IT IS REMARKABLE how little known are the personalities who have altered the way we do things.
No one understood better than Marcel Bich that potent 20th-century alchemy of high volume / low cost. To this formula he added the magic catalyst of disposability. He invented nothing, but understood the mass market almost perfectly. His sole commercial mistake was to believe that it was possible to sell perfume - through the Guy Laroche firm he acquired in 1971 - in filling stations, but his popularisation of the ball-point pen, the disposable razor and the disposable lighter created some of the most powerful symbols of 20th- century ingenuity. If the mass- market had a patron saint it would be Bich: for mere pennies the ordinary man can write more clearly, shave more closely and have more reliable access to fire than a renaissance prince.
Marcel Bich was born in Turin in 1914, the son of a French engineer, Aime Mario Bich, who held the title Baron which had been conferred on his great-grandfather, Emmanuel Bich in 1841. Bich became a French citizen in his thirties before studying law at the University of Paris. Then he became the director of production at Stephens and Swann, the English pen and ink manufacturer.
The ball-point pen which established Bich's fortunes has another English connection, although it was in fact desigend by the Hungarian Laszlo Biro. It was in 1943 that an English accountant called Henry George Martin discovered Biro's design while working in Argentina (where Biro, a Communist, had fled to escape Nazi attention). Martin brought the Biro ball-point pen back to Britain. The RAF (who appreciated its ability to write at all angles and pressures) bought 30,000 of them the following year. This was the beginning of the mass-production of ball- point pens, although when the Biro was put on the British market by the Miles Martin Pen Company in 1946 it cost pounds 2 15s, the equivalent of a secretary's weekly wage.
It was this price weakness in an otherwise strong product that Marcel Bich attacked. By 1953 he had saved enough to acquire run- down industrial buildings in north Paris and Societe Bic was established to popularise Biro's ball- point pen. With 15 million of their hexagonal acetal resin barrelled Bic Crystal biros, produced every day, Bich may fairly claim to be responsible for the most successful manufactured product of all time. The great magic of the Bic Crystal - the clear barrels mean medium point, the yellow barrels, fine - was not just the quality, but also its price. If mass-production needs an expert witness it is the Bic Crystal: at one three-hundredth of the original cost, a fine-point Bic will draw a line for about 3.5km.
In 1973 Societe Bic acquired the DIM and Rosy hosiery companies and in 1975 launched its razor at a time when wet-shaving was in decline. Sales in the whole sector rose and today Bic has one-third of Britain's 500-million-unit razor market. In 1983 Bic bought the Conte pencil manufacturer and by 1993 the company made a profit of 396 million francs.
Despite his passionate involvement with sponsoring France in the America's Cup and despite his commitment to the mass-market, Bich was notoriously reclusive. His last interview was 30 years ago and, on handing over the Bic business to his son Bruno last year he claimed to have no comments on the philosophy of business. The individual who understood the needs of the 20th century as well as any other retained a romantic obscurity about himself: the official press release announcing the death of Baron Bich gave neither cause nor place. It simply said that the families and the personnel were 'prostrated', a fitting comment for a man who sensed the drama of modern life and gave expression to it in superb everyday products.