It’s a door-to-door world
He came shuffling up Colfax Avenue, brown leather satchel clutched in his right hand.
With a quick flick of his wrist, Ernest “Bud” Hermanson opened the door to Helga’s Uptown Beauty Salon and Boutique and plunked the weathered bag on the front counter, slyly pulling a few cards from a pouch.
As a couple hairstylists looked on, Hermanson collared the manager, who peered into the salesman’s bag crammed with hairbrushes, combs, a comb cleaner, perfumes and lipstick before taking a card and bidding the man and his bag farewell.
“Who was that?” asked one of the hairdressers.
“Why, the Fuller Brush Man,” the manager said as the door closed.
Bud Hermanson was 21, fresh from a three-year enlistment in the United States Army and the 82nd Airborne’s jump school when he saw an advertisement in the morning Duluth News-Tribune that would forever change his financial fortunes.
The 1957 advertisement was for a traveling Fuller Brush salesman covering the northern regions of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In those days, Hermanson said, the job of a door-to-door merchant was a lucrative but common one. And in the depressed northeastern corner of the North Star State, where a young man either steamed ore in the winter or fished Lake Superior during warmer months, the job was a gold mine.
In the years since the company gave him a new Ford Fairlane to traverse the tri-state area, Hermanson has been one of the company’s most loyal sales agents. With a few notable exceptions, including a tour in Vietnam when he was on special assignment – “I would just leave that out,” he says, “I don’t want to answer any questions about that” – and a career in construction management where he helped oversee the building of Pelican Bay and new Folsom state prisons, Hermanson, 66, has been the loyal Fuller Brush Man of company lore, without the top hat and wing-tips.
He is a dinosaur in a caffeinated society that moves faster than a Vin Diesel flick; Perry Como in a Justin Timberlake world.
“They call me that all the time,” Hermanson said of the Jurassic tag. “They’ll call the missus over and say, ‘Honey, that piece of history is here.’ It doesn’t bother me.”
While the products Hermanson sells – beechwood hairbrushes, mops, air fresheners, toilet-bowl cleaners, scrubbers, and car waxes have changed gradually since Alfred C. Fuller began his business in his sister’s Hartford, Conn., home in 1906, the embodiment of the Fuller Brush Man’s ideals have not.
When you represent a company almost 100 years old, “you accept that as your responsibility,” Hermanson said. There are no sales performance reviews, no quarterly checkups with a boss, he adds.
“The customers will let you know.”
There was a time Hermanson could spend an entire weekday going inside people’s homes, stopping for a cup of coffee in each one, leaving with a stack of sales receipts. With society today, sometimes it is all Hermanson can do to just slip a card in the doorjamb before taking off.
“I never leave a customer without giving a gift,” he said. “If they shut the door before I have a chance to give it to them, they don’t deserve it in the first place.”
There have been two movies made with Fuller Brush salespeople as the title character, including “The Fuller Brush Man” with Red Skelton in 1948.
“I don’t suppose you could learn how to be a Fuller Brush Man by watching Red Skelton,” quipped Hermanson, who pulled $1,200 in profit from sales in December, working about 10 hours a week out of his Lake Wildwood home.
Profits have ebbed and flowed for Hermanson, who beat prostate cancer in 1997, and considers his membership in the Sierra Symphony Orchestra, where he’s a co-principal clarinetist, one of his biggest thrills.
In past years, Hermanson hawked vacuum cleaners, stereos and insurance door-to-door, at a time when in-home demonstrations were commonplace. That’s almost impossible today.
“We live in a society where we are inconvenienced by our conveniences, and that’s what it boils down to. Conversation is essentially dead. In those days, you could come to someone’s house and spend a pleasant half-hour with people. You can’t do that today.”
Time has seemingly stood still for Hermanson and the people he works for.
John Johnson is the Sacramento-based sales director for Fuller Brush’s western division, overseeing 738 independent salesmen in Northern California, Oregon and six other Western states, most of whom he’s never met.
Though the company may seem outdated and Johnson an anomaly to most, “I’m in practically every phone book in the state,” he said. Hermanson is the only Fuller Brush Man in Nevada County.
Johnson agrees that some might do a double-take when he makes a house call, leather bag in tow. “They look at us just like we’re from outer space,” said Johnson, 65, a 34-year Fuller Brush employee with a background in aerospace engineering, “but the name recognition is tremendous.”
Johnson is one of six regional directors who travel to meet bosses in Great Bend, Kan., once a year. “It’s a beautiful place,” Johnson says of company headquarters. “The organization has changed, but the quality of the products has not.”
Spoken like a true company man. “This is in my blood. It’s one of those things that if I got cut, I’d bleed Fuller brushes,” Johnson admits.
It’s apparently in the blood of many of Hermanson’s customers, too.
“My windows just shine,” said Nancy Hermanson, Bud’s wife of 16 years. She owns mops, cleaners, a long-handled dustpan, foaming window cleaner and squeegee. “He’s the perfect guy for the job, because he’s detailed, organized and precise.”
Nancy Hermanson shares her husband’s love of music, if not his gift of gab and earnest salesmanship. When her husband mentioned he’d like to get back into the business of being a traveling salesman, Nancy laughed.
“She said, ‘My God, I didn’t think there were any of you around anymore.’ She didn’t know she married a one-of-a-kind man,” Bud Hermanson joked.
Joyce Barbour, owner of Jewell’s on Mill Street, first used Fuller Brush products when a salesman knocked on her door in Genoa, Ohio, 45 years ago.
She uses squeegees to wash her windows as well as window and floor cleaners. “They’re products you can get mileage out of. They haven’t changed the way they’ve been doing things. They stand behind their products.”
On his rounds last week, Hermanson stopped into a costume shop on Mill Street, pulling out his satchel and baubles for owner Candy Wahl. “There’s not too many people like him that come down in person,” Wahl said as Hermanson handed her a card, urging her to log on to the Internet for faster service.
“I might just do that,” she said, smiling. “Of course, I’d miss seeing you.”
And that’s the point. Hermanson exists to see and be seen, even as technology and time may have passed him by. Society hasn’t found a substitute for a warm smile and a firm handshake, especially if they’re the property of a man who wears his hair closely cropped, smokes Marlboros and listens to Rush Limbaugh on his pickup stereo.
“You know they say I’m history,” the salesman reiterates, walking toward his car in the Safeway parking lot after an entire morning of sales calls. “I’m perfectly fine with that.”
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