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(as Nate McCann Company)
(as Kirby Company)
|Parent||The Scott Fetzer Company|
The Kirby Company (stylized as KIRBY) is a manufacturer of vacuum cleaners and home cleaning accessories, based in Cleveland, Ohio, United States. It is a division of the Scott Fetzer Company (also known as Scott & Fetzer) which in turn is part of Berkshire Hathaway. Dealers are located in over 50 countries throughout the world. Kirby's products are only sold via in-home door-to-door demonstrations and the company is a member of the Direct Selling Association. All of the vacuum cleaners are built in either Ohio or Texas.
Jim Kirby (1885–1971) designed the first Kirby vacuums for George Scott and Carl Fetzer after World War I, although the Kirby name was not used on a vacuum cleaner until the 1930s. James Kirby invented the "vacuette" circa 1920. The company's primary competitors included The Hoover Company and The Eureka Company, both of which began operations in 1909, as well as Bissell that started building carpet sweepers in 1876. Their primary European competitor was Electrolux, which started 1924. Dyson, Miele and Sebo followed in the 1980s.
Introduced in 1925, the Vacuette Electric featured a removable floor nozzle and handle, and became the forerunner of today's multi-attachment Kirby vacuum models. In 1935, the company introduced the Kirby Model C, the first product to carry Jim Kirby's name. The Vacuette was also briefly offered as a manual vacuum cleaner, utilizing a spring-loaded worm gear driven by pulling the vacuum cleaner backwards; when pushing the machine forward, the worm gear would power a turbine that provided suction. As long as the cleaner was consistently pulled backwards, tension in the spring would remain constant and the turbine would continue spinning. It was designed for rural areas that didn't have electricity, and was very similar to the carpet sweeper.
While competitors have changed the orientation of the motor, their products' appearance, construction materials and other features over the years, Kirby has remained with its original design, materials and functionality with enhancements added to aid in its operation and durability. The company changes the appearance of the cleaner with revised color schemes and introduces new model names while keeping the core technology intact. Used machines are widely available for sale internationally. Because the attachments and appearance items are interchangeable between generations, some machines can be found consisting of parts from multiple models. Machines built in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s are still in operation worldwide and can be completely repaired or rebuilt with widely available parts from the factory.
In the 1930s and the 1940s, Kirby decided to offer their products in retail environments, and introduced the "R" series. They are essentially identical to their "C" series, with the only difference being the power switch installed on the handle. The first model was the R, followed by the 2R, 3R and 4R. In 1970, input from Kirby distributors, dealers, management and customers guided Kirby engineers in developing the Kirby Classic. This ushered in the second generation models, and was an instant success, with soaring sales, allowing the company to expand its manufacturing facilities outside of Cleveland for the first time, which coincided with the rising popularity of wall-to-wall custom installed carpet. In 1972, Kirby West began operations in Andrews, Texas at 1345 NW 101 Street (also known as North Seminole Highway), which doubled the company's manufacturing capacity. The company did maintain a presence in Canada at 1009 Burns Street East in Whitby which is no longer staffed.
Berkshire Hathaway bought Kirby parent Scott Fetzer in 1986 for $315 million. Two years prior, Ivan Boesky had offered to buy Scott Fetzer for $60 a share, or $420 million. Warren Buffett has singled out Scott Fetzer to Berkshire's shareholders as the "prototype" for the "kind of company — and acquisition — he was interested in." According to Berkshire managers, "absolutely no changes were made to the existing Scott Fetzer business or management, and the entire business (and its jet) was preserved."
As of 2003, Kirby is the largest source of revenue and profit for Scott Fetzer, with approximately 500,000 sales per year, about a third of which are outside the United States. In 2003, Scott Fetzer sold the vacuums to about 835 factory distributors, who in turn sell the vacuums door-to-door. As an incentive to new customers, Kirby offers the Service Center Vacuum Rebuild Program for original owners who have been registered with the company. As long as the customer owns the machine as the registered owner, if the cleaner needs repair, they can send it back to the Rebuild Department and have it restored to “like-new” condition. The company will completely disassemble it, repair or replace any worn Kirby parts, and sandblast, polish and buff metal parts back to a shiny “new” appearance. Internal components are also thoroughly inspected and repaired with Kirby replacement parts so that it will perform as originally designed. This is an advantage to the company, as they can evaluate product durability from actual use and make revisions on future models.
