The Bic things in life add up to 100 billion

PARIS - It started as an answer to leaky pens carried by American soldiers during World War II, was perfected and made popular by an Italian-born baron and has written its way into history as the world's biggest-selling pen.

More than half a century after honing a cheap version of the ballpoint pen, Bic, the French firm which built an empire out of making things to be thrown away, has just sold its 100 billionth - 100,000,000,000th - disposable ballpoint.

The group, which started small after the war, now has annual revenues of around 1.4 billion ($2.5 billion) including sales of razors and lighters.

It reported the milestone with its first-half profits.

"The pens have been sold on average 57 times a second since 1950," Bic said.

Founder Baron Marcel Bich originally planned to make fountain pen parts when he bought a factory with his partner, Edouard Buffard, outside Paris at the end of the war.

But a chance encounter with a wheelbarrow changed all that, recalls his son, Bruno Bich, who now runs the company.

"My father told me that one day he was pushing a wheelbarrow when it dawned on him that the ball was a multi-faceted wheel and this was the best way to convey ink," he said.

"So he put all his investment into the ballpoint. He was the first to use precise production techniques."

Ballpoint pens had been sold before the war for the then expensive sum of US$5 and were brought to Europe by American GIs. Only they leaked.

Looking for a catchy name for his new product, the baron shortened his own to Bic and snapped up patents including Laszlo Biro's design for a non-disposable pen with a rotating ball.

Marketing experts say Bic helped to pioneer what has since become a mainstay of modern mass-produced commerce - well-designed products, using good technology and made accessible to everyone at cheap prices and then sold across the world.

"It was a triumph for the concept of keeping it simple. Bich was in many ways the inventor of 'low-cost', offering cheap and effective solutions to consumers rather than bowing to a market dictated by sophistication," said Stephane Dieutre, who teaches marketing and innovation at Sorbonne University, Paris.

"It was also one of the first examples of globalisation. You can find these pens everywhere because Bich had a modern concept of low-cost, global marketing. They invented or adopted many of the principles we talk about now, but at a very early stage."

Known in some countries as the biro after the patent snapped up by Bic's founder, the Cristal see-through ballpoint has a landmark design which the company has broadly stuck with over the years - another reason for its success, says Bich.

"The idea was that there should be nothing superfluous and you could see how it works and how much ink is left," he said.

Bic's innovations have not always been successful, however.

Its idea for disposable underwear ended up in a book called Brand Failures. And a foray into perfume flopped when consumers turned up their noses at Bic's disposable, unluxurious image.

- REUTERS

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