Bissell makes a clean sweep with Bombardier Challenger 350

From GRR, company execs travel to customer sales outlets across the US and overseas.

By Mike Potts
Senior Contributing Editor

(L–R) Members of the Bissell Flight Dept: Capt Zach Edgar, Sr Aircraft Capt and Safety Officer Tony Woody, Corporate Flight and Exec Travel Coordinator Samantha Somers, Chief Pilot Tom Sanders, Mx Mgr Jason Ensink and Intern Adam Dykstra pose with Bissell's Bombardier Challenger 350.

In the early 1870s, Melville Bissell and his wife Anna owned a small crockery shop in Grand Rapids MI. Newly-arrived inventory came packed in sawdust that seemed to spew everywhere when the boxes were opened, so the carpets in the shop were in constant need of cleaning. But cleaning alternatives were limited at that time: a corn broom, a feather duster, or dragging the rugs outside and whacking them with a carpet beater.

Melville, an inventor/tinkerer, came up with a small rotating brush device that would clean the carpets in situ. When other people saw Bissell's device they wanted one, too. Realizing there could be a market for his carpet cleaner, Bissell applied for a patent.

In September of 1876, the US Patent Office granted Bissell a patent for a rotating brush carpet sweeper, marking the beginning a new business enterprise, named Bissell, to produce sweepers that would rapidly become very popular. They soon became internationally famous as well. By the late 1890s England's Queen Victoria was insisting that her palace be "Bisselled" every week.

Anna Bissell, 1st female CEO in the US

Melville Bissell passed in 1889 while still in his mid-40s, but Anna took over the company and became the 1st female CEO in America. Over the next 3 decades she presided over significant growth, the acquisition of competitors, defense of the company's patents and establishment of a continuing tradition of philanthropy and corporate responsibility.

CEO and Pres Mark Bissell values private aviation because of the convenience it offers to travel when executives need to go.

"She really set the tone," says Mark Bissell, CEO and chairman of the company today. "The customer and the consumer are always in the center of our core values that she established. We always have a line of sight to the end customer."

The company Mark Bissell heads today has grown into a billion dollar international business marketing sweepers and home cleaning products. They have offices in the US and Europe and manufacturing facilities in Asia.

Flight dept started with Cessna 310B

Sr VP and CFO Jim Nicholson praises the Bissell flight dept because it provides unquestionable value to the company and its management.

In keeping with its growing base of both customers and suppliers, Bissell began operating a business aircraft in the mid-1950s, a Cessna 310B. Several 310s were purchased in succession, followed by a Cessna 421 in the late 1960s and then a Beech King Air in the early 70s as the company adopted a practice of buying airplanes new and selling them after about 5 years.

In what Chief Pilot Tom Sanders now describes as "a huge step," the company moved up to a Cessna 500 jet in the late 1970s, followed by another Citation. In the 1990s the company moved to a Beechjet and later replaced it with a newer model near the end of the century.

A Learjet 45 replaced the Beechjet in 2004. This was another significant step up as the company moved from light to midsize business jets. Missions for the flight department were becoming longer and flight activity was picking up. In 2008 the flight department was expanded into a 2-aircraft operation for the 1st time with the addition of a Bombardier Challenger 300. With the added capability of the Challenger, the flight department began making trips to Europe.

Around 2012, the company decided it really didn't need 2 airplanes, so the Challenger 300 was sold. The Learjet 45 was still in great shape, so it was retained. In late 2015, Bissell acquired a new Bombardier Challenger 350. At this point the Learjet was no longer required and it was soon sold, leaving the Bissell flight department with the Challenger 350 that it operates today.

"The Challenger 350 is the perfect airplane for us," says Chief Pilot Tom Sanders. "It's a near Gulfstream experience at less than half the cost, the family loves it, the employees love it and we get great product support from Bombardier. We've been flying their products since 2004 and are very happy with the airplanes and their support."

When Sanders joined the company, the department leased space in a hangar owned by Northern Air (now Signature) at GRR (Grand Rapids MI). Later they leased Hangar 412, now occupied by Amway, and in 2010 they built the 90x120 ft hangar and office complex that the department now occupies.

Flight dept personnel

On the flightdeck of Bissell's Bombardier Challenger 350 are Chief Pilot Tom Sanders (L) and Sr Aircraft Capt and Safety Officer Tony Woody.

Chief Pilot Tom Sanders has been with the department since 1989, when he was hired into that position by Mark Bissell's father John.

Sanders was always interested in airplanes and remembers wanting to fly from the time he was 5 or 6. Growing up on the east side of Detroit, his father would take him to air shows at nearby Selfridge AFB, where he remembers seeing both the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds perform. He began taking flying lessons in 1974 while still in high school with money saved from part-time jobs.

Sanders attended Western Michigan University where he earned all his flight ratings. He moved to Grand Rapids after graduation and began flight instructing and flying charter at Northern Air (now Signature). When he had enough hours, he joined Mid State Airlines in Wisconsin, flying Swearingen Metros, getting what he remembers as "a lot of good weather experience." In 1985 Sanders was hired at Eastern Airlines, where he flew Boeing 727s, based 1st in New York, then in Chicago and later in Atlanta.

When Eastern went bankrupt in 1989, Sanders went back to Grand Rapids where he soon learned that Bissell was looking for a pilot. "I remember the interview quite distinctly even today," he says. "They said 'Always have a well maintained aircraft, safety is the top priority, and never cut corners on training.'" Following this advice, Sanders has prolonged the safety record that the flight department has kept since its inception in 1955, now at 20,000 accident/incident-free flight hours.


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