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WD-40: a Global Brand, Based in America

WD-40
Source: WD-40
WD-40

Garry Ridge, chief executive of WD-40, is the proud head of one of America’s most recognizable brands, and he’s not even American.

“Does it matter where I came from?" he asked. "Does it matter where I will be tomorrow? “No. Life’s about memories and that’s what we are here for.”

WD-40 was founded in San Diego in 1953. With a staff of three, the company set out to create a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers the aerospace industry.

It took them 40 attempts to get the now-signature water-displacing formula just right, a trial-and-error process that gave the company its name: WD-40 comes from “Water Displacement perfected on the 40th try.”

So how did WD-40 make it from the aerospace industry into millions of homes all over the country?

Convair, an aerospace contractor, first used it to protect the outer skin of the Atlas Missile from rust and corrosion. The product worked so well several employees snuck some cans out to use at home.

Now, a dedicated consumer base uses WD-40 for everything from unsticking hinges to cleaning radiators to removing tea stains from countertops. The company’s web site boasts the solution has more than 2,000 uses and counting.

Ridge doesn’t see the company as exclusively American.

Yes, he said, it feels like a quintessentially American brand when he is in the U.S., however, “If you were in my home country of Australia or in the UK you would think it’s a brand of that country, because we’re a global product.”

He was working for the company in Australia in the mid-1990s when he signed on to help with the goal to expand globally. That meant a move to the U.S.

“We’re a global company that happens to be based in San Diego, but once upon a time we lived in a house, in a street, in a suburb, in a city in the world…Today we live in a house of the world,” he explained.

He also noted that half of the company’s business is now outside of the US.

The importance of promoting American goods abroad is one that Karen Mills, administrator of the Small Business Association, feels is especially salient during this economic recovery.

“I travel all over the country and am always excited by the array of products small businesses are shipping overseas from ‘green’ roofing shingles, to waffle batter, to ‘green’ cleaning supplies,” she said.

WD-40’s headquarters are still in San Diego, which Ridge said is a great strategic location.

“Half of what we make for the world is made right here, and all that you buy today in the U.S. is here, and everything that you buy in China is made here, so it’s a great place to be,” he said.

When deciding where to set up operations, Ridge said that efficiency should be given priority over nationality. Cost effectiveness sometimes benefits U.S. manufacturers but not all the time.

The need for efficiency and competitive advantage means that “Made in America” isn’t necessarily the