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ROYAL CELEBRATES 100 YEARS OF VAC MAKING.

Byline: Gerry Beatty

GLENWILLOW, Ohio-The doggies are on parade, the cake has been cut, the champagne poured. Royal Appliance Manufacturing Co. is celebrating its centennial.

The vacuum maker traces its origins to nearby Cleveland in 1905, and it may be unique in continuously producing floor care for 100 years (except for virtually everyone's conversion to military materiel during World War II).

In its colorful history (pun intended: It caused a revolution when Dirt Devil red vacs were introduced), the company was credited with a few significant firsts. There was no handheld cleaner until the metal Royal Prince was born in 1937.

Royal proclaims itself "the oldest vacuum-cleaner-manufacturing company in the world," which may be open to interpretation. Bissell was founded in 1876 (at the time, a sweeper maker); Lewyt in the 1880s; Regina (music boxes), 1885; Euro-Pro (sewing machines), 1896; Miele (dairy equipment), 1899; AB Lux; De'Longhi; Douglas Products; and some enterprises confined to the history books predate P.A. Geier Co.

Philip A. Geier made his first metal vacuum cleaners by hand in a garage. He was successful enough to move operations to a four-story structure on East 105th Street in Cleveland within a few years. Two divisions were set up, cleaning and machining. Product lines included mixers, hair dryers and washing-machine units.

Distribution was through a limited dealer network.

Research by Cliff Wood, for many years the industry's official historian as secretary of the Vacuum Cleaner Manufacturers Association, found that the first use of the Royal name came about 1911. Geier was president of the association in 1926, when the company's trade name was listed as Royal.

During the war, manufacture included bombshells, smoke bombs, aircraft fittings and tank transmissions. The Royal all-metal vacuums again came off the production lines in the late '40s, as did such fad items as peanut roasters and a hydraulic machine described as the forerunner of a jacuzzi.

In 1953, the P.A. Geier Co. was acquired by an investment group, the Walter E. Schott Organization (yes, the same controversial family that owned the Cincinnati Reds baseball team a generation later). It was the Schotts who gave the vac maker its present name -- but as a corporate history points out, "the new owners were not wholly committed to the company and decided to dissolve it soon after its acquisition."

To the rescue came an employee group led by Stan Erbor. They completed the purchase in 1954, and the manufacturer prospered. Headquarters were moved in Cleveland in that year and then to Highland Heights, Ohio, in 1969, where operations were updated and expanded.

Erbor remained active in management until he died in 1981 at the age of 80. The same year, another investment group led by John Balch bought the company.

Though profitable, with sales approaching $5 million, no products had been added in years, and the new management had definite ideas about products and promotions. Advertising, the field force, and commercial and dealer accounts were all bolstered.

Balch sought a signature product, and focused on the Royal Prince. Wanting something more affordable, he got a designer to develop a clamshell-like plastic casing for easy insertion of a motor during mass production.

Wyse Advertising, the agency of record, suggested several names for the product, and the choice was Dirt Devil. The red casing made its debut in 1984.

Balch also was responsible for the advertising, which starred golden retrievers. But the industry's fierce competition led to some ups and downs, and stockholder dissatisfaction increased, even as sales grew a decade ago to $270 million.

That's when another management team led by Mike Merriman took over. Royal moved its offices to the former Mr. Coffee factory here in 2000; acquired North American rights to Medisana; and diversified into high-tech products such as the TeleZapper.

In April 2003, Techtronic Industries, a Hong Kong company that already made many of Royal's products in China, acquired it. It was reported Royal's sales were about $400 million for 2002. Just a year ago, Merriman left, initiating a series of management changes.

To its Dirt Devil and Royal vacs, Royal also added a third brand, Regina, which TTI also bought late in 2001.

Centennial events so far have included Rick Farone, executive vice president, conducting a champagne toast and cake-cutting at the Vacuum Dealers Trade Association Show last month. Royal's regular litter of puppies are being augmented at the International Home & Housewares Show with a parade of 100 retrievers around the Lakeside Building perimeter at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Other plans continue to evolve. They include a limited-anniversary-edition upright and hand vac with the Royal brand reserved for the independent channel. The company intends to donate 100 vacs for 100 homes built this year by Habitat for Humanity.

An employee celebration is likely in June or July.

Caption(s): The 1937 Royal Prince was the first handheld vac. / Above: John Balch -- minus the ubiquitous cigar -- prepares to shoot a TV spot in 1994. / Left: The first red Dirt Devil hand vac of 1984 defined the modern Royal Appliance Manufacturing.
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Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 21, 2005
Words:840
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