Anna Sutherland Bissell (1846–1934) was a Canadian-born American businesswoman who successfully led Bissell Corporation, the first large-scale company for manufacturing, distribution, and sales of manually powered carpet sweepers and electric vacuum cleaners in the world. She became known as the first woman CEO of any company in the United States and a guiding hand in formulating many business practices still in use today.
Anna Bissell was born as Anna Sutherland on December 2, 1846, in Pictou, County, Nova Scotia, Canada, as the daughter of the maritime captain William Sutherland and his wife, Eleanor. Early in her life, the entire family moved to Wisconsin, USA, seeking a better life, education, and business opportunities. Eager to learn and excel in life, young Anna graduated from school education at the age of 16 and immediately found a job as a teacher. Three years later, she married young porcelain merchant and inventor Melville Bissell, adopted his surname, and moved with him to Kalamazoo and later to Grand Rapids in Michigan, where she would remain for the majority of her life.
Anna Bissell immediately became personally involved in her husband's business, helping with the distribution and sales of porcelain, crockery, and chinaware. One of the crucial moments of their lives happened at the age of 30 when she noticed and complained to her husband that the office and home carpets were becoming dirty from the regular handling of china shipping boxes. Melville reacted quickly and created the first-ever manually-operated carpet cleaner. Seeing opportunity in this invention, Anna decided to aggressively market it aggressively. She spent several years overseeing the production and distribution of carpet sweepers and traveled extensively and personally demoed it to hundreds of buyers. During this period, she developed a keen sense of business operations, workers' management, customer care, and after-sales service. In 1884 she showcased her business influence by quickly securing a sizeable bank loan needed for a complete refurbishment of a carpet sweeper factory damaged in a fire.
I prize my Bissell Sweeper" – the popular catchphrase used on early marketing posters of first Bissell sweepers.
After the death of her husband in 1899, Anna Bissell took over as the Chief Operating Officer of Bissell Corporation, where she regularly started implementing new procedures for extending her workers' product sales reach and well-being. Even though she was the first (and for a while only) woman CEO of a US company, she managed to successfully handle the expansion of Bissell Corporation into a household name across several continents. She quickly patented and protected her china and carpet cleaning products from the competition, expanded sales to in Latin America and Europe (where Bissel carpet sweepers even managed to find regular use in the court of Queen Victoria who demanded her carpets to be "Bisselled" every day), and even initiated sweeping institutional changes that became the foundation for workforce management in many other modern companies.
After becoming president of the company board in 1919, Anna Bissell introduced progressive labor policies that reshaped the workforce world. This included things like establishing fixed working hours, annual leaves, comprehensive compensation policy, restitution payments for injured workers, pension plan, and other employee benefits that quickly became copied by other companies who wanted to attract a motivated and highly efficient workforce.
Through her career at Bissel Corporation, Anna Bissell gained the reputation of a motherly figure to the workers and an executive who was always involved in solving the needs of workers. Her tireless involvement in cultivating a positive environment in all aspects of business enabled her to become one of the benchmarks in the field of corporate business.
In addition to her keen business sense for the promotion of better working conditions, she was also heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors. In addition to numerous generous donations and participation in charitable events, she was also personally involved in the Methodist Episcopal Church board, Blodgett Children's Home board. She was also the founder of Bissell House – a center for assimilation of immigrants into the society of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She also supported numerous women empowerment social clubs and was even admitted to the National Hardware Men's Association as their first and only female member.
She was known as a creative executive who also showed concern for her employees, developing employee compensation plans and avoiding lay-offs during The Great Depression." – part of the commemorative text on Anna Bissell statue in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Anna Bissell remained closely connected with the area of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she not only worked in Bissell Corporation but also nurtured her sizeable family. During her marriage with Melville, she gave birth to five children (Anna Dotelle, Melville Reuben, Lillie May, Irving Joy, and Harvey).
She died 45 years after her husband on November 8, 1934, in her hometown of Grand Rapids in Michigan. She was outlived by all her children, who buried her at the Oakhill Cemetery in Michigan.
After her death, Bissell Corporation continued to grow as a family-owned company and expand its reach by introducing many new products for house cleaning such as carpet deep cleaning machines, products focused on removing pet hair, and many others.