Articles Blog

BIC: The Company Behind the Pen

BIC: The Company Behind the Pen

Writing lies at the foundation of modern society. It is a technology that few of us think about,
and today, we will explore the company behind the pen, BIC. Before the advent of metal pens, the western
world’s writing instrument of choice was the quill. Finding bird feathers wasn’t very hard,
and ever since 600 AD that’s how most writing was done. Once the Industrial Revolution got underway,
improved metallurgy and mass production techniques resulted in the dip pen. It was essentially a metal nib mounted on
a handle; it could barely hold more ink than a quill and it’s practical use was about
the same. The first truly practical pens appeared at
the end of the 19th century. They are what we call fountain pens, and the
innovation behind them was that they had a reservoir of ink inside. The first commercially successful fountain
pens were built in 1884 by this guy, Lewis Waterman. He was originally an insurance broker, but
one day when signing a very important contract, the prototype fountain pen he had bought for
the occasion broke and leaked ink on the whole document. This accident eventually resulted in the deal
getting cancelled and Waterman losing his job. Making the best out of a bad situation, Waterman
decided to build a better fountain pen, and it was his design that truly made fountain
pens the dominant writing instrument of the next half century. It wouldn’t be until the 1930s that fountain
pens would finally meet their match. The man responsible for that was Laszlo Biro,
a Hungarian journalist. He had noticed that the ink used in newspaper
printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. When he tried using the same ink in a fountain
pen, however, it wouldn’t flow into the tip because it was too viscous. After seven years of trial and error, Laszlo
developed a new tip for his pen consisting of a ball that could freely rotate in a socket. As the ball ran along the paper, it would
siphon ink from an internal cartridge and spread it out evenly. What Laszlo had created was the ballpoint
pen, but the timing of his invention was a bit unlucky. As Hungarian Jew, Laszlo was well aware of
what was happening in Germany, and so in 1938 he packed his bags and moved to Paris. While there, he got the lucky chance of meeting
the president of Argentina, Agustín Pedro Justo. He was so impressed by the ballpoint pen that
he told Laszlo to emigrate to Argentina, which, of course, he did, as he wanted to be as far
away from Germany as possible. Once in Argentina, Laszlo set up a company
for his pens and by 1943 he was selling them to His Majesty’s Royal Air Force in the
UK. This first generation of ballpoint pens wasn’t
perfect, however; the metal case was prone to leaking and the ink would often clog. Most of Laszlo’s non-government clients
ended up returning their pens, which drove his company to the brink of bankruptcy. To keep the company afloat, Laszlo resorted
to selling the rights to his pen in Europe and in the US. The man who bought the European rights to
the ballpoint pen was a Frenchman, Baron Marcel Bich. He had entered the pen business in 1945, when
he had bought a damaged factory on the outskirts of Paris and used it to start making fountain
pens. Marcel fell in love with the ballpoint pen,
and in 1950 when he heard that Laszlo was selling the patent, he threw $2 million at
Laszlo to get it. With the patent in hand, Marcel used his considerable
resources to acquire plastic and precision stainless steel technology from Switzerland. Now, keep in mind, plastic was still a very
new invention in the early 1950s and it had only been commercialized a few year prior. The shaping machines Marcel bought were cutting
edge for their time, capable of shaping metal down to 10 micrometers. The design of Marcel’s pens was as simplistic
as it was brilliant: The pen’s barrel was shaped similarly to
a pencil, making it very hard to roll off a table, and since it was made of transparent
polystyrene, it was easy to see when you were running out of ink. What truly made Marcel’s endeavor successful,
however, was his understanding of economies of scale. You see, the pens that Laszlo sold were very
expensive, and although they were vastly superior to fountain pens, it was very hard to justify
spending the equivalent of one week’s wage for one pen. Marcel, however, streamlined his production
and bought everything in bulk, allowing him to sell his pens for a fraction of the cost:
only 50 centimes, the equivalent of 18 cents in the US. Marcel’s initial plan was to sell the pens
under his family name, but once people told him how English speakers were pronouncing
it, he decided to drop the H. Thus, in 1950 he established Societe BIC and
