Reaching 100 years is quite a milestone for any business, let alone for a family plumbing business. Especially when you consider the average lifespan for a family-owned business is 24 years, according to Cornell University’s SC Johnson School of Business.

Businessweek reports only about 40% of U.S. family-owned businesses successfully transition to second-generation businesses, and only about 13% are passed down successfully to the third generation. That percentage drops to just 3% to a fourth generation and beyond. Bradley Corp. is beating the odds — the company celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and is in its fifth generation of leadership.

“Being a family business, we’ve had close, good relationships with all our customers and employees,” notes Bryan Mullett, chairman and CEO, who represents the fifth generation of leadership within the company. “Everything we’ve done, the family has focused on the family, and the business is focused on the business. They have gone hand-in-hand over the years. The ability to make difficult decisions on both fronts has really been what’s kept this company sound and moving forward. Obviously, we can’t continue to grow or adapt if we don’t innovate.”

Bryan Mullet jokes that running a fifth-generation plumbing manufacturing company takes a lot of hard work — and all of his hair.

Previous generations

From left to right: Howard G. Mullett, Elizabeth Wetherell and Gordon Owen in the 1940s. Wetherell became president of the company in 1942, becoming the first female president of a Wisconsin-based company.

“Previous generations have made really sound decisions, knowing where their strengths and weaknesses are, and surrounded themselves by people who are better suited for areas that we weren’t so good at as a family. And I think having a professionally run business, management has been a huge key to our company’s success, our family’s success. Succession planning has been a huge piece in carrying the business on for five to six generations.”

Jon Dommisse, Bradley's vice president of marketing and corporate communications, explains the Mullett family has always been concerned about its reps, customers and employees, and has always looked to the future to ensure it was growing sales, opportunities and succession plans.

“I’ve been here 25 years now, and it’s an amazing company,” he says. “Bradley’s initial products — the wash fountain products, hygiene, hand washing, emergency fixtures, etc. — are still as relevant today as they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago.”

Bryan Mullett, chairman and CEO of Bradley Corp.
Bryan Mullett, chairman and CEO of Bradley Corp., represents the fifth generation of family leadership within the company.

Storied history

Bradley’s infamous washfountain was invented by Harry Bradley, owner of manufacturing company Allen-Bradley in 1921 to streamline cleanup for his large factory crews. Utilizing several spray heads mounted below a single circular bowl (spraying upwards), the washfountain enabled a number of people to clean their hands at one time — from a single fixture that required only one set of plumbing connections. The washfountain’s patented design was purchased by Louis Schleisinger, who formed Bradley Washfountain Co., with partners Gustav Grossenbach and his son-in-law, Howard A Mullett, in August 1921. Howard Mullett later became president of the company in 1928.

Dommisse notes the Mullett family committed very early on — in the 1930s — to using manufacturers reps to spread the word of the washfountain concept before many people in the plumbing industry did so — which was key to Bradley’s success.

Since then, the company has undergone a number of milestone acquisitions and expansions, including a stint producing bomb casings on second and third shifts for the war department during World War II in 1942. Washfountains were manufactured on first shift only.

A Bradley washfountain is installed in a school art classroom.
A Bradley washfountain is installed in a school art classroom.

An early model of Bradley’s washfountain

An early model of Bradley’s washfountain is installed in a Johannesburg school.

“And throughout the whole process, we’ve been refining, revising, innovating in different areas — creating many firsts,” Dommisse says. “Probably our latest big first was the three-in-one lav, which is now shockingly 10 years old. The 10-year anniversary of redefining commercial hand-washing, again, was that three-in-one concept with the soap-water-dryer.”

“We’re very visionary,” Bryan Mullett notes. “We build the business based on a five-year plan and strategies, not by looking at the business quarter. That’s what makes us successful. So, in that regard, it’s much more effective for us long-term. There’s a lot more to business than just looking at profits and whatnot. As we celebrate these types of milestones and anniversaries, it’s important to acknowledge our employees and the great culture we have.”

A thriving 100-year-old company did not get where it is today without its share of challenges.

“I would say the greatest challenge in running a family business is to make sure there’s enough separation from the family dynamics to running the day-to-day operations so the family dynamics and issues don’t distract or take away from the daily operating of the business,” Bryan Mullet says. “We have this motto: ‘Don’t let the family destroy the business, and don’t let the business destroy the family.’ We have a responsibility to our employees and to our customers. It’s a delicate balance.”

Bradley’s touchless washbar gives you soap, water and drying.

Bradley’s touchless washbar - water

Staying relevant

The plumbing industry has seen many trends come and go the past 100 years, and Bradley has both followed these trends and innovated around them. Dommisse points to the most obvious current trend dominating the market — touchless — as an example.

