Max Becton and Fairleigh Dickinson were two travelling salesmen when they met through an act of kindness in a Texas railroad station in 1897. The friendship that resulted formed the basis of a partnership that built Becton-Dickinson into a global medical technology company based in Bergen County. A story in 201 Magazine recounts the history of how the company got started.
John C. Ensslin
One day in the 1890s, a young paper salesman named Fairleigh Stanton Dickinson was having trouble selling his wares in New York City.
There were plenty of other salesmen working the stationery stores in the city. So Dickinson decided to take a gamble with the 75-cent weekly allowance that the Baker Paper Company supplied its salesmen.
He walked over to the old Pennsylvania Station and asked the railroad clerk what was farthest point that a 75-cent train fare could take him.
“Asbury Park,” the clerk replied.
Dickinson bought the ticket, took the long ride and within a few blocks of the station found a recently opened store that soon became a substantial client. He returned to New York City as a hero within the company.
The incident illustrated a trait that would show itself again and again after September 1897, when Dickinson and his partner Max Becton founded what today is the global medical technology company Becton Dickinson.
“He (Dickinson) exhibited a willingness to step outside of the box and consider solutions that may not have been imagined by others,” says Richard Kushnier, the company’s informal historian.
“To a certain extent, that same frame of mind was exhibited in the early years of the company,” Kushnier adds. “He was not daunted by the prospect of a startup company.”
The company’s origin story also says a lot about the two men who built it.
As luck would have it, both were inside a railroad station in Texarkana, Texas, one morning in 1897.
The harsh early morning sun sliced into the room, making it hard for Dickinson to read that morning’s newspaper.
Seeing this, Becton stood up and adjusted the blinds. Dickinson thanked him and invited him to join him for breakfast.
The two men quickly discovered some things they had in common. They were both traveling salesmen (Becton for a small medical supplies company in Massachusetts, in which he was a partner.) Both were from eastern North Carolina, from towns about 40 miles apart. And they shared the same birthday, although Dickinson
was two years older.
“When they met, each man had individually succeeded in making the transition from youth in the unpromising poverty-stricken post-war South to incipient business careers in the booming industrialized North,” wrote the late Heinz F. Mackensen, a history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in his history of the company’s first 80 years.
“But it is significant that their rise to considerable success in that ruthless competitive world began only after they had formed their partnership,” Mackensen adds.
This year marks Becton Dickinson’s 120 year in operation. The firm has come a long way from its humble beginnings when the first desk consisted of several wooden boards placed over two empty barrels on the third floor of a building on Vesey Street in lower Manhattan. There were 20 employees back then.
Today, Becton Dickinson has more than 40,000 employees in 50 offices across the world.
Much of the company’s early history is on display in an alcove in one building at their Franklin Lakes headquarters.
There you can see the early glass syringes that the company manufactured in East Rutherford, ending its dependence upon more costly and less efficient imports from European manufacturers.
Here are a few of the leather doctor’s bag that the firm once made (along with saddle bags) back when doctor’s made home visits. The company no longer makes the bags, some of which became family heirlooms.
You can see vintage photographs from the early years of the company when it was the focal point of community live in southern Bergen County.
There are pictures of the Becton Dickinson baseball team, the basketball team and even a program a winter dance in January 1934 featuring the “Duke Collins Radio Orchestra.”
Down at the end of one hall is an enormous clock face that fills an entire wall.
Kushnier explains that it is the very same clock face that for decades looked out from the one of the two towers of the company’s original East Rutherford plant.
Another clock face is now installed near the parking garage of the Franklin Lakes campus. A third was installed at Becton Regional High School in East Rutherford.
All three clocks still tell time 120 years after Max Becton stood up and kindly adjusted the shades in a Texas railroad station.
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