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Obituary: The Genius of John S. Barry

The CEO of WD-40 believed in keeping things simple

Los Angeles Times

GET IT RIGHT John Barry in 1987. He had been running WD-40 for 18 years and had yet to add a second product to the company's line.

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Perhaps no product exemplifies the phrase "all things to all people" better than WD-40. Used for everything from cleaning pitchforks to shining doll shoes -- but chiefly for combating rust -- WD-40 is present in more than 80 percent of U.S. homes and countless workplaces. The man who put it there, John S. Barry, died at 84 of pulmonary fibrosis on July 3.

Born in Minneapolis, Barry studied at the University of Minnesota, Harvard, Columbia, and MIT. He served on a carrier during the Korean

War and worked for 3M and the Solar Aircraft Company before taking over the Rocket Chemical Company when its CEO -- his father-in-law -- died in 1969. Rocket Chemical made rust-fighting lubricants and at the time had less than $1 million in annual sales. Barry immediately winnowed the product line down to one and renamed the company after that product. Soon after, he introduced the iconic blue-and-yellow aerosol can. For 25 years, the company's product, packaging, and strategy remained virtually unchanged.

Though Barry was celebrated as a marketing genius, his masterstroke was to flout the first law of marketing: He refused to position the product. Others tried to stuff WD-40 into an industrial, automotive, or hardware bucket. No, no, no, Barry insisted. As a result, WD-40 -- which had 2008 revenue of $317 million -- sells through close to 70 channels. "He used to say, 'If you think of distribution as a horse race, I want to be on every horse. Because I know I'll be on the winner,' " recalls Garry Ridge, who became CEO in 1997. (Barry remained on the board until 1999.)

Liberal as Barry was about distribution, he was fiercely protective of intellectual property. Even the colors on the can are legally protected. But Barry refused to patent the formula so as to keep it from the public domain.

In terms of strategy, Barry would find what worked and keep doing it. WD-40's British offices are identical to its San Diego headquarters because Barry saw no point in drawing up building plans twice. His philosophy endures: WD-40 rolled out in China 18 months ago with essentially the sampling program Barry introduced in 1972.

Like many CEOs, Barry was his product's most avid fan, and he insisted others share that passion. Chief branding officer Graham Milner worked at WD-40's ad agency in the 1980s. He recalls Barry's outburst during a visit to the agency when he noticed a squeaky gate. "He said, 'Look, if we can't convince you guys -- whom we pay -- to stop squeaks in America, then how are you going to convince America?' " Milner says.

An unassuming man, Barry would tell those who asked that he worked "for a warehouse," says Randy Barry, one of Barry's sons and WD-40's director of production. "He had meetings at Denny's. Once a valve company we worked with came to pick him up in a limousine. He refused to get into the car.

"He was a very simple, basic guy," says Barry. "But he knew how to sell."

 

Last updated: Oct 1, 2009

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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