Kirby unit models
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The Kirby Company generally produces only one model at a time. Kirby's vacuums made until 1919 were made by Frantz Premier. Those made from 1919 to 1934 are branded and made by The Scott & Fetzer Company. After 1934 all machines have been made by Scott & Fetzer, though branded as Kirby.
From 1935 through today, continuous improvements and refinements are made to the Kirby home care system. One of the popular selling points is that it can be easily configured into a canister vacuum, hand portable vacuum, blower, floor buffer, and more. It can also be converted into a shampoo system for carpets and a mopping system for bare floors. The characteristic chrome appearance is due to the bulk of the machine being constructed from aluminum, a tradition going back to the very early days of manufacture when plastic was a novelty and aluminum was more plentiful.
One of the key procedures for using a Kirby Vacuum is the correct way to adjust the carpet nozzle for the best possible results. Starting with the 1939 Model 2C to the most current machine, the instruction manual states that the carpet nozzle should be gradually lowered into position with the Toe-Touch control, incrementally adjusting the rug nozzle until the rotating brush bar establishes contact, and the sound of the motor changes indicating suction has been achieved. Starting with the 1945 Model 505, adjusting the carpet nozzle employs what Kirby calls "Triple Cushioned Vibration Rug Cleaning Action". This characteristic which is still implemented on current models, involves briefly lifting the carpet up off the floor with the significant suction created by the motor, thereby elevating and cushioning the area to be cleaned, while the rotating brush bar separates and grooms the carpet fibers, removing the embedded dirt and rejuvenating the carpet pile. One of the most common complaints about Kirbys is that they're heavy. The image of the machine made from metal adds to that reputation. The difficulty to push the machine is largely due to the suction created that makes it difficult to maneuver, especially in deep pile carpets and not necessarily the materials used in manufacture, however, for elderly users or users with arthritis, the 23 pound (10kg) weight can make it difficult to use.
Beginning in 1990, the "Generation" or "G" series ushered in a new platform for the cleaner. The addition of TechDrive variable power assist eliminated 90% of the effort required to move the unit back and forth. The current model, the Kirby Avalir 2™ continues the tradition that converts the vacuum into several different units beginning with the Model 508 in 1948. With the introduction of the 1945 Model 505, the handle could be removed and the machine converted to a portable unit with a shoulder strap so that cleaning in difficult areas could be performed, and the machine converted into a canister-type cleaner with a long hose attached to the front for dusting tasks. With most vacuum cleaner models, the rubber drive belt that powers the brush bar, an integral component with most modern machines, remains in place and is only examined when it breaks. Vacuum attachments are available on other machines but don't require the drive belt to be disconnected and the carpet nozzle with the rotating brush bar removed. Kirby attachments are connected to the power unit in place of the carpet nozzle, and disconnecting the drive belt is involved in the process that adds to its flexibility.