began flooding France with his trademark pen, which he called the BIC Cristal. Unsurprisingly, the pen was an instant hit,
surpassing everything on the market both in terms of quality and price. Within 3 years, Marcel was selling 40 million
pens annually. He could barely keep up with the rising demand
and so he started opening subsidiaries left and right:
by 1954 he was operating across Western Europe, and just two years later his pens were also
sold in South America and Africa. Marcel didn’t enter the US market until
1958, and he did so in a very interesting fashion. Remember our friend Lewis Waterman? He was the insurance broker who started making
fountain pens in the late 1880s. The company he had started was now the largest
manufacturer of fountain pens in the US, but the ballpoint revolution had left them near
bankruptcy. To gain a foothold in the States, Marcel offered
to buy Waterman and he did so for $1 million. He repurposed most of Waterman’s factories
to make ballpoint pens, and he kept the fountain pen division as a luxury brand, which is still
around to this day, although as a separate entity. In 1961 French artist Raymond Savignac created
the BIC Boy, which has remained a part of the company’s logo ever since. That year the company replaced their stainless
steel ballpoints with much harder tungsten carbide, which they still use today. By the end of the 1960s BIC pens were sold
on every inhabited continent, and Marcel was looking for other products to add to his arsenal. In line with his philosophy, he needed something
cheap and disposable that people would use every day: a pocket lighter turned out to
be the perfect candidate. Much like with the ballpoint pen, Marcel’s
affordable lighter outperformed all available alternatives and was capable of producing
3,000 flames over its lifetime. Its release in 1973 was met with universal
acclaim and today lighter sales make up over 35% of the company’s revenue. Just two years later Marcel found another
market he could conquer. In what was essentially a declaration of war
on Gillette, BIC released a disposable safety razor in 1975. They heavily undercut Gillette and have been
a thorn in their sides ever since. Although BIC have had a hard time outcompeting
Gillette, razor sales are still a big chunk of their business, making up almost 24% of
their sales today. As a lifetime watersports enthusiast, Marcel
established BIC Sport in 1979, which made windsurf equipment and sailboards. Although BIC Sport is still around today,
it is a very minor part of the company and it hasn’t been very successful. Marcel’s future endeavors, however, would
fare even worse. A few months after starting BIC Sport, Marcel
decided to enter the clothing market by purchasing Guy Laroche from its founder for $10 million. At first the deal seemed great, but with the
legendary fashion designer in failing health and incapable of making new designs, the fashion
company soon became unprofitable. When Guy himself died in 1989, things became
even worse after a series of failed successors. Marcel was also getting pretty old at that
point and was starting to make mistakes, like when he tried to enter the perfume market
in 1989 and failed so miserably, that he scrapped the whole line of perfumes just two years
later. Marcel died in 1994, and his son Bruno took
up the reigns to fix the company. His first move was to strengthen BIC’s hold
on the pen business by buying Wite-Out and Tipp-Ex, the two largest correction brands
in the world. He sold the unprofitable Guy Laroche in 2001,
and it eventually ended up in the hands of a Chinese company. Since then BIC has tried to venture into the
realm of consumer electronics by selling mobile phones, tablets and hydrogen fuel cells, but
the results have been lackluster at best. Even today, their most successful products
are Marcel’s original trifecta: pens, razors and lighters. In fact, just in 2016 BIC sold 7 billion pens,
2.5 billion razors and 1.5 billion lighters. If time has shown anything, it’s that the
company’s success lies in the simplicity of their products and judging by their failure
to profit from anything more complex than a ballpoint pen, they would do well to continue
honoring Marcel’s legacy. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video, please consider
supporting us on Patreon. We spent more than we’re willing to admit
digging through scanned newspapers to find all of this stuff, so any help would be more
than welcome. If you enjoyed the history of BIC feel free
to subscribe for more and to check out the full Behind the Business playlist for the
interesting stories of other big companies. Once again, thanks a lot for watching, and
as always: stay smart.

