A current buzzword is “pivoting,” which means changing your company’s strategy and direction, often into entirely new businesses. Pivots are frequent in young companies trying to find the best markets and a footing for future opportunities. Here we look at a very old company which has survived wave after wave of mergers and remained independent, but over its life has made an amazing array of products, including widely known consumer products. Despite 175 years of ups and downs, Brunswick Corporation soldiers on toward its third century.
Working in Wood
John Moses Brunswick was born to a Jewish family in the German-speaking part of Switzerland in 1819. Seeking new opportunities, John took the forty-day Atlantic crossing to the United States just before he turned fifteen. Landing in New York in 1834, he found work as an errand boy for a German butcher. John Brunswick observed the massive number of carriages of all types, shapes, and sizes jamming Gotham’s streets. But the intensity was too much. Brunswick soon moved to the quieter Philadelphia, where he got on as an apprentice to a carriage-maker.
For four years, Brunswick learned carriage building in Philadelphia for before moving to Harrisburg as a journeyman to a German woodworker named Greiner. Brunswick soon married Greiner’s daughter Louisa and could have inherited Greiner’s business, but wanted to start out on his own. The booming city of Cincinnati, Queen of inland America and home to a large German community, drew John and Louisa, who settled there in 1840.
In Cincinnati, John worked for a series of carriage makers as a journeyman. When one employer closed up, he took a job as a steward on an Ohio River steamboat. Brunswick showed a head for trading, buying low and selling high along the river. He soon had a nest egg big enough to start his own firm. The twenty-two-year-old woodworker opened The John M. Brunswick Company to make carriages in 1845. The company soon expanded into making chairs, tables, and cabinets. Brunswick said, “If it is wood, we can make it. And we can make it better than anyone else.” Shortly after founding the new company, someone showed young Brunswick a beautiful, heavy, expensive English billiards table. Despite historical connections with gambling and “the low life,” three-cushion and pocket billiards began to catch on in America. John knew he could build equally beautiful billiard tables, saving the expense of importing them from Europe.
The competition in billiard tables was intense. Brunswick battled Julius Balke’s Great Western Billiard Manufactory of Cincinnati and the leading eastern company, Phelan & Collender of New York. In 1873, Moses Bensinger played a key role in Brunswick’s merger with Balke. The combined company produced 700 tables a year with a value of $400,000. In 1879 Phelan & Collender was acquired. The company was renamed Brunswick-Balke-Collender in 1884, a name used until 1960, when the company became Brunswick Corporation, the title used today.
Thus, by the late 1880s, Brunswick-Balke-Collender dominated the American billiards industry and was the largest billiards manufacturer in the world. The company’s leaders were innovators in billiards rules, billiards organizations, and billiards equipment, producing better cues and rubber cushions (bumpers). Brunswick’s products won award after award at international expositions. Between 1881 and 1883, the company built a new Chicago complex at Huron and Sedgewick streets. Designed by famous architect Louis Sullivan, the facility included a factory, warehouse, and lumber-drying plant.
John Brunswick died in 1886; Moses Bensinger (who had moved to Chicago) became President in 1890. The company’s great strength was in beautiful, quality woodworking: Bensinger expanded the company into building elaborate wooden bar backs. A new factory was built in Dubuque, Iowa to produce the bars. As was always the case, Brunswick made hundreds of specialty and accessory products such as billiard table lamps, coolers, and lunch counters to serve the same markets.
Moses Bensinger noted a rising sport in America: bowling. Descended from ancient games, bowling began to appear in America as taverns added a few lanes. Brunswick began making lanes, pins, and wooden bowling balls. The sport was not well-organized, using different rules, lane lengths, and ball sizes. In the 1890s, Bensinger led an effort to standardize bowling, resulting in the formation of the American Bowling Congress (ABC) in 1895. The first ABC tournament using standard rules took place in Chicago in 1901. Brunswick produced all the equipment for the match, as they did for the next 40 years.
Moses Bensinger’s son Benjamin, who had joined the company in 1885, took over as President at the age of thirty-six upon his father’s death in 1904. In his efforts to keep up with rising sales, Benjamin opened a 100,000 square foot factory in Muskegon, Michigan on the Lake Michigan shore. The big new facility was near Brunswick’s 1,000 acres of timberland and an easy crossing of Lake Michigan from the Chicago factories (on Brunswick’s ships). By the 1940s, this plant, Brunswick’s largest, would grow to one million square feet.
