we call fountain pens, and the
innovation behind them was that they had a reservoir of ink inside. The first commercially successful fountain
pens were built in 1884 by this guy, Lewis Waterman. He was originally an insurance broker, but
one day when signing a very important contract, the prototype fountain pen he had bought for
the occasion broke and leaked ink on the whole document. This accident eventually resulted in the deal
getting cancelled and Waterman losing his job. Making the best out of a bad situation, Waterman
decided to build a better fountain pen, and it was his design that truly made fountain
pens the dominant writing instrument of the next half century. It wouldn’t be until the 1930s that fountain
pens would finally meet their match. The man responsible for that was Laszlo Biro,
a Hungarian journalist. He had noticed that the ink used in newspaper
printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. When he tried using the same ink in a fountain
pen, however, it wouldn’t flow into the tip because it was too viscous. After seven years of trial and error, Laszlo
developed a new tip for his pen consisting of a ball that could freely rotate in a socket. As the ball ran along the paper, it would
siphon ink from an internal cartridge and spread it out evenly. What Laszlo had created was the ballpoint
pen, but the timing of his invention was a bit unlucky. As Hungarian Jew, Laszlo was well aware of
what was happening in Germany, and so in 1938 he packed his bags and moved to Paris. While there, he got the lucky chance of meeting
the president of Argentina, Agustín Pedro Justo. He was so impressed by the ballpoint pen that
he told Laszlo to emigrate to Argentina, which, of course, he did, as he wanted to be as far
away from Germany as possible. Once in Argentina, Laszlo set up a company
for his pens and by 1943 he was selling them to His Majesty’s Royal Air Force in the
UK. This first generation of ballpoint pens wasn’t
perfect, however; the metal case was prone to leaking and the ink would often clog. Most of Laszlo’s non-government clients
ended up returning their pens, which drove his company to the brink of bankruptcy. To keep the company afloat, Laszlo resorted
to selling the rights to his pen in Europe and in the US. The man who bought the European rights to
the ballpoint pen was a Frenchman, Baron Marcel Bich. He had entered the pen business in 1945, when
he had bought a damaged factory on the outskirts of Paris and used it to start making fountain
pens. Marcel fell in love with the ballpoint pen,
and in 1950 when he heard that Laszlo was selling the patent, he threw $2 million at
Laszlo to get it. With the patent in hand, Marcel used his considerable
resources to acquire plastic and precision stainless steel technology from Switzerland. Now, keep in mind, plastic was still a very
new invention in the early 1950s and it had only been commercialized a few year prior. The shaping machines Marcel bought were cutting
edge for their time, capable of shaping metal down to 10 micrometers. The design of Marcel’s pens was as simplistic
as it was brilliant: The pen’s barrel was shaped similarly to
a pencil, making it very hard to roll off a table, and since it was made of transparent
polystyrene, it was easy to see when you were running out of ink. What truly made Marcel’s endeavor successful,
however, was his understanding of economies of scale. You see, the pens that Laszlo sold were very
expensive, and although they were vastly superior to fountain pens, it was very hard to justify
spending the equivalent of one week’s wage for one pen. Marcel, however, streamlined his production
and bought everything in bulk, allowing him to sell his pens for a fraction of the cost:
only 50 centimes, the equivalent of 18 cents in the US. Marcel’s initial plan was to sell the pens
under his family name, but once people told him how English speakers were pronouncing
it, he decided to drop the H. Thus, in 1950 he established Societe BIC and
began flooding France with his trademark pen, which he called the BIC Cristal. Unsurprisingly, the pen was an instant hit,
surpassing everything on the market both in terms of quality and price. Within 3 years, Marcel was selling 40 million
pens annually. He could barely keep up with the rising demand
and so he started opening subsidiaries left and right:
by 1954 he was operating across Western Europe, and just two years later his pens were also
sold in South America and Africa. Marcel didn’t enter the US market until
1958, and he did so in a very interesting fashion. Remember our friend Lewis Waterman? He was the insurance broker who started making
fountain pens in the late 1880s. The company he had started was now the largest
manufacturer of fountain pens in the US, but the ballpoint revolution had left them near
bankruptcy. To gain a foothold in the States, Marcel offered
to buy Waterman and he did so for $1 million. He repurposed most of Waterman’s factories
to make ballpoint pens, and he kept the fountain pen division as a luxury brand, which is still
around to this day, although as a separate entity. In 1961 French artist Raymond Savignac created
the BIC Boy, which has remained a part of the company’s logo ever since. That year the company replaced their stainless
steel ballpoints with much harder tungsten carbide, which they still use today. By the end of the 1960s BIC pens were sold
on every inhabited continent, and Marcel was looking for other products to add to his arsenal. In line with his philosophy, he needed something
cheap and disposable that people would use every day: a pocket lighter turned out to
be the perfect candidate. Much like with the ballpoint pen, Marcel’s
affordable lighter outperformed all available alternatives and was capable of producing
3,000 flames over its lifetime. Its release in 1973 was met with universal
acclaim and today lighter sales make up over 35% of the company’s revenue. Just two years later Marcel found another
market he could conquer. In what was essentially a declaration of war
on Gillette, BIC released a disposable safety razor in 1975. They heavily undercut Gillette and have been
a thorn in their sides ever since. Although BIC have had a hard time outcompeting
Gillette, razor sales are still a big chunk of their business, making up almost 24% of
their sales today. As a lifetime watersports enthusiast, Marcel
established BIC Sport in 1979, which made windsurf equipment and sailboards. Although BIC Sport is still around today,
it is a very minor part of the company and it hasn’t been very successful. Marcel’s future endeavors, however, would
fare even worse. A few months after starting BIC Sport, Marcel
decided to enter the clothing market by purchasing Guy Laroche from its founder for $10 million. At first the deal seemed great, but with the
legendary fashion designer in failing health and incapable of making new designs, the fashion
company soon became unprofitable. When Guy himself died in 1989, things became
even worse after a series of failed successors. Marcel was also getting pretty old at that
point and was starting to make mistakes, like when he tried to enter the perfume market
in 1989 and failed so miserably, that he scrapped the whole line of perfumes just two years
later. Marcel died in 1994, and his son Bruno took
up the reigns to fix the company. His first move was to strengthen BIC’s hold
on the pen business by buying Wite-Out and Tipp-Ex, the two largest correction brands
in the world. He sold the unprofitable Guy Laroche in 2001,
and it eventually ended up in the hands of a Chinese company. Since then BIC has tried to venture into the
realm of consumer electronics by selling mobile phones, tablets and hydrogen fuel cells, but
the results have been lackluster at best. Even today, their most successful products
are Marcel’s original trifecta: pens, razors and lighters. In fact, just in 2016 BIC sold 7 billion pens,
2.5 billion razors and 1.5 billion lighters. If time has shown anything, it’s that the
company’s success lies in the simplicity of their products and judging by their failure
to profit from anything more complex than a ballpoint pen, they would do well to continue
honoring Marcel’s legacy. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video, please consider
supporting us on Patreon. We spent more than we’re willing to admit
digging through scanned newspapers to find all of this stuff, so any help would be more
than welcome. If you enjoyed the history of BIC feel free
to subscribe for more and to check out the full Behind the Business playlist for the
interesting stories of other big companies. Once again, thanks a lot for watching, and
as always: stay smart.

