Entertaining and compelling real-life stories with valuable
lessons on how to succeed in business and in life.
The author is successful business, real estate, and media entrepreneur Dick Kazan.
Published on September 8, 2009

Today: How Jack Barry built WD-40 into a global powerhouse.

Today’s story tells you how one person led a company to great success and contains tips for how you could too:

$317 million in sales in 160 countries is WD-40 today. That’s impressive and the familiar blue and yellow can whose product has over 2,000 uses seems to be everywhere.

Invented in 1953 by Norm Larsen, WD-40 was created to prevent rust and remove grease from high technology components. General Dynamics’ Convair division used it to protect the surface of the Atlas missile.

But in 1969, when Jack Barry became the CEO, WD-40 was largely unknown. Its corporate name was then Rocket Chemical Company and the San Diego based firm had $2 million in sales.

“Before he came in,” his son Randy said, “Several times the company nearly went under. People had to write personal checks to pay the bills.”

Jack quickly changed the name from Rocket Chemical Company to WD-40 because it was not a rocket chemical company. WD-40, from the firm succeeding in inventing its “water displacement” product on the 40th try, was simple to recall.

This was the easy part. The tough part is what every entrepreneur faces. A struggle! It includes unreturned phone calls, banks that won’t lend to small firms, vendors that demand cash up front, sales far below expectations and a payroll which must be met.

If WD-40 was going to succeed, it was time for bold action, which meant risking the company by betting its future in an aggressive sales campaign. Jack sharply raised the advertising budget to make vast numbers of consumers aware of the product and its many uses.

But that money would be wasted if the public couldn’t easily find it on store shelves. Jack solved the problem by convincing vast numbers of wholesalers to distribute it.

But distribute it where? Jack knew it was logical for hardware stores to sell WD-40 but he wanted additional distribution. He persuaded grocery stores to carry it and anxiously watched to see what would happen.

Sales skyrocketed.

With that sort of success, many a firm becomes conservative, resting on its laurels, not wanting to play “you bet your company” on another bold expansion. But that wasn’t Jack.

He had visions of distributing WD-40 all over the world and did it through his wholesalers as he stretched the company’s resources, at times right up to the breaking point. But his gamble paid off. Now, wherever on this planet you are chances are you can find it in a local store.

With WD-40’s quality and usefulness, these steps made the firm successful. But if you would like to follow Jack’s lead and build a major company, there is something else you need to know and it is as important as anything I’ve shared with you up to this point. What is it?

“He was always accessible,” said Garry Ridge, the current WD-40 CEO. “He answered his own phone. You didn’t have to go through layers [of management] to reach him.”

Think about that for it is profound. Today, most big corporations and governmental organizations have long automated menus that devour your time as you desperately try to speak with someone. It is done to save them time and money and screen management away from you.

The result is poor customer service and the management doesn’t know what is really happening in the marketplace for they’re not directly involved with customers such as you.

Even today, as large as WD-40 has grown, everyone answers their own phone and that includes the CEO, Garry Ridge.

But there’s more from Jack that is crucial to your success. He was “a great listener,” Garry added. Think of how rare that is. Most people think they’re too busy and they multi-task. There is no time to listen.

Yet one of the greatest compliments you can pay anyone is when they speak, you stop and give them your undivided attention. That is what Jack did with customers, employees, wholesalers and others and he became known for being a deeply caring man.

He also kept his ego in check. “People would ask him what he does for a living,” his son Randy remarked. “He’d say, ‘I work in a warehouse,’ which he did at WD-40 among his responsibilities. But it was as if he drove a forklift.

“I’d say, dad tell them who you are and he’d say, ‘No.’ He wasn’t into bragging.”

There is one more tip you’ll find essential to your success. As we’ve seen in recent times with the huge corporate bailouts at taxpayer expense, many managements treat themselves lavishly even when the taxpayers foot the bill.

This sets a terrible example for rank and file employees who see this and in turn they are not cost conscience either.

By contrast, Jack flew coach and he held meetings at Denny’s Restaurants, where he too ate. By his actions, he reminded employees that shareholder money matters and that to build and sustain a successful company, one must carefully manage one’s costs.

These points help to explain why when Jack Barry recently passed away at 84, nine years since retiring as Chairman of WD-40, newspapers across the world respectfully and warmly published his obituary.

For it was a story well worth telling. Jack had uplifted the lives of many other people and the ways in which he conducted himself in business can serve to guide us to success today.

Success Tip of the Week: If you’ve hesitated to start or build a company because of the severe Recession, this may be the week to take bold action. For outstanding opportunities often present themselves when most others are afraid to act.

Editor's Note: Thank you to WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge and to Jack’s son Randy, who is WD-40’s Director of Production, for helping to tell this story.

In the next KazanToday: Advice for remaining eternally young from a successful businessman who lived to be 107.

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Many of these short, inspirational success stories are about people from all walks of life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve remarkable results. These stories contain practical advice and a recipe for success for each of these renowned individuals. Some of their stories may help you to avoid some of the costly and time consuming mistakes that many of us make in life and at work. Learn from some of history's greatest winners on how to become a winner yourself, no matter what the obstacle, and no matter how daunting the task before you may seem. Good luck!
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