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WD-40: Beyond Rocket Science


FOR MANY, THE NAME WD-40 conjures an image of a lightweight lubricant packaged in a blue-and-yellow aerosol can, with a red straw attached to direct the spray where needed (at least until the straw gets lost). The brand began with the American space exploration program, but now is launched deeply into consumer, industrial and commercial markets all over the earth.

WD-40 Co. itself is a collection of 11 popular brands, including the namesake best-selling spray. It sells packaged lubricants such as WD-40, WD-40 Specialist, Blue Works and 3-In-One, plus a contingent of cleaners ranging from Lava soap (hands) to Carpet Fresh and Spot Shot (rugs), to 2000 Flushes (toilets).

Much of this brand fortress was built under Garry O. Ridge, who in 1987 joined WD-40s subsidiary in his native Australia. In 1995 he was named vice president, international, and two years later became president and CEO of the San Diego-based corporation. Now 55, Ridge holds a degree in retail/wholesale distribution from the Sydney Technical College in Australia, and a masters in executive leadership from the University of San Diego.

Ridge is always on message when it comes to WD-40. In an interview with LubesnGreases, he often mentions the power of the shield (a reference to the WD-40 logo), recites slogans like Problem solved, job done right, and points out that positive lasting memories are what drive the success of the company.

The vision for WD-40, Ridge says, is solving problems in factory and homes around the world. He is also quick to declare the extreme value and good performance of its products.


WD-40 has big plans for growth in 2012 and beyond, Ridge indicates. Maximizing the brand will require expanding the companys presence in foreign markets, and three of particular interest are Russia, China and Brazil. Emerging markets in sub-Saharan Africa are another area where it plans to place a great deal of effort.

The company also aims to expand the WD-40 Specialist product line in the United States, United Kingdom and select countries in Europe. Typically, the companys introductory scheme for a new market begins with word-of-mouth advertising and millions of giveaway samples, which is not cheap. All told, the company spent some $44 million on advertising and sales promotions last year.

Twenty-five years ago, the companys sales were $86 million, with 60 percent of sales in the United States. By contrast, sales in fiscal 2011, ending Aug. 31, totaled a record $336.4 million and the non-U.S. share was 60 percent. Sales of lubricant products were 83 percent of that total, or $279 million. Net income for the company was $36.4 million.

Also during 2011, WD-40 Co. spent $5.5 million for research and development of new products and packages. Capital expenditures were relatively light however, and have averaged just $2.2 million in each of the past three years. This is because manufacturing and distribution are totally outsourced, leaving its 334 employees to focus on marketing and sales along with R&D.

However, that could change as the plan forward calls for a shift from licensing agreements to acquisitions, joint ventures and partnerships with others in order to boost growth. The company says it is actively looking for such opportunities in the United States, plus Europe and Asia-Pacific, as well as pursuing more product innovation and recruiting new talent to keep the creativity and growth going.


WD-40, which stands for Water Displacement-40th Formula, was created by Rocket Chemical Co. in 1953. It was intended to protect the surface of Atlas rockets from corrosion and rust by displacing moisture and providing a protective film. The company had just three employees and developed the product for Convair, a pioneering aerospace company located in San Diego.

Formula number 40 worked so well that Convair employees began taking some home for use around the house and garage. Rocket Chemical founder Norm Larsen concluded that putting WD-40 into aerosol cans might be a great way to promote it to consumers, who would use it at home just as Convairs employees had.

From its introduction in 1958, WD-40 went into marketing orbit. By 1960, it was being sold by a sales team of seven at the rate of 45 cases per day per salesman throughout the greater San Diego area. The first full truckload order was shipped to the U.S. Gulf Coast in 1961 to help with recovery from hurricane Carla.

Throughout the 1960s, Rocket Chemical grew its business with strong marketing and lots of free samples to get people to try WD-40. One program supplied small containers to U.S. forces in Southeast Asia, where it was used among other things to protect weapons from the extremely corrosive environment. Naturally, when the troops arrived back home and needed a spray penetrant for tasks at home and on the job, they looked for WD-40.

Eventually though, Rocket Chemical realized that it had only one viable product and brand, so the logical choice was to rename itself WD-40 Company, which it did in 1969. It then went public in 1973 with an over-the-counter offering which gained 61 percent in value on the first day of trading.