100 thoughts on “BIC: The Company Behind the Pen”

  1. Not saying he wasn't smart, but seems like a big part of his success was having a ton of money to buy the ballpoint patent and machinery…

    Also, gotta wonder how many tons of plastic are in landfills now because of this company…

  2. Another great thing about Bic pens: If you have an X-Acto knife and need a cap for it, the cap off of a Bic pen fits just fine.

  3. I guess the US buyer of Biro's patent was Paper-Mate, and those ballpoints used to leak like crazy. The plastic pocket protector came about because of leaky Paper-Mates. And seeing shirts in 2nd hand stores with big ink spots at the bottom of the pocket was commonplace too.

  4. yup bic crystal was my favorite pen, until i broke my only hand twice in a year. then discovered fountain pens require no presser to function, haven't touched a ballpoint sense.

  5. Pens and lighters, yes. As for their line of razors, Gillette is still far more superior when it comes to shaving comfort. I remember when the whole point of their pens was manufactured of hard brass and they advertised the durability of the pen by shooting it out of a .22 rifle into a solid block of wood. As cost cutting would have it, they replaced most of the point with plastic retaining only the last few millimeters of the point with the hard brass and tungsten ball. I also see here int the EU market they still maintain a minor supply of inexpensive socks sold by various discount houses.

  6. i dont wonder about such sale numbers. the number one producer of throw away articles. this concept isnt up to date anymore…

  7. The BIC commercials were innovative. I remember them shooting a pen into a piece of wood and it still wrote. Then it was flick your BIC lighters.

  8. FUN? FACT: The word for ballpoint pen in Argentina is "Birome" (2:11) from László BIRÓ + MEyne (an Argentine co-founder of the company)

    Also, in Argentina the ballpoint pen is proudly considered an Argentine invention. Little did I know Biro was originally Hungarian,
    but then again, back then pretty much everyone in Argentina came from somewhere else

  9. Is it any coincidence that bic sells the two most stolen items on the planet? Pens and lighters? Everyone has stolen at least one of these wether in purpose or not-

  10. Bic ball pens really are my favorite, the only ones that support my cursive handwriting and not to mention cheap!!! Thank-you Sir Biro and Bich, may you rest in peace 🙂

  11. bic sucks major balls as a company!!! They pretty much single-handedly introduced the world to disposable goods and engineered failures.Want to know why most warranty's don't exceed a year? Blame bic. Want to know why there is excess plastics in our environment? Blame bic. Want to know why our garbage landfills cannot decompose. Blame bic. Want to know why most products depend on plastics and oil? Blame bic. You can say that bic turned our world into a cheap and disposable one.

  12. The first pen is from Egypt and Egyptians are also the first designers and even till this day technology is not able to reproduce what they made with their fingers.

  13. The Bic Maxi is a symbol of man's innovation from caves to the moon. Given to man, a magical tool to conjure destruction or creation. 2 ounces of power to control the world.

  14. First Pen was made and produced by Croatian Slavoljub Penkala not that biro from hungary do your homework before video!!

  15. Very good video. Only one suggestion from my side. You should get a better Microphone protector. "S" are very harsh and almost hurt my ears when listening to the video over headphones.

  16. It’s really telling how much humans love and cherish and desire and squabble and fail over money. Their wheelhouse makes them richer and richer each year, but they want to make even more money. Why branch out into so many failed ventures? Still a greedy, evil super entity who cares for literally nothing other than money.

  17. Congrats…. You created two of the most stolen items ever to be created on this planet. Lighter and pen.


  19. The two most misplaced and or stolen items on earth are both made by Bic… One is the Bic-pen and the other is the Bic-lighter!!!

  20. Was Bich’s purchase price of the patent of $2,000,000 in 1945-valued USD? If so, you are telling us Bich had USD27,900,000 (in 2018 dollars) to spend in just-liberated France? Seriously, in 1945 one doubts the entire country of France had that much money.



  22. Instead of going to bed early for my first day of school tomorrow. I watched a 10 minute video on the history of the pen

  23. Please make more videos and then sponsor yourself with cards or flyers and i bet you will have more subscribers try schools and campuses

  24. Just last week I purchased six dozen of the Bic Clic pens and a ten pack of the Crystal pens. Free shipping! Delivered in under a week!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *