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WD-40: It's all in the can

From preventing rust on aircraft to lubricating sticky windows, drawers and hinges, WD-40 is a homegrown success story that has built a lasting brand.

It's been used in many inventive ways and the fan club keeps coming up with more stories about new uses for the lubricant-cum-rust prevention spray, but some stories are more memorable than others.

For instance, when a nude burglar got stuck in an air-conditioning vent, cops used WD-40 to shake him loose and bring him out. Then there's the story of how a bus driver in Asia used it to remove a python snake that had coiled itself around the undercarriage of the bus.

How many of us would have thought of that particular use for the can of spray that we keep under our sinks or in the garage, and only take out when we see a window that won't budge or a hinge that needs greasing?

Founded nearly 60 years ago as the Rocket Chemical Company in a small lab in San Diego by Norm Larsen, the company eventually changed its name in 1969 to WD-40 after its only product, which became a mainstay and a household name.

The original Rocket Chemical building from the 1950s. Photo courtesy of WD-40

Larsen and others worked on creating a rust-prevention solvent and degreaser, and it took them 40 tries before they got the formula right — hence the product’s name, which stands for water displacement, perfected on the 40th try.

It has established an international presence since those early years when salesmen sold it out of the trunks of their cars, but its formula continues to be a closely guarded secret, still manufactured here and in a couple other locations, and shipped to contract packaging companies for distribution.

Last year, WD-40 had revenues of $336 million, with more than 60 percent of it coming from outside the United States. Its Bay Park headquarters near the University of San Diego employs 90 people, with many more worldwide.

When Garry Ridge was considering joining the company 25 years ago, his father told him "You can't go wrong, mate."

An Australian who has been associated with the firm for 36 years, Ridge first began selling the solvent for a wholesaler, and later a distributor, before coming on board and working his way up the ranks.

He is now the CEO of the company, a position he took over in 1996. Before that, he headed up its Australian subsidiary in 1987 and was asked to move to San Diego in 1994, to take charge of its international expansion.

At that time, $20 million of its $80 million in sales came from outside the United States.

"I thought it had a lot of opportunities around the world and there were a lot of squeaks in Russia and China," Ridge said.

Believing in the brand

Creating a niche market for this product from scratch was not an easy process, but the company has succeeded and gone beyond that, creating a lasting brand name.

WD-40's iconic blue and yellow can. Photo courtesy of WD-40

Originally created to prevent rust and corrosion on aircraft like the Atlas Missile, WD-40 morphed and stretched its wings as employees discovered how useful it was in daily life, at home and work.

“The two elements that you have to build for a sustainable brand are what we call ‘mental awareness’ and ‘physical awareness.’ You have to make your end users aware and make them want to buy,” Ridge said. “We introduced our product to people with sampling, trials, and once we hooked them — because it foams — they then discover many, many new uses along the way.”

WD-40 has focused on its core brand and the design of the can relentlessly, as Ridge put it, and surprisingly, has never patented its formula.

"That's because we've never disclosed it. Many people think our secret is the formula, but actually, it's the can," Ridge said.

He counts employee engagement as one of the top reasons why the company has prevailed — treating them with respect and as valued members of the team, living by a clearly communicated set of values that drive good decision making.

“I call myself ‘consciously incompetent.’ and we don't have mistakes here, we call them ‘learning moments.’ We don't punish people for making mistakes, we encourage them to learn," he said.

Ridge explained how a feeling of belonging is very important and that companies need to create an atmosphere where people belong. “How many parties have you left because you felt you did not belong?” he said.

Rust, not squeaks

Ridge credits going global as another reason for its success, but creating a global brand was not easy. It took a certain internal culture to get a handle on the external culture of the markets it expanded to — instead of trying to force its own culture — such as with new markets in Asia.

Ridge recalled how when it first entered China, its main competitor was dirty diesel oil and ignorance about the product.

"They didn't care about squeaks, they had a lot more things to worry about, so we positioned ourselves as a rust solution, not a squeak solution,” he said.

He recounted how he staffed the company's booth at a trade show in China and people mostly ignored him. After conducting some spot research, they re-positioned their product as a rust solution and suddenly, security guards had to be called in for crowd control.

WD-40 debuted its first ever line extension last year, in order to spur growth and new ways to use it in mature markets, without harming the core product.

To that end, it introduced the specialist line of rust removal products targeted at trades' people, which goes a step further from the traditional rust prevention uses.

Products are distributed through 60 different channels, from hardware stores to sporting goods and grocery stores, with the aim of making it accessible and easy to buy.

Has the CEO used his product?

Ridge laughed, saying he's used it since he was a kid, although he's not very handy now and mostly uses it for his barbeque grill. But back when he lived in Australia, when he drove his car in heavy rain or through flooded roads, he used the solvent to dry out the distributor, which would make the car stall if it got water logged.

For the company's 50th anniversary, Ridge rode a horse wearing a suit of armor down Times Square in New York City at 8 a.m. in the morning to open the Nasdaq exchange.

With the 60th anniversary coming up next year, it's been suggested that he should fly a rocket, in honor of the company’s original name.

Ridge concluded sharing some of the lessons learned with this nugget:

“We are not going to be weak-kneed and run the company on a quarter-to-quarter basis. If you had invested in WD-40 15 years ago, you would have a compounded growth rate of 7 percent a year, for every year. That's what building a company is about — not rocket growth in one year, but in sustaining it.”


Nagappan is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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