Earlier methods instructed that the carpet nozzle must maintain contact with the surface of the carpet, utilizing the suction, while later instruction manuals recommended the nozzle be slightly above with only the brush establishing contact and improving airflow around the surface being cleaned. For delicate surfaces, the drive belt that spins the brush bar can be detached so that only suction is used. In 1976 with the introduction of the Classic III, a small plastic window was installed in the belt lifter so the belt could be visually inspected as being intact and installed on the turbine driveshaft, however, this feature was only available for a short time, and was removed in 1981 for the Heritage model. When the Heritage II was introduced in 1986, Kirby revised the carpet nozzle by making it slimmer, and in 1987 a Brush Performance Indicator Light was installed in the top of the carpet nozzle. This device consisted of a coiled copper wire wrapped around a magnet, with additional magnets installed in the rotating vibrating brush that created an electrical charge. A small LED bulb would then light up when the brush bar was spinning; if the light appeared to blink or wasn't illuminated, it meant the brush bar wasn't rotating at the desired speed, and that the nozzle needed to be adjusted up or signifying that an inspection of the drive belt was needed. This feature replaced the earlier plastic window on the belt lifter handle. In 1984 with the Heritage II model, the Toe-Touch height adjustment was modified with a custom adjustment feature called "Micro-Matic", which facilitated the ability to incrementally adjust the lowest preset height position, allowing for the carpet nozzle to clean glued down, minimal pile carpets. The feature was no longer offered on models made after 1990, starting with the Generation 3.
Collection and disposal of the dirt has also changed over the years, but one component has remained, called the "Sani-Emtor". This is a component attached to the discharge tube leading away from the vacuum turbine chamber where the suction is created, where dirt collected and heavier objects were deposited, and a lid could be removed from the bottom and the dirt disposed. A cloth bag that allowed airflow to pass through and clean the air was attached at the top of the Sani-Emtor. Earlier versions of the cloth bag used a dense duvetyne, and later corduroy cotton and wool fabric bags where fine grit, dander and other foreign contaminants collected. Starting in 1964 with the release of the Dual Sanitronic 50, Kirby implemented an integrated cleaning pocket into the cloth bag, titled the "Sani-Pocket", where embedded dirt and hair could be dislodged from the interior surface of the bag while keeping the dirt contained inside. Starting in the 1960s, the cloth or wool fabric bag was impregnated with a fungus controlling substance Kirby called "KGF-40", which consisted of small amounts of zinc dimethyldithiocarbamate, and zinc 2-mercaptobenzothiazole, with most of the substance being "inert ingredients". Later the chemical was offered in a 12-oz bottle called "Germicide Deodorant", which could be sprayed on various surfaces with the Suds-O-Gun as a fungicide.
The owners manual for cloth shake-out bag equipped machines recommended that the bag be emptied after cleaning had been finished, to avoid dirt, fungus and bacteria from setting deep in the fibers of the bag, and preparing the machine for the next time. The cloth bag can be laundered periodically, if necessary. Starting with the Tradition model, an internal, disposable paper bag was introduced optionally in addition to the cloth shake-out bag, so that customers could decide which method they preferred. The disposable paper bag provided a protective barrier against the interior surface of the cloth bag, and offered the convenience of storing the cleaner when finished, not requiring that the bag be emptied every time. The disposable paper bags became standard following the release of the Heritage model, with the shake-out bag becoming optional. Starting in 1984 with the Heritage II, the "Sani-Emtor" became the "Mini-Emtor", which no longer had a removable lid on the bottom, but still trapped larger, heavier objects. The introduction of the Generation 3 in 1990 marked the end of the shake-out bag, with disposable paper bags being the only method of dirt containment. In 1993, with the introduction of the G4, the disposable paper bag filtration was improved, labeled "Micron Magic", and was capable of trapping down to three microns, while the outer cloth bag trapped any remaining particles that pass through. Starting with the Gsix in 1999, H10 HEPA multi layered paper bags were introduced, then in early 2003 the revised version of the Ultimate G introduced as the Ultimate G Diamond Edition, the disposable paper bag was upgraded once more to H11 HEPA standards. Starting with the Sentria in 2006, Kirby bags are no longer made of paper, but polypropylene, a cloth-like fabric.
Versatility and convenience has been a longstanding tradition with the company, that being the ability to configure the machine for various tasks. The attachments available have come and gone over the years, but some of the more popular ones remain available today. A floor buffer attachment and bare floor dusting pad were introduced with the Model 2C, along with a hand-held, paint spray gun and upholstery shampoo dispenser called the Suds-O-Gun, powered by attaching the hose to the turbine discharge tube have remained. A carpet shampoo attachment, called the Rug Renovator appeared with the Dual Sanitronic 50 in 1965, which uses a dry foam method to scrub the shampoo into the carpet. With the introduction of the Avalir, the Rug Renovator was modified to function as a floor scrubber, cleaning hard floors, scrubbing tile and grout, or polishing hard surfaces, using specialized brushes for each task. One of its earliest available tasks is being able to vacuum mattresses, couches and carpeted stairs by replacing the elongated handle and converting the machine to a portable, hand-held cleaner while still using the carpet nozzle. With the introduction of the Classic in 1970, an unusual feature was installed in the handle; a small object depository integrated into the back of the handle called the "Kirby bank", a place to store any coins, paperclips or other small metallic items that could damage the turbine fan if sucked up. The plastic backing of the handle could be easily removed and items placed inside could be retrieved. Oddly, this feature was never mentioned in the owner's manual from 1970 until it was discontinued in 2006.
Another unusual attachment, called the Handi-Butler introduced with the 1950 Model 510, used the turbine shaft at the front to power several devices, offered as convenience features that could sharpen knives, a cable could also be attached to a wire brush to remove rust from various surfaces, along with a lambs wool polishing disk, and a flannel buffing pad for more delicate tasks. The Handi-Butler was last offered with the Tradition model, and was replaced by the Turbo Sander with the Heritage model. The Turbo Sander was equipped with a small turbine inside the device, powered by the suction through the attachment hose, which can accommodate various grades of sand paper, scrubbing pads, and a soft, vinyl pad to be used as a massage unit that is still currently available.
During the mid-1970s, with the popularity of deep shag carpeting, a rake attachment called the Shag King, was attached in front of the carpet nozzle to lift and align the nap while cleaning the carpet, offered only on the Classic Omega, Classic III, and Tradition models. Another original attachment offered with the Model 2C, called the Crystalator, could be used to fumigate closets for insects and moths using mothballs, which was no longer available with the Legend model in the late 1980s.
In 1981, with the introduction of the Heritage model, the Turbo Brush was introduced, which consisted of a smaller version of the Rug Nozzle and a belt-driven rotating brush bar, but it had a small turbine within, powered by the suction of the power unit to spin the brush, designed to make vacuuming carpeted stairs easier and removing embedded hair from upholstery and automobile interiors. This was replaced three years later with the Heritage II in 1984 called the Zippbrush, utilizing a rotary brush attached to the turbine in a more compact housing, which is still being offered.
First Generation (1935–1969)
- Model Names start with the C (1935), followed by the 2C (1937), 3C (1939), 4C (1940), 505 (1945, introduction of Magic Finger Belt Lifter for Carpet Nozzle removal), 508 (1948), 509 (1949), 510 (1950), 511 (1951), 512 (1952), 513 (1953), 514 (1954), 515 (1955), 516 (1956), 517 (1957), 518 (1958), 519 (1959), 560 (1960), 561 (1961), 562 Sanitronic (1962), Sanitronic VII (1963-1965), Dual Sanitronic 50 (1965-1967, first use of two-speed motor for hose attachment and the Carpet Nozzle, introduction of the Rug Renovator shampoo system), ending with the Dual Sanitronic 80 (1967-1969).
Second Generation (1970–1990)
- Model Names start with the Classic (1970–1973), followed by the Classic Omega, stylized as Classic Ω (1973–1976, first double-insulated model), Classic III (1976–1979, first model with clear belt window), Tradition (1979–1981, first introduction of disposable paper filter bags), Heritage (1981–1984), Heritage 84 (1984 only) Heritage II (1984–1987, first introduction of the "Mini-Emtor" bag boot assembly and brush roll indicator light), Heritage II Legend (1987–1989), and concluded with the Legend II (1989–1991, last made with optional cloth only shake-out bag)
Third Generation (1990–present)
- Model Names start with the Generation 3 (1990–1993, first introduction of TechDrive Power Assist), followed with the G4 (1993–1996, first introduction of Micron Magic Filtration), G5 (1997–1999), Gsix (1999–2002, first introduction of H10 class Micron Magic HEPA Filtration), Ultimate G (2002–2003, introduced staggered "oblique" brush roll), Ultimate G Diamond Edition (2003–2006, the only model produced with a speed switch on the rear of the unit for delicate vacuuming, improved H11 class HEPA disposable bags), Sentria (2006–2012, LED headlight, modernized styling, introduction of white polypropylene disposable bags), Sentria II (2012–2014, improved Mini-Emtor, weight reduced with plastic motor base pan), Avalir (2014–2017), and the currently available Avalir 2 (2018–Present).