Ever searching for ways to improve its products, the company introduced the revolutionary Mineralite rubber bowling ball in 1906. (Because of their continual research into the properties of wood, rubber, and other materials, the Brunswick of 100 years ago might today be called a “materials science company.”)
Brunswick-Balke-Collender moved its headquarters from Cincinnati to Chicago in 1908. The company had sales offices and showrooms in twenty-seven US cities, Honolulu, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. It was the world’s largest buyer of hardwoods and operated the largest lumber drying kilns on earth. Maple went into 400,000 cues a year, dark woods into billiards tables weighing up to 2,700 pounds. No company had a finer reputation for woodworking and product quality. Brunswick was becoming a household name. Yet there was a cloud on the horizon.
In 1846, Maine passed the first state temperance law. Gradually, prohibitionists swept the nation. The 1906 formation of the Anti-Saloon League accelerated and intensified the movement, as bars were attacked and busted up. Demand for new bars began to shrink. Benjamin Bensinger saw the writing on the wall and feared for the future of the bar furnishing business, which made up one-fourth of company’s four million dollars in sales. He began cutting back on the production of the beautiful, expensive bars, ending production in 1912, seven years before the passage of national Prohibition. Benjamin began a search for new products to replace the lost sales.
Beginning a long history of expansion into related niche products, Benjamin found several opportunities. First was another use for rubber, with which the company had expertise in both billiards and bowling. In 1912, Brunswick introduced the first rubber toilet seat, the Whale-Bone-Ite. The company was soon selling 120,000 toilet seats a year. An early adopter was Chicago’s Pullman Company, operator of the nation’s railroad sleeping cars.
For a brief period, Brunswick jumped on the piano boom, using its woodworking skills to make piano cases that were sold to the major piano makers. Getting in and out of different businesses became a Brunswick tradition throughout the 20th century.
Headlines were made when American billiards star Willie Hoppe shockingly beat “the world’s best,” Maurice Vignaux, in Paris in 1906. Hoppe then toured the US doing trick shots, drawing enormous crowds. The popularity of billiards took a leap upward: by the 1920s, there were more than 42,000 American pool rooms, 4,000 in New York City alone. Detroit’s Recreation pool hall had an amazing 142 tables. San Francisco’s Graney had a 400-seat spectator gallery. Thousands of men were employed as “pin boys,” carefully resetting the ten pins after each turn. Brunswick supplied the boom, organized tournaments, and published the rules. Brunswick-Balke-Collender was billiards.
Another industry that soared in the 1910s and 1920s was the automobile business. Benjamin used the company’s expertise in rubber to enter the tire business in 1912. By 1921, the Muskegon factory was turning out 2,000 tires a day. Yet competition intensified as two hundred tire companies were founded. In 1922, Brunswick sold their tire business to BF Goodrich, which continued to make Brunswick tires.
In the midst of that era, Brunswick made wooden airplane wings and other defense materials during World War I.
Benjamin Bensinger’s next expansion was into phonograph cabinets, responding to another booming consumer trend. Brunswick-Balke-Collender soon had a million dollars in orders for these exquisite pieces of wooden furniture, largely from the Edison Phonograph company. It was not long before the company began making complete phonographs. In 1916, Brunswick introduced a model that sold for $150 (about $3700 today) but was the equal of competitors’ models priced at $250. In 1915, there had only been eighteen phonograph makers; four years later, in 1919, two hundred manufacturers produced over two million phonographs. That year, Brunswick made $700,000 in profits from cabinets and complete phonographs, of which the company built 750 a day.
Brunswick-Balke-Collender went public in 1924, allowing outsiders to own stock in the company for the first time.
The company added radio manufacturing when the radio boom hit in the early 1920s. In 1925, Brunswick joined with General Electric to produce the first all-electric phonograph (as opposed to hand-cranked), the Panatrope, for $350 and up.
The company’s success with phonographs led Benjamin to enter the record business. The first Brunswick record was produced in 1922. Soon Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and many other recording artists, including classical performers, were making records for Brunswick.
Few companies have jumped on (and off) and profited from as many different “hot” industries as has Brunswick.