By 1993, a survey of product usage found the product was in four out of five American households, and used by 81 percent of professionals at work. Sales that year were more than one million cans a week.

WD-40 Co. remained essentially a one-product show until December 1995, when it acquired the 3-In-One drip oil brand from Reckitt & Colman Plc. This extended WD-40s reach into new countries, via 3-In-Ones wide distribution network. Next came a rare misstep: it created T.A.L 5, an extra-strength synthetic lubricant for heavy-duty applications, and launched it in 1997. After two years of disappointing sales, it admitted that T.A.L 5s market potential did not warrant the effort and pulled the plug.

More successfully, April 1999 brought the acquisition of Lava soap. Like WD-40, Lava appealed to do-it-yourself, commercial and industrial users alike, and could also be distributed through WD-40s well-established retail and wholesale channels.


Technically, what does WD-40 do? First, what it doesnt do is use technical language in its marketing. Instead, it communicates clearly and directly in consumer language – staying on message just as Ridge does, and underscoring four basic functions:

1. Displaces moisture: This allows WD-40 to quickly dry out electrical systems to eliminate moisture-induced short circuits.

2. Penetrates: It loosens rust-to-metal bonds and frees stuck, frozen or rusted metal parts.

3. Lubricates: The lubricating ingredients are widely dispersed and hold tenaciously to moving parts.

4. Protects: It protects metal surfaces with corrosion-resistant ingredients to shield against moisture and other corrosive elements.

WD-40 has so many applications that the company website ( lists over 2,000 uses, all sent in by customers. It even has a fan club. Although its not patented, the original formula is kept locked in a bank vault in San Diego and remains a trade secret. And with only minor changes in raw material sources (including a fragrance ingredient), the formulation remains unchanged.

Company researchers (its Tomorrow Team) have developed a number of package improvements over the past decade, including the Smart Straw which stores with the canister (no more lost straws!), the No-Mess Pen applicator, and the Trigger Pro non-aerosol spray nozzle for industrial users.

Their latest innovation, in 2011, was the WD-40 Specialist line, a family of best-in-class products formulated to get specific jobs done easily. They include a rust release penetrant spray, water-resistant silicone lubricant, white lithium grease, corrosion inhibitor and rust remover soak. The Specialist products take aim at more rugged uses outside of the multipurpose flagship products capabilities. It was developed after listening to maintenance customers, and designed for use in professional settings such as garages and repair shops.


Recently, the company has been challenged regarding the level of volatile organic compounds (VOC) in WD-40. Asked about this issue, Ridge replies that WD-40 complies with the consumer product VOC limits of the California Air Resources Board (CARB) as well as similar regulations from the federal EPA and other states. WD-40s entire inventory meets the tough standards developed by CARB to regulate emissions from consumer, industrial and institutional products, he says.

However, another California regulatory body, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) mandates even lower emissions than CARB from certain metalworking fluids and direct-contact lubricants used in manufacturing.

WD-40 is arguing that Rule 1144s requirements overlap with the CARB VOC regulation, and impose a dual regulation that is unnecessary and an undue burden. Since 2003, WD-40 has paid CARB more than $1.2 million, and invested more than $1 million in product development to comply with CARB regulations. Earlier this year, a bill was introduced into the California State Senate (1127) which would offer WD-40 and other consumer products an exemption from the Rule 1144 limits, even when used in manufacturing and metalworking shops.

The Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association objected to the bill, saying it will frustrate Rule 1144s air quality objectives and create a blanket exemption for WD-40 and other consumer products. By seeking total exemption from the rule, ILMA said, WD-40 in effect is asking for a competitive advantage to expand its market into manufacturing and assembly operations where its product is not currently routinely used. WD-40 effectively would have no regulatory barriers under Rule 1144 and could sell its products for these uses without regard to the rule, the association added. Meanwhile, some ILMA members have invested substantial time and expense complying with the rule.

Discussions on this subject are continuing in a three-way dialogue among SCAQMD, CARB and his company, Ridge says.

WD-40 has grown from the beginnings of the aerospace industry and become a major force in consumer and commercial markets. In just under 60 years, it has gone from a one-product micro-company to a $336 million multinational. And despite facing a legal scrap in its home state, the company is watching for its next acquisition or opportunity. As formulas go, thats always helped WD-40 take off like a rocket.

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