Aiming to become a household verb

James Dyson describes his bestselling vacuum cleaner as Britain's most successful export since the Beatles. And it's hard to argue with that.

By Gary Younge
Published March 4, 2005 4:28PM (EST)

James Dyson cannot stop looking over my shoulder. I noticed early on but let it go. On the 39th floor of the Four Seasons Hotel, his suite does not so much as look out onto the Manhattan skyline as form part of it. If I had a choice between looking at myself or the view, I too would take the view. But an hour into our conversation, he raises the subject of his wandering eye unapologetically. "All the while I've been talking to you I've been thinking that is a rather ugly building," he says, pointing to a huge office block two streets down.

Then he turns his critical eye on his suite, which up until then looked pretty fancy. "The chairs are a bit stuffy and '30s-looking," he says. "They've mixed in these teak lamps ... The sofa is neither an elegant sofa nor a comfortable sofa; and the table isn't quite right." He pauses. "The carpet isn't bad. The room's quiet and it has a lovely view, but there's no theme. It's a cross between a gentleman's club and simple minimalism. But it doesn't quite work."

Such talk would make you want to slap most multimillionaires hard and tax them even harder. The money it takes to hire this room for a night could probably build a minimalist water pump for an inelegant village in the developing world. But Dyson isn't whining, he's working. Like Aretha Franklin, who saw a couple bidding farewell on Park Avenue and came up with "Call Me," he is always looking for new material.

Things that bug him can also make him rich. Very rich. This is how it worked out with vacuum cleaners. As a child, he hated the poor suction on regular vacuum cleaners. He even remembers his first time. He was 6 years old. His father was ill and he had to help his mother around the house. There were no wall sockets in the house, so he had to plug the vacuum cleaner into the light socket. "I was able to push around the only motor in the room and in that sense I quite enjoyed it," he recalls. "But there was this terrible smell of stale dog and dust, and I had to keep bending down and picking things up because the suction was bad. I thought: This is cackhanded." More than 20 years later, he found himself doing and thinking the same thing, and decided to do something about it.

He knew the bag was at fault. One day when he was in his 30s he visited a sawmill, where he witnessed sawdust being sucked into a cone using a spinning column of air. He spent the next three years in a workshop created from an old coach house near his home, and came out with the dual-cyclone cleaner.

Twenty-five years later he is not just part of the Manhattan skyline, he is rapidly earning himself a place in the U.S. entrepreneurs' hall of fame. Last week, Dysons emerged as the most popular vacuum cleaners in America. In the two years since he entered the U.S. market, one in five of all floor cleaners now bought in the States bears his name. Last year sales grew by 350 percent.

These bagless dust busters are one of the few things on which both Bill Clinton and former British Laabor M.P. Tony Benn can agree. A Dyson has had a roll-on part on "Friends," as the proud possession of neat-freak Monica. It has also made several appearances on Ellen DeGeneres' daytime talk show, and been handed out in rather lavish doggie bags at the Emmy Awards. During New York's Fashion Week, designer Tara Subkoff had her models wheel them down the catwalk; the presenters at last Sunday's Oscars were also going to be given them. It is safe to say that a vacuum cleaner has never been this fashionable. Dyson -- the man, not the product -- has cleaned up.

"It is most surprising that an unknown company with a very different-looking product can win the No. 1 spot in America in such a short time," the 57-year-old entrepreneur announced last week. "I've racked my brain to think of when there was another British success of this type, and I can't think of any since the Beatles."

Two things are revealing about his comment and the latest heights of his success. The first is that Dyson said it. He probably should have let someone else say it. It is not quite as egregious as John Lennon claiming the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but hailing your own success is at worst downright boastful and at best a little gauche. And it was not a quote that just slipped out of his mouth: "I dug out the record sales, and the Beatles really did sell more than Elvis," he says. The second thing is that while his comments and his success made news in England, nobody has mentioned it in the United States. If Dyson has conquered America, nobody told the Americans. Which may be just as well: "I wouldn't dare say 'conquered' here," he says.

Still, it is a major achievement for the man whose first trip to the country started with him wheeling his suitcase in a Ballbarrow -- the invention he tried to sell in the U.S. several years ago -- through customs and into the great beyond. He went to New York and Chicago and came back most impressed by the tools department in the Sears stores. "Americans have a very particular approach to making things work, and you can see it in their tools," he said. "They might not always look very good, but they work and are down to earth, which was the kind of engineering I admired."