By 1928, Brunswick-Balke-Collender was a large company for the time, recording sales of $29 million. The next year, the stock market collapsed, and with it, the economy. Discretionary and recreational spending went into a tailspin. Benjamin Bensinger realized dramatic measures would be required if the company, $9 million in debt, were to survive. In 1930, he sold the Brunswick Panatrope & Radio Corporation, including the record division, to Warner Brothers for $10 million. While some might say that he sold a business with big potential, most believe the move saved the company. Brunswick Records, after several owners, continue to be sold today.
Benjamin Bensinger’s oldest son Robert assumed the Presidency in 1930, an inauspicious time to take the helm of any company. “Bob” Bensinger was thirty-two years old and had eleven years’ experience at the company. He was assisted by younger brother Ted. Father Benjamin died five years later.
In that brief period, the company hit the rocks. 1928’s record sales of $29 million dried up. In 1932, the sales figure was $3.9 million, a drop of almost 90%. Few companies were hit that hard even in the Great Depression, but most of Brunswick’s revenue was from recreational spending. The continuation of prohibition (until 1933) did not help. After years of profits, in the early 1930s Brunswick recorded losses of a million dollars a year. It is impressive that the Bensingers even bothered carrying on.
Yet carry on they did. Bob Bensinger quickly searched for new opportunities. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, Brunswick began producing coolers and table top refrigerators, led by “the Blue Flash.” Soda fountains were added in 1935. Gradually the bowling and billiards businesses began to come back. Bob Bensinger also recruited new talent and managers to revive the company. But it took World War II to really restart things.
Brunswick cranked up rapidly to meet the nation’s wartime needs. Included in the long list of items manufactured by the company were parachute bomb flares, assault boats, aircraft fuselages, landing skids for gliders, mortar shells, aircraft instrument panels, and rubber fuel cells. Adding to its arsenal of materials knowledge, Brunswick developed Brunsalloy, a lightweight but extremely strong metal alloy used as a substitute for aluminum in airplanes. Brunswick was back in business, registering $20 million in sales in 1942. At the same time, the rise of the USO to entertain service personnel led to better recreational facilities on military bases. Thirteen thousand billiard tables and three thousand bowling lanes were installed on bases worldwide by the end of World War II.
After the war, Americans returned to “normal” and the economy boomed. This should have been a great time for Brunswick. The company had also entered the school furniture business, seeing the coming boom in education and school construction. (Most Americans have experienced the award-winning Brunswick school chair.) Sales rose to $30 million in 1948. But another problem soon arose.
The American Machine and Foundry Company, commonly called AMF, was the leader in tobacco machinery which rolled cigars and cigarettes. Like Brunswick, AMF was always on the lookout for new markets. Brunswick had been toying with the idea of an automated pinsetter for years, but in the 1930s turned away two inventors who thought they could make one. Those inventors took their idea to AMF, which decided to pursue the project. In 1946, AMF began to introduce their automatic pinsetters. At first, they did not work, but by 1952 AMF was successfully producing its machines, branded “AMF Pinspotters.” Alley owners and bowlers loved them. Brunswick was literally “behind the eight ball.” And, in 1950, Bob’s brother Ted was named President of the company, with Bob remaining as Chairman of the Board. The two brothers faced a challenge perhaps as great as the Depression had been.
Under Ted’s leadership, the company needed to develop an automatic pinsetter, but did not have the $10 million required for research and development. Ted cut a deal with the Murray Corporation of America, which made automobile bodies for Ford but had just lost that contract. Murray had cash and was looking for new opportunities to apply its metal engineering skills. Brunswick and Murray formed a 50-50 partnership, the Pinsetter Corporation. Using Murray’s cash, the first pinsetters were manufactured for the partnership by the Otis Elevator Company, which also understood machinery. Sensing a major opportunity, Murray tried to buy Brunswick out of the partnership. But Ted Bensinger was able to arrange a $55 million line-of-credit with financier CIT Financial Corporation. When the Murray executives showed up at a meeting, planning on buying out Brunswick’s interest in Pinsetter, Ted instead handed them an $18 million check for Murray’s share of Pinsetter. Brunswick now had total control of the new product line, finally ready to ship in the spring of 1956.
By that time, AMF had already sold 9,000 of its Pinspotters. Nevertheless, Brunswick’s long history in bowling paid off. Revenues took off. Brunswick soon had $30 million in pinsetter orders to fill. By the end of 1956, 2,000 of Brunswick’s $8,000 Pinsetters were installed, followed by 7,000 more in 1957. Boosted by the “pinsetter wars” between Brunswick and AMF, bowling took off in the 1950s. Thousands of lanes were opened across America, often financed by Brunswick and AMF. Bowling alley owners included Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and Yogi Berra. AMF and Brunswick eventually operated their own large chains of bowling alleys (today consolidated into Bowlero Corporation). Between 1946 and 1960, the number of women bowlers rose from 82,000 to six million; youth bowlers from 8,000 to 185,000. Bowling was supported by over one hundred specialty magazines and newspapers. Brunswick continued to play a key role in promoting the sport.
With additional support from billiards and school furniture, Brunswick boomed. From 1958 to 1961, the company expanded from 5,500 employees to over 16,000. In 1954, Brunswick-Balke-Collender earned profits of $700,000 on sales of $33 million. Seven years later, in 1961, profits were $45 million on sales of $422 million. The company had grown from being a niche industry supplier to become a Fortune 500 company. The company was loaded with cash, with more flowing in every day. The Bensingers were, finally, on top of the world. The family held about 10% of Brunswick stock, which rose dramatically.
Ted, rising to CEO in 1954, had a vision for the company. With the post-war growth in consumer spending, recreation looked like the place to be. Ted said he wanted the company to become “the General Motors of Sports.” With their newfound corporate war chest, in 1958 Brunswick bought sporting goods maker MacGregor, which made balls for all sports, golf clubs and bags, shoes for baseball and football, tennis balls and rackets, and many other items. (For more on the sporting goods industry, see this article.)
Brunswick continued making acquisitions over the next few years, including Red Head outdoor clothing and equipment and Union Hardware, the largest maker of roller skates. A glimpse of the future took place when Brunswick bought the Owens Yacht and Larson boat companies (later sold). A more successful purchase was Zebco, the leading maker of closed-face spinning reels for fishing. (The company was originally named the Zero Hour Bomb Company, making time bombs for oil wells.) Zebco sales almost quadrupled from 1954 to 1957 alone.
Brunswick added new factories for its sporting goods empire and sold over 5,000 products in America and around the world. The company began a joint venture in Japan, Nippon Brunswick, to serve another exploding market for bowling. The billiards business boomed briefly as a result of the 1961 Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason movie, The Hustler. Perhaps the big strategic concept, “General Motors of Sports,” would work out.
At the same time, the Bensingers seem to have caught the “conglomerate bug” that swept through Wall Street and American industry in the 1960s. “Diversification” and “synergy” were the buzzwords of the era. Maybe sports alone was not enough.
In 1959, Brunswick bought the AS Aloe Company, a medical supply house in St. Louis. By buying four more medical equipment companies, the company became a major competitor in hypodermic needles, catheters, and other categories. Brunswick consolidated these businesses into a unit named Sherwood Medical Industries, the nation’s second largest manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies. The company produced 4.5 million needles a week, four times the nearest competitor. Brunswick was now well-positioned in three industries with promising futures: recreation, education (school furniture), and healthcare. An extensive 1959 article in Fortune magazine entitled “Brunswick’s Automatic Money- Maker” included Ted’s remark that the company would become “The Mr. Big in recreation, education, and health.”
Brunswick also expanded upon its expertise in materials and defense products. They spent $10 million developing Brunsmet, a metal fiber product with many uses from jet engine seals to anti-static carpet. A later acquisition made parts for the Viking Mars Lander. Brunswick became a major producer of aircraft radomes and camouflage materials for the military. A vast array of unusual and nice products made up a meaningful portion of the company’s revenues. In view of the company’s diversity, the name was finally shortened from Brunswick-Balke-Collender to simply the Brunswick Corporation in 1960.
Amidst this diversification and acquisition spree, Ted Bensinger made a purchase that would change the company long-term. In the summer of 1961, Brunswick bought the Mercury Marine Company from company founder Carl Kiekhaefer for $34 million in Brunswick stock. Kiekhaefer was a pioneer in the outboard boat motor industry, later producing inboard engines and stern drives as well. Mercury’s top-end engines competed with the Johnson and Evinrude lines of the industry’s dominant company, Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC). Under Brunswick, Mercury added the lower-priced Mariner line, produced in Japan by a joint venture with Yamaha.
Then, more quickly than it had risen, the bowling boom came to an end. A 1961 study commissioned by Brunswick indicated a US potential of 300,000 lanes (vs. 125,000 at the time). But that future was not to be. In 1962, demand for new bowling lanes came to a virtual halt. The thousands of bowling alleys that had been financed by Brunswick and AMF could not make their payments. Brunswick found itself almost $400 million debt. The stock dropped from $75 in 1961 to $13 the next year. The Bensingers were once again “up against the wall.” For the first time in the company’s 118-year history, the family chose an outsider, Jack Hanigan, to take over as President of the company in 1963.
Hanigan and his successors continually restructured and streamlined the company. Businesses continued to be bought and sold. Organized into the four realms of recreation, marine power (Mercury), technical products, and medical products, Brunswick’s sales reached $450 million in 1969, the highest since 1961. Under Brooks Abernathy, Hanigan’s protégé, sales reached one billion dollars for the first time in 1977, generated by 25,000 employees. Still apparently bitten by the conglomerate bug, Brunswick entered fields as far removed as doors and fare collection boxes for mass transit.
In 1981, Brunswick’s profits set a record at $66 million on sales of $1.1 billion. Half the sales and two-thirds of the profits came from the health and technical divisions, including strong international results. Wall Street looked at the company and believed it might be worth more if broken into pieces. The fast-growing medical supply business was the gem. Diversified company Whittaker Corporation made an offer to buy Brunswick in 1982. To save Brunswick from the raider, the company sold Sherwood Medical to American Home Products (later Wyeth, then Pfizer) for $425 million. Brunswick maintained its independence at the cost of losing a promising division.
For the next twenty years, Brunswick continued to try new things, ranging from bicycles (Roadmaster, bought from AMF) to re-entering the boat and yacht business. They bought into the camping business, including Igloo coolers. The acquisition spree continued in July 1997 as Brunswick paid $310 million for Life Fitness, maker of stationary bicycles, treadmills, stairclimbers, rowers, cross trainers, and strength training equipment for fitness centers worldwide. Finally, by the start of the 21st century, Brunswick began to narrow its focus. The Technical division was spun out as the company slimmed down to boats, marine engines, and fitness equipment. Today this interesting, very old company generates annual sales of three billion dollars in marine engines and about one billion dollars in the boat business (including Sea Ray, Bayliner, Meridian, Boston Whaler, Crestliner, Lowe, and Princecraft). The company is the world’s largest maker of pleasure boats and certainly one of the top makers of marine engines. In recent years, virtually all of the company’s profits have derived from marine engines. Bowling, billiards, and the other components of Brunswick’s history have been sold off to an array of buyers. (Many products are still sold under the Brunswick brand name.)
It is worth noting that former arch-rival AMF also diversified into more recreational products, including billiards and Harley-Davidson motorcycles (from 1969 to 1981). That did not work, either; today AMF no longer exists. The same fate ultimately befell Brunswick’s other key rival, Outboard Marine, a billion-dollar-company in the 1990s, though new owner Bombardier Recreational Products continued to produce Evinrude outboard engines until 2020.
Most great companies focus on one business and central skill. UPS, Deere, Caterpillar, Paccar, and Home Depot come to mind. Diversification (lack of focus) as a business strategy grew in the conglomerate era of the 1960s. Many of the companies that existed before the 1960s went the conglomerate route, then later “deconglomerated” (Colgate-Palmolive among the most successful). Other companies “pivot” once or twice, at most. Few companies make it to 100 years of age as an independent company.
Brunswick is the exception to all these “rules.” The company has shown a strong will to live, a survival instinct that has kept it an independent company for 175 years.
Blowing with the wind, including conglomeration, Brunswick has usually been a leader in each of its many fields. From jazz records to camouflage, the company has a history of quality. In its 175 years, Brunswick has successively been the dominant factor in the billiards industry, the bar industry, the bowling industry, the hypodermic needle industry, and now the boat and engine industries.
Our study of great companies implies that they should usually stick to one industry. Perhaps even rename their company after their most important operation, as did Dayton-Hudson and Melville Corporation (becoming Target and CVS, respectively). Mercury Marine might be a good moniker for Brunswick as it stands today.
At the same time, the long history of this most interesting company forces us to wonder, “What industry will they try next, then lead, in the coming fifty years?”
Please add your thoughts and comments here.
American Business History Center