William Zinsser & Company, Inc. History
Somerset, New Jersey 08875
Telephone: (732) 469-8100
Fax: (732) 652-2499
Sales:$41 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 325510 Paint and Coating Manufacturing
Innovation. Dedication to quality. Problem solving. Zinsser was founded on these principals in 1849 and has remained true to them for more than 150 years. That's why we have become North America's leading manufacturer of high-performance paint primers, wallcovering products, specialty paints and shellac-base finishes. During our long history, Zinsser has earned a reputation for developing and marketing unique problem-solving products that address the needs of the consumer, professional and commercial markets. Our products are now sold in more than 70,000 home centers, hardware stores and paint and decorating stores and used by millions of professionals and do-it-yourselfers throughout the United States and internationally.
- William Zinsser founds his business in Manhattan.
- The founder's grandsons, William III and Rudolph, assume leadership of the company.
- A Chicago factory is established to serve the furniture industry.
- An import department is established.
- B-I-N Primer Sealer is introduced.
- Bull's Eye Shellac is reintroduced in ready-to-use form.
- Company moves its headquarters to Somerset, New Jersey.
- Zinsser introduces Bull's Eye 1-2-3, the first whole-house, water-based primer-sealer
- Company is acquired by RPM, Inc.
- An international division is established.
William Zinsser & Company, Inc., is a leading U.S. manufacturer of primer-sealers, wall covering preparation and removal, and specialty decorating products used in residential and commercial remodeling and maintenance projects. Founded in 1848, Zinsser can lay claim to introducing the first products in many categories including: B-I-N, the first shellac-based primer sealer; Bulls Eye 1-2-3, the first water-based universal primer; DIF, the first commercial solution for removing wall coverings; and Perma-White, the first mildew-proof paint. A subsidiary of RPM, Inc., since 1986, Zinsser is based in Somerset, New Jersey, and markets its products worldwide.
When William Zinsser, a foreman in a Mainz, Germany, shellac factory, emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1848 he discovered that shellac varnishes and French varnishes were unknown to America. Working from a home laboratory, Zinsser developed a product and had soon established the nation's first bleached shellac manufacturing plant, William Zinsser & Company, in what was then "far uptown rural Manhattan." The business would maintain its 516 West 59th Street address for 115 years.
The company's main product for decades, shellac, is a natural resinous light yellow-orange secretion of the lac insect, an insect that feeds on trees in India and Thailand. When exposed to air, the substance forms a hard encrustation known as a stick lac. Workers harvest stick lac from the trees, wash it to form seedlac and process it into flaked or bleached shellac.
Zinsser's initial customers were other German-speaking immigrants. In 1853 the company's shellac product, White French Varnish, earned a First Premium Award at the International Products Exhibit in Philadelphia. By 1860 Zinsser's business had outgrown his home laboratory, and he opened a full-scale production facility next door. That same year his brother, August, immigrated to the United States and began operating the factory. Also during this time, Zinsser opened a Manhattan retail store that sold an array of coatings products. In 1895 the company required the addition of a second story on its Manhattan plant and the purchasing of an adjacent building for office and retail space.
Tenuous Times in the Early 1900s
The company struggled during William Zinsser II's tenure as president. He had gained control of the business in the 1880s, but suffered from ill health. The founder's grandsons, William Zinsser III and Rudolph, took over the family business in 1910. William III left college to lend his help. Rudolph came aboard with a masters degree in chemistry from Princeton University. The brothers decided to stop manufacturing shellac products for wholesalers and focus instead on establishing and serving the retail market for the company's new Bulls Eye brand via direct mail and advertising.
Under new leadership, the company rebounded and by 1921 further growth led to adding more office space and opening a bleaching plant in Chicago. The company chose Chicago for its proximity to Michigan, which was then the country's epicenter for furniture manufacturing.
A consistent key to company growth was Zinsser's ability to provide product to both the coatings industry as well as other industries needing shellac. In 1932, the company created an import department to bring in high-grade shellac resins for many uses, including floor waxes, furniture, phonograph records, firearm munitions, and electrical insulating materials.
The brothers closed the Zinsser store in 1940 to concentrate on producing shellac. The timing was fortunate because industrial uses for shellac were growing. A new type of shellac, actually edible, gained popularity among pharmaceutical companies, which coated pills with the product, as well as with confectioners, who used it to coat candy. Moreover, clothing manufacturers used other types of shellac to stiffen derby hats and shoes.
Restrictions placed on shellac by the U.S. Government during World War II hurt the company, as it was required to sell its resin stock to the government for the war effort. In response, Zinsser began searching for a synthetic shellac. By 1942 it had developed Zinlac, a synthetic shellac based on a waste corn derivative. Zinsser discontinued the product in 1944 when shellac resin became available again.
Shortly after the war, some of the company's product lines began to fade. Zinsser threw its development teams into creating new products for painting contractors that would speed or simplify painting. In 1946, Zinsser introduced the country's first quick-drying, stain- and odor-sealing white-pigmented primer: 3-Purpose Bulls-I-Namel (later called B-I-N). This product performed three functions: priming, sealing, and killing stains. B-I-N allowed painting contractors to speed up what had been a multiple-day process to a single day. It was the company's first entry into the primer-sealer market and helped mark the company's turn from sole reliance on clear shellac products.
New Generation of Management in the Late 1950s
Gardner R. Cunningham and Edward H. Walworth, Jr., the son-in-law of William Zinsser III, joined the company in 1947. William Zinsser III handed over day-to-day operations to Walworth and Cunningham in the late 1950s, but remained chairman of the board until his death at age 91 in 1979. Until the company moved to New Jersey in 1974, William III walked to the factory every day for 65 years. A lifelong New Yorker, he was an active citizen serving as president of Lenox Hill Hospital (1941-1952) and as a member of the city's Art Commission and Landmarks Preservation Commission. William III was also an early financial contributor to the building fund for the Lincoln Center.
In 1955 Zinsser created a user-friendly, ready-to-use form of Bulls Eye Shellac. Previously, the liquid had to be diluted with alcohol before use. An aerosol version arrived in 1958. The company gained a market among the printing and graphic art industries in the 1960s when it began manufacturing and marketing water and solvent-based polymers for the printing ink and other uses.
A 1974 Move to New Jersey
By the early 1970s, Zinsser had outgrown its facilities. Expansion at the New York site was no longer possible, the factory was outdated, and Roosevelt Hospital wanted the site for its own expansion. Management therefore decided to sell the Manhattan facility. A new corporate headquarters, manufacturing laboratory, warehouse, and distribution facility were constructed in Somerset, New Jersey. Zinsser moved in 1974.
The company entered another new product category during this time: wall covering removal and surface preparation. The year 1975 saw the introduction of DIF Wallpaper Stripper. Five years later Zinsser replaced the original product (a wetting agent solution with a separate packet of enzyme powder for mixing) with a single package called DIF Liquid Concentrate.
Expansion occurred again in 1982 when Zinsser acquired the Bradshaw-Praeger Company, a Chicago-based shellac manufacturer. About this time the company was focusing on developing a product that when applied to walls would make wallpaper both easier to hang and easier to remove. Collaborating with several wallpaper manufacturers, Zinsser introduced Shieldz Universal Wall Covering Primer in 1984. The next year featured the introduction of the PaperTiger, a spiked wheel tool that removed wallpaper without damaging the wall. An ergonomically redesigned version of the tool, featuring spikes that swivelled so that the tool could be used in any direction, would be introduced in 1992.
138 Years of Family Ownership Ends in 1987
After 138 years of family ownership, the company became a subsidiary of the specialty chemical firm, RPM, Inc., of Medina, Ohio, in 1987. As part of an effort to bring more consumer items into its stable of products, RPM acquired Zinsser for $25 million. Zinsser continued operating as a separate division of RPM, and its former vice-president and general manager, Robert Senior, stepped into the roles of president and chief operating officer. Senior had come to Zinsser after 12 years in sales, marketing, and management positions at Allied Chemical Corporation.
Edible shellac continued to be an important product line for the company. Zinsser's edible glaze for candy and pharmaceutical applications was the market leader in 1987. Company fortunes continued on the upswing and led to the purchase of a second Somerset facility in 1991 along with one in Newark, New Jersey, for operations and staff.
Zinsser distributed its products nationally through paint, hardware, home center, and wallcovering distribution channels. Its products became available in Australia in 1993 through that country's importing and distribution company, RTI Group. That same year Zinsser acquired the Mantrose-Haeuser Company of Westport, Connecticut, a manufacturer of spackling and patching compounds, wood finishing products, and primer-sealers. Zinsser added the Mantrose-Haeuser products to its Bulls Eye line of paints and sealers.
Product Distribution Reaches 40 Countries in 1999
In 1995 the company sold its $10 million Zinchem product line to BF Goodrich. Zinsser had manufactured the Zinchem products, water-based items used in the graphics arts industry in varnishes and printing inks, for its parent, RPM. Beginning in the mid-1990s Zinsser developed several products for the hotel/motel industry. Several of those products helped prevent mildew and mold on the paint in bathrooms, laundry rooms, pool areas, and exterior walls.
The company expanded into the United Kingdom by opening an office in London in 1999, bringing the distribution of its products to 40 countries. Moreover, Zinsser began a television advertising campaign, "Zinsser First," to reach an estimated 25 million viewers and attract consumers considering home improvement projects. More manufacturing facilities added at this time included those in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and Newark, New Jersey. The company also celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1999, making it one of the nation's oldest continuously operating companies.
Sales in 2001 reached $41 million. Among its acquisitions were Zehrung (1999), Modern Masters (2001), and Parks Corporation (2002). By 2002 the parent company, RPM, had also merged Wolman Wood Care of Pittsburgh into the Zinsser operation. Zinsser found itself part of an expanded RPM consumer division, which included Rust-Oleum and Bondo products, that generated $1 billion in annual sales. The company's own B-I-N was the highest selling specialty primer on the market.
Although William Zinsser IV had chosen not to enter the family business, he wrote about the company in the February 21, 1991, New York Times. "Quality was my father's passion," he wrote. "I never felt that he thought of his business as a means of making money, but as an art, to be practiced only with the best materials. Until he died at age 91, his romance with shellac never faltered."
Principal Operating Units: Primer-Sealers; Wallcovering and Surface Preparation; Clear Finishes; Specialty Mildew Products; Other Specialty Products; Texture Paints and Additives; Bondex Wallcovering Products; Factory Finish; Bondex Swimming Pool Paint.
Principal Competitors: 3M Company; ICI American Holdings Inc.
- "Paint Company Reaches Precedent-Setting Agreement with EPA," Industrial Paint & Powder, January 2001, p. 20.
- "Wm. Zinsser & Co., Inc.: 150 Years of Innovation," Somerset, N.J.: William Zinsser & Co., 1999.
- "Zinsser Opens London Office to Expand," DIY Week, January 22, 1999, p. 27.
- Zinsser, William, "Strangers on the Phone Share Only-Yesterdays," New York Times, February 21, 1991, p. C12.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 58. St. James Press, 2004.