French baron develops into patron saint of mass consumption

MARCEL BICH (1914-1994)

When he died in 1994, Marcel Bich, the designer of the world-famous Bic ballpoint pen, had not allowed an interview for 30 years.

The memoriam writers themselves were amazed at how little was known about a man whose disposable items had so much influenced our use of utensils. Even the official obituary gave neither cause nor place of his death.

The text only referred to 'defeat' of family and employees. Bich took a romantic pleasure in staying out of the limelight. Self-made men like to boast about their achievements. Bich was different.

He was born in Turin in 1914 to impoverished Savoyard nobility. His father was an Italian baron, his mother a Frenchwoman with the impressive name Marie Muffat de SaintAmour de Chanaz. Only as an adult would Marcel be naturalized as a Frenchman.

He went to school in French lycea in Turin, Madrid and Paris, which may have influenced his later international orientation. From the age of nineteen he sold flashbulbs door to door, later illuminated signs. In the evenings he studied for a law degree.

He found work in an office supply company and learned the secrets of 'the ink'. After the war, he borrowed 500,000 French francs from friends and acquaintances and, together with a partner, bought a small fountain pen factory.

In addition to nylon stockings and Nescafe, the American soldiers who settled in Europe also brought ballpoint pens with them. Bich bought the rights, improved the pens and released his own, cheap version in 1953.

Knowing that his name could be pronounced bitch in English, he omitted the ending h. In the first year, 10,000 pieces were sold per day. Three years later 250,000. Today there are 15 million a day. This makes the Bic ballpoint the most successful mass-produced product of all time.

He continued the principle of making a fortune with cheap stuff and small profits with the disposable lighter (1973) and the disposable razor (1976).

His statement was well-known: 'Out of ten decisions a boss makes seven good ones, two worthless ones and one downright bad one.' One such downright bad one was the 1988 disposable perfume that cost billions before "the patron" admitted he was wrong.

When he died, he was the fifth richest man in France and Bic was number three on a world list of French brand recognition. Although he listed his company on the stock exchange in 1972, he continued to control the company.

In 1994 there were still four family members on the five-member board of directors, accounting for 39.3% of the capital. Bich was known for his clan spirit: the eleven children from his three marriages had work within his group.

Like the tea king Thomas Lipton, in the second part of his life he became obsessed with the passion to conquer the most important sailing trophy in the world, the America's Cup, from the Americans. Something no one had managed in over a century. Lipton tried five times.

Bich four times: in 1970, 1974, 1977 and 1980. A multimillion-dollar obsession – the last attempt cost 30 million French francs – that could not count on the understanding of the French.

In 1993 he appointed his son Bruno as successor and introduced him to the press. Asked about his feelings on that occasion, he said: 'I have none. You can't have feelings in business.' He did not reveal much more about his business philosophy.

It was then thirty years ago that the eccentric man had had a look at his cards: 'Doing business is like surfing.

Success requires total freedom of movement, which means that neither bankers nor shareholders are allowed to set foot on the board.' The British newspaper Independent wrote in his obituary: 'If mass consumption had a patron saint, it would have been Bich.'