Kirby ventured into small, portable, handheld units by reviving the Vacuette in the 1970s, then later producing the battery powered Split Second for small or light duty cleaning, which are powered by a 12V DC plug that runs in automobile cigarette lighters.
In 1968, parent company Scott & Fetzer acquired American-Lincoln, which also manufactured vacuum cleaners for commercial purposes, called the Super Sweep with a 18 in (460 mm) brush roll. After the purchase, Kirby marketed the Janitronic, which was the Sanitronic without a removable carpet nozzle. In the 1980s, they also briefly offered a commercial model, called the ComVac, in three sizes, the 1300, 1800 and the 2800. The commercial models were very basic and didn't come with the additional attachments or the shiny chrome appearance. When Scott & Fetzer sold American-Lincoln to McGraw-Edison in 1984, the commercial models were discontinued. In the 1920s, Kirby introduced their only canister vacuum cleaner, called the Aer-Rotor. It was unsuccessful and was pulled from the market a few months later, but the ability to convert the Kirby into a canister is currently available due to its flexibility.
Since 1920, new Kirby home care systems have only been sold through (door-to-door) in-home demonstrations by independent, authorized Kirby distributors. The Kirby Company manufactures the unit and sells it to a group of authorized distributors. Each distributor is an independent business, and as such sets their own price for the unit and conducts their own business operations. Independent distributors recruit dealers who are also independent contractors. The dealers sell the unit door-to-door and are generally compensated only through commission.
Criticism of marketing and sales practices
The practices of some of Kirby's independent distributors have been subject to criticism. The Kirby is included by Lon L. Fuller and Melvin A. Eisenberg, Professors of Contract Law at Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley School of Law/Columbia Law School, as a textbook example of unconscionability. Kirby has been subject to relentless criticism by consumer protection agencies. As of 1999, of the 22 state consumer protection agencies, 15 had received a total of more than 600 complaints in just a few years. Between 1996 and 1999, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection received 50 complaints regarding Kirby dealers, and concluded from its investigation that Kirby, through its distributors, engaged in a "statewide pattern of trade practices" violation of state consumer-protection laws.
Many of the complaints involve "older customers who lack the will to stand up to grueling sales pitches." The Wall Street Journal records examples where an elderly couple was unable to remove three Kirby salesmen from their home for over five hours; in another example, a disabled woman who had been living alone in a mobile home on $1000/month in Social Security payments and suffering from Alzheimer's disease was discovered to own two Kirby vacuum cleaners, having paid $1,700 for the second one. In 2002, the Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner obtained $13,000 in refunds for 13 senior citizens.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the device "costs more than four times what other top-of-the-line vacuum cleaners do." Kirby compares the price difference to that between luxury and economy cars, yet "luxury-car dealers don't make house calls in trailer parks. But Kirby dealers do." The Kirby vacuum cleaner is "marketed exclusively door-to-door — often to people who can ill afford a $1,500 gadget, but succumb to the sales pitch nonetheless."
In 2001, the West Virginia Attorney General obtained more than $26,000 in refunds and credits for dissatisfied Kirby buyers. In 2002, ABC's Primetime conducted a hidden-camera investigation in response to more than a thousand complaints regarding Kirby's salespeople. In June 2004, the Arizona Attorney General filed suit against Kirby distributors for violations of the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act, seeking an injunction against any other home sales. Public authorities flooded with complaints about Kirby vacuum cleaners is not a recent phenomenon; even in the 1960s and 1970s, Kirby had been "cited by various agencies a number of times" and the Detroit Better Business Bureau had received so many complaints that it decided to turn the matter over to the Wayne County prosecutor.