Quite what the Americans made of this tool fetishist is not clear. Tall, long and lean, dressed in casual black from head to toe with salt-and-pepper hair, if you looked up "entrepreneur" in an American dictionary you wouldn't find a picture of anyone who looked or acted like Dyson next to it. There is none of the backslapping, hard-gripping slickness one expects from an American self-made man. He comes to New York every fortnight and spends much of the rest of his time shuffling among there, Japan and Malaysia. But he drinks Earl Grey tea as a hobby; he calls Malmesbury in Wiltshire home; he is reading a biography of Nelson; he hates the idea of things being trendy. He is worth around 34 million pounds, but there is still a part of him that thinks money is vulgar. He didn't go to university, but he's very old school.

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, writer Tony Judt illustrated the difference between Europe and the United States with coffee. "Consider a mug of American coffee," he wrote. "It is found everywhere. It can be made by anyone. It is cheap -- and refills are free. Being largely without flavor, it can be diluted to taste. What it lacks in allure it makes up in size. It is the most democratic method ever devised for introducing caffeine into human beings. Now, take a cup of Italian espresso. It requires expensive equipment. Price-to-volume ratio is outrageous, suggesting indifference to the consumer and ignorance of the market. The aesthetic satisfaction accessory to the beverage far outweighs its metabolic impact. It is not a drink; it is an artifact."

Dyson vacuum cleaners are clearly espresso: They cost three times as much as a regular American brand and they look peculiar. At first, none of the American retailers wanted to touch them. "We were extremely cautious about coming into the American market," Dyson says. "There are a lot of very successful, very powerful multinational companies. It's a tough place to do business, and it's a very litigious place to do business." Finally, a buyer for a major outlet, Best Buy, took one of them home for a couple of weeks and fell in love with it. After that, says Dyson, it was word of mouth and a little help from his "Friends."

In the advertisement that screens in the United States, Dyson plays on his Englishness. Understated and slightly naff, the commercial starts with a shot of him in jeans leaning against a radiator and goes on to let him tell his story in a workshop with a cleaner as his only prop. It is about as unlike a regular American commercial as Hugh Grant is unlike John Travolta. "It's a rather dull, amateurish, very unflashy advertisement," he says with pride. "We liked the idea of being upset by something at home, doing something about it and taking on the big boys. It's a great American story."

Dyson likes American stories. "I love the pioneer spirit," he says. "The idea of them emigrating to America; the hardship of the journey, finding land, finding a place to plant, building fences, eking out a living. I think there's a great can-do spirit that comes from that."

England, he says, was cushioned and coddled by the soft markets it had created through colonialism. "There was always this distaste for industry as the place of dark satanic mills," he says. "When you went to school they told you to be a lawyer, a doctor or a teacher." He tells the story of his grandfather, a grammar school headmaster, retiring to Cromer in Norfolk. "I asked him who lived next door. He said: 'I haven't spoken to him yet because I think he's in trade.' My grandfather wasn't a snob, but that was the mindset at the time."

In the late '90s, Dyson became a champion of British manufacturing -- the ugly sister of the British economic landscape. He now advises the government on innovation. Last year he resigned as chairman of the Design Museum because he felt it was championing style over substance rather than "upholding its mission to encourage serious design of the manufactured object." He understands that engineers are not as sexy a subject as, say, actors or musicians. "It's much harder to write about an engineer and make it interesting," he says. "But you should try."

You get the impression that he feels the Design Museum wasn't trying hard enough, that it was luring people in with popular exhibitions but failing to educate them on more difficult subjects when they got there. "I wanted to see a balance of exhibitions. Maybe two-thirds of them will emphasize form over design. But if you have Philip Tracy followed by Constance Spry followed by Blahniks, then that is a different thing."

His position on most things contentious, from joining the euro to taxation, comes down to how they will affect manufacturers starting off as he did. This reputation took a serious blow in 2002 when he moved production of his vacuum cleaners to Malaysia, making 800 staff redundant. "It really hurt," he says. "It was devastating to have to stand up in front of a workforce and tell them they would be made redundant. It hurt to have to admit that I couldn't manufacture in Britain, having been a great supporter of manufacturing in Britain. But it was the right thing to do if we wanted to stick around." The year after announcing the layoffs, he and his wife, Deirdre, paid themselves 17 million pounds in dividends. He clearly knows how to play hardball, and has spent a lot of time in court fighting those whom he accuses of stealing his ideas.

He still has one major ambition. To become a verb, in the same way that Hoover -- or, as he puts it, "the alternative" -- has done. I suggest to him that people are already using his product but still saying they are "hoovering." He smiles. "I don't think they'll be doing that for long," he says.

Gary Younge

MORE FROM Gary Younge

Related Topics ------------------------------------------