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WD-40 CEO talks about expanding abroad, leadership

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When eight out of 10 households use your product and 95 percent of the country’s population is familiar with it, where does a company go?

For WD-40 (Nasdaq: WDFC), the answer was across two oceans. Garry Ridge, the company’s chief executive officer, told business students at California State University, San Marcos on Wednesday that the best thing for the brand was to expand it beyond America’s borders.

“Back in ’97, when we were less than a third of the size we are now and we looked at what do we want to do when we grew up, where did we want to go,” Ridge recalled.

He said common advice was to buy other products and put the WD-40 brand name on it, but the company was afraid that would diminish the brand’s name.

“What we said was, ‘Well, it’s a big wide wonderful world out there, we’ll grow a different way,’” he recalled. “We’ll grow by border.”

The company is now in several European countries, China and Ridge’s native Australia.

Ridge told the students that when expanding into other markets, it's important to conduct cultural research. Sometimes it's just on how different societies do business. Other times, it's what a market needs.

In China, for example, people traditionally use dirty diesel as a cheap lubricant. It wasn’t until WD-40 began marketing its product as a rust fighter that sales took off. The company spent five years studying China before going in.

WD-40 is a lubricant that the company claims has 2,000 uses. Ridge said some of the more creative ways he’s heard people use it were to grease up bird feeder poles to keep squirrels out, and to get a python out of a bus exaust pipe. The latter example came from the company’s newer Chinese market.

Ridge came to work at WD-40’s San Diego headquarters from Sydney, Australia 21 years ago.

He told the students that WD-40 values a company culture based on “caring, candor, accountability and responsibility.” Communication also is key, he said -- especially with offices now spread all over the world.

“Communication today, we are making it so difficult because we’re giving people all the tools not to communicate,” he said. “We text message. Well, how about having a conversation?”

Ridge said he likes to think of WD-40 as a tribe, and even refers to his top executives as the “tribal council.”

He said he likes to have sit-down meetings with them often, and have them give examples of ways they’ve lived up to the company’s biggest values.

When asked about his leadership style, Ridge said keeping one's ego in check is a major step to becoming a good leader.

“The worst leaders I’ve seen have egos bigger than this room,” he said. “A great leader looks in when things are going bad, looks out when things are going well.”

In addition to its expansions abroad, WD-40 is changing the way people use its product. The spray traditionally comes in a cylindrical can with a red straw that helps guide the product to the exact spot it's needed, but now the company is expanding into bigger cans, plastic spray bottles and other methods.

One student asked if the soaring price of oil was affecting WD-40’s bottom line. Ridge said because the company buys oil derivatives in different forms in different places around the world, it's been able to avoid major losses.

“Business can deal with risk, it has a lot of trouble dealing with uncertainty, and we are in very uncertain times,” Ridge acknowledged. “This is no time to be in the engine room, this is time to be on the bridge and making sure you’re looking out and doing what you can do. We can’t control things that happen to us, we can only control things we can impact.”

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Related Video:

Effective corporate leadership: Garry Ridge

Interview with Garry Ridge


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