Kirby asserts it is not liable for the actions of its sales force, whom it describes as independent contractors. Its "Distributor Code of Ethics" enumerates 12 principles, including "observe the highest standards of character, honesty and integrity in dealings with my customers, fellow Distributors and other members of the Kirby profession." Kirby also teaches its distributors direct-sales laws, and requires them to resolve complaints within 24 hours under threat of termination.
Between 1998 and 2001, in Alabama alone, more than 100 lawsuits were filed against Kirby and its affiliates and subsidiaries, resulting in nearly $2 million in judgements and settlements.
Twelve distributors of Kirby vacuums in Massachusetts were cited for violations of the Commonwealth's wage and hour laws by the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office in July 2010. The 12 distributors were cited for a variety of different wage and hour violations including nonpayment of wage, nonpayment of minimum wage, misclassification, child labor, retaliation and record-keeping violations. The distributors were fined a total of $199,300 for the violations and also ordered to pay restitution.
The Supreme Court of Texas held Kirby liable for a rape committed by one of its door-to-door salesmen, finding that the manufacturer maintained control of its distributors and their salespeople, by requiring its distributors to make sales via in-home visits, and that the risk was foreseeable. In that case, the court found that — had the employee's references been checked — Kirby would have discovered complaints of inappropriate sexual behavior at his previous employer and an arrest and deferred adjudication for indecency with a child.
The North Dakota Supreme Court also held Kirby liable in a similar rape incident, where the salesman was hired after being convicted of assault and with charges of criminal sexual misconduct in the third degree pending against him.
Fraud and RICO
A federal class-action lawsuit is pending against Kirby under the civil action provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), for allegedly selling used vacuums as new; the complaint alleges that "Not only is Kirby aware of this practice, it 'participates in the scheme by, among other things, selling to its distributors duplicate or replacement "Original Purchaser's Registration" cards to be given to secondhand purchasers.'" The complaint also alleges that "Kirby commonly sells distributors new empty boxes and packaging material for the obvious purpose of repackaging units that the distributor previously sold to a prior customer." Kirby's motion to dismiss was rejected. After Kirby refused discovery requests for its sales contracts and other documents, Judge Clay D. Land compelled Kirby to disclose the requested documents.
A class-action lawsuit was also filed against Kirby in Bullock County Court in Alabama over its sales practices, specifically its use of credit cards issued expressly to fund Kirby purchases, under Truth in Lending laws. Kirby succeeded in persuading a trial judge to recuse himself.
Kirby has sued unauthorized Kirby vacuum dealers for United States trademark infringement where the vacuums are identified by the Kirby name and logo. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has held that such use does not constitute trademark infringement. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit vacated an injunction granted in Kirby's favor by a lower court in that Circuit based on similar trademark claims against an unauthorized distributor.
Kirby also did not prevail in a similar action against an unauthorized dealer in Minnesota, where it asserted trademark infringement, false and unfair competition, and trade disparagement; the authorized dealer prevailed on a $90,000 counterclaim against Kirby for defamation and then in a suit against an insurer who refused to defend the suit when the dealer refused Kirby's settlement offer. Kirby's parent lost another such suit in Minnesota based on trademark infringement and other related state law claims.
Nor did Kirby prevail in a tortious interference with contractual relations claim in Washington against an unauthorized retailer; the Washington Supreme Court awarded attorney's fees to the retailer. However, Kirby has prevailed in cases where unauthorized retailers went farther than using the name and logo to identify the vacuum cleaner, misrepresenting themselves as the manufacturer and claiming the existence of factory warranty.
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- Miles, Robert P. 2003. The Warren Buffett CEO: Secrets from the Berkshire Hathaway Managers.