WD-40: a simple strategy

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in Best-Practices Leadership

John S. Barry staked his entire claim on WD-40 and the motto of keeping it simple.

After studying at the University of Minnesota, Harvard, Columbia and MIT, and duty aboard a carrier in the Korean War, Barry worked for 3M and Solar Aircraft Co. When his father-in-law died in 1969, he took over the Rocket Chemical Co., which made rust-fighting lubricants.

Barry knew a thing or two by then, but it might have appeared to the undiscerning eye that he knew nothing.

He took an already small company—$1 million in annual sales—and made it smaller, chopping the product line to one and renaming the company after that product: WD-40.

He switched to a plain blue-and-yellow can.

Then … no changes. For 25 years.

While his strategy seems simple, it’s actually pretty savvy:

• He refused to position the product. By rebuffing efforts to aim WD-40 at industrial, automotive or hardware markets, Barry made sure it was sold everywhere. “If you think of distribution as a horse race, I want to be on every horse,” he said, “because I know I’ll be on the winner.”

• He guarded his intellectual property. The packaging colors and design are legally protected, and he refused to patent WD-40 because he wanted to keep the formula out of the public domain.

• He kept things spare. WD-40’s British offices are identical to the San Diego headquarters. Its rollout in China in 2007 was pretty much the same one Barry used in 1972.

He encouraged others. He emphasized free samples—including 10,000 sent every month to soldiers in the Vietnam War to keep their weapons dry. Under his leadership, WD-40 collected some 2,000 new uses from enthusiastic customers themselves. (Among them: preventing squirrels from climbing into a birdhouse, freeing a tongue stuck to cold metal, and removing a python from the undercarriage of a bus.)

• He kept his life simple, too, once refusing to climb into a client’s limo. He held meetings at Denny’s.

By the time Barry died in 2009 at the age of 84, surveys showed that WD-40 could be found in as many as 80 percent of American homes.

— Adapted from “Real Simple,” Leigh Buchanan, Inc. magazine.

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