100 thoughts on “BIC: The Company Behind the Pen

  1. i still have an old Bic lighter in my desk drawer and it still lights! i am old enough to remember when they first cam out!

  2. I didn't know that BIC sells lighters… I used their razors once n the pens I used often until somehow rather I'e forgotten about its existence. I think BIC still is the best, but having brands like Pilot or Faber Castell (In my country they're the most used brands) competition is really high.

  3. Has anyone ever used a Bic pen from new, until it runs out? I end up breaking them. Or they und up in my washing machine.

  4. What matters is when you die you your soul will live forever either Heaven or Hell…

    Please seek the Lord while he may be found…

    Hell is real and most people are headed there 😞

    Only Jesus saves…

  5. F_ck bic , the ITOYA Griper (Fine Point ) ball point pen, black ink was the best mass produced ever made ! That thing would write on anything .. Pic always sucked unless we are talking about lighters

  6. That kid in class that loses his bic pens but keeps the lids just to put them on top of his yellow pencil

  7. The Map is wrong, Italy flag is in Ethiopia which Ethiopia was only occupied, and 2/3rd of China is nothing, no label.

  8. Ok, this comment probably will be deleted in a few minutes, so I'll be fast, 'cause they're coming! I was working in a secret case I FBI, when one of the files was talking about one big "secret program" of the Illuminati's for controlling the World! It all started when The Seven families decided that they would need a new device to see and control everything in the world. Mr. R…f…er… decided that they would need simple, and at the same time disposable, that everyone should use and no one should take care of the suddenly vanished object. They bought one company, they've changed the name…BIC, of BIG INSPECTOR CENTER. Their main creation was one simple object that could steal all information and could be used for everyone in every country, yes, the Pen! The pen actually is a secret device that can store all the information that you write on it, as the ink finishes, they "battery" dies…you could ask, how it can send info to Them? Simple, they use one of Tesla's secret projects of dissemination of information, the world knows about his research, but they are lost… The second device is a "Lighter" one incredible device that can collect the information of the environment with one click, and then release it to the Satellite in a smoke that will immediately disappear. The third device, a simple Razor, who will cut your DNA and then send info about how the chemicals to control your brain are acting. All these products are cheap and can be find anywhere, and also, they suddenly disappear, how? I don't know, maybe teleportation, maybe Quantic Control. If you finished to read this message, please, be fast, spread it to the World. I wanted to store it on the deep web but all my connections are controlled, my last chance is this message in this video…farewell…


  10. Besides lighting my durry the humble Bic lighter is good for burning through rope when you don't have a knife, field sanitizing a knife/ sharp bit of metal/ pins etc for bush surgery, opening beer bottles, blackening rifle sights and many other uses… best tool ever invented was portable fire.

  11. Was all about this until the beginning for money at the end. There are ways to promote patronage from you'r fans. But the end of that does not do well for a first time watcher.

  12. It’s 1950s England and two friends talking:
    “Hello old chap.”
    Oh hello mate.”
    “Have you heard of these BITCH pens?”
    “No I haven’t.”
    “Well I love these BITCH pens!”

  13. I've never bought a bad BIC lighter in my entire life, didn't have the habit of checking lighters before so I would buy the cheap one and it wouldn't even have a good flame. BIC always quality no matter what lol

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