“Bradley was one of the first to look for ways of bringing touchless technology to commercial plumbing fixtures,” he says. “And that was happening in the early 1980s. Obviously, the technology has dramatically improved, but that was a huge trend. Also tied into that was ADA-compliancy. ADA really changed the whole design of plumbing fixtures and bathrooms. Bradley worked with a lot of the founding fathers of ADA policy and adapted very rapidly to it. And that trend never went away, it’s still relevant today.”

Bradley has a dedicated focus to problem solving which has led the company’s product innovation efforts, Bryan Mullett notes.

“We spend time researching the washroom or safety environments where our products go, and we listen to our customers about what works well or what doesn’t work well,” Bryan Mullett says. “We want to hear about the biggest issues, hurdles, quality issues, pain points — whatever those may be. We do a lot of research and surveys, and collect a lot of data. If we’re focused on a problem we can solve, that turns into a product and we help fill that void. That’s what we do. We have a culture of innovation. Solving problems is just bred into our culture.”

Dommisse adds that Bradley doesn’t create products just to put a new product in the market.

“We don’t care about being the biggest company or hitting a certain stock price every quarter,” he says. “We want to be the most innovative in the marketplace for commercial hand washing and emergency safety. Really hearing that voice of the customer has paid off because we’ve evolved the company with the needs of the marketplace. It’s exciting to be part of it.”

Bryan Mullett, agrees, saying, “Just because you made something 100 years ago doesn’t mean it’s still relevant today. Now, some of our products obviously still are for certain applications. Things are changing every day — 9/11 changed the way we traveled around the world, just as COVID19 is changing the way we wash our hands. We have to evolve to those types of changes. And I think our products are doing that. Constant change and embracing change to keep us moving forward and being a customer-focused, customer-driven company is important.”

Bradley’s Halo eye and eye/face washes
Bradley’s Halo eye and eye/face washes are designed with the latest and most advanced technology in fluid dynamics, the company notes.

The COVID-19 curveball

Bryan Mullett likens the COVID-19 pandemic to swimming in uncharted waters, and with good reason. The pandemic impacted every industry in the world, and some are still struggling to recover.

“We remained nimble, flexible and were able to adapt to the changes,” he says. “We sent our office employee base home to ensure they were safe. Our manufacturing plants never shut down — we were a vital piece of the puzzle to ensure people could still wash their hands and remain safe in that regard. We took all the necessary steps to protect our employees. I think we did a remarkable job surviving that storm, if you will. We continue to watch and monitor and do whatever we can to keep our employees safe. It certainly wasn’t easy, but we rolled with the punches and adapted the best way we could.”

Dommisse explains something else of note that occurred in light of the pandemic — employees began questioning where Bradley’s hand washing and safety products were going.

“We started providing to all the manufacturing team a list of all the incredible places where these products ended up — in triage centers, at hospitals and different types of COVID-19 evaluation centers and things like that,” he explains. “Not only in the U.S., but Canada, Mexico and more. For everyone to take more pride in what we were doing, we created a program called ‘What Bradley Makes Matters,’ which features different jobs that come through, showing how we are able to help communities fight this horrible pandemic. It was very rewarding to be a part of that.”

Though the pandemic brought many shutdowns or partial shutdowns of commercial buildings as well as construction delays, Dommisse notes Bradley’s products have remained in high demand throughout the pandemic.

“We have skyrocketing sales in our touch-free faucets, soap dispensers and hand sanitizers,” he explains. “We’re 700% above normal usage. But obviously, people weren’t buying a lot of column showers for schools or health clubs that weren’t open. The majority of our products have definitely stayed in high demand. We’re just lucky that we were able to contribute to helping fight this horrible time in our world’s history.”

And given the whole world is much more focused on hygiene and hand-washing following the global pandemic, Bradley continues to position itself as a market leader in this area, Dommisse adds.

“We work with architects and engineers all the time planning safe and healthy commercial bathrooms,” he says. “We do site surveys for manufacturing plants to ensure they have the products in place to achieve a safe and healthy environment. And the third thing we do is our Healthy Handwashing Survey, where we survey thousands of people each year and report our results. We’ve been doing that for more than a decade, covering topics such as hand washing trends in public spaces and the difference between men and women when it comes to hand washing. Unfortunately, the women usually win, which is embarrassing — especially since I’m the one doing the surveys. All of these outreach efforts are very much appreciated by our customers, contractors and engineers. We get calls all the time to consult on larger prototype projects — and that comes with 100 years of expertise in what we do.”

Bradley’s Euro-style float partitions
Bradley’s Euro-style float partitions are shown in birch featuring occupancy sensors.

Looking ahead

Bradley plans to continue on as it has the past 100 years — innovating new products to solve problems within the plumbing industry.

“We’re going to continue to be an innovative company — that’s been the key to our success,” Bryan Mullett notes. “Our focus is on the sixth generation and the next 100 years.”

He also jokes that he’d like to grow some hair back on his head within the next five years, but who knows?