Mopping up for more than a century
Alexander Slack, who founded the Slack Mop Company in 1909, developed an adjustable wet/dry mop that his four sons sold door-to-door. The invention was sort of a do-it-yourself kit. “They just sold the stick with this contraption on the end—the socket that would hold different rags,” says Alexander’s great-grandson, Thomas G. Slack III, 66. Users inserted cotton into the dowel for a wet mop, wool for dry.
Around five years after its start, the company began making dry mops exclusively, using permanent heads made of wool carpet yarn, which “wears like iron,” Tom Slack says. “That’s what makes it last so long.”
The company passed to Tom’s grandfather and then to a great-uncle, Steve Slack, who would fashion toys such as a slingshot and crossbow for Tom out of spare mop components. Tom’s father, Thomas G. Slack Jr., took over in 1956. Tom recalls being tasked with filling the coal hopper each day in the converted barn that then served as the shop.
Tom says he didn’t aspire to be a “mop man” as a youth, “but it just worked out that way.” He left his job as a mechanical designer in Massachusetts after a wage freeze stopped a promised raise and joined his father, who was nearing retirement age, at the mop company.
“I went in there with new ideas and changed a lot of things that he had been doing,” Tom says. “We had a different viewpoint, I would say.” Tom, president of the company since 1972, has held that post longer than any other family member.
Today the five-employee company, based in Pittsfield, Vt., manufactures a range of Sladust mops and dusters to meet a variety of needs, including wide commercial corridors, ceiling fans and shelves.
Around the turn of the century, the company refined the mop’s design, adding a swivel action to allow easy maneuvering around furniture. And the wool, once permanently attached to the head, is now a separate piece, secured to the mop with Velcro so it can be removed easily for laundering, or replaced if necessary.
The “Buy American” movement is working in the company’s favor, Tom says. Sladust products’ wooden handles are American-made, and the wool carpet yarn is sourced from U.S. carpet mills.
Seismic shifts in the retail hardware business in the 1980s made a huge impact on the company as big-box stores shouldered out small independents. Tom says sales to single stores and a few small chains accounted for most of his business.
Competing products have had an effect, as well. Low-cost Chinese imports flooded the market in the ’90s. Then in 1999, Procter & Gamble launched the Swiffer—a product with a low entry cost, but high lifetime expense in refills.
In contrast to Swiffer’s single-use cleaning pads, Sladust mops are environmentally friendly, Tom says. The mop doesn’t require chemical treatment.
The company’s niche is the upscale retail market. “It’s an expensive product”—the Big Wooly dry mop retails for $32—“but it’s a great product and it lasts for years,” Tom says. The mop is sold through higher-end retailers like West Elm and Crate & Barrel in the U.S.
The company also sells directly to consumers through an online store, an area Tom Slack would like to develop more. Though the site initially lost money when it was developed a decade ago, “now it’s representing maybe 30% of our business,” he says.
Tom’s daughter worked at the company during high school and college, but she chose not to follow in her father’s footsteps. “She didn’t have a love for it,” he reflects. “It was force-fed, I think.” Tom says that when he’s ready for retirement, he will likely pass ownership on to a long-time employee who “takes a real interest and really loves the product.”
In the meantime, Tom plans for modest growth in the next ten years. “I don’t want to grow much larger than what we are right at the moment,” says Tom. “I’m at the point that I like life comfortable.”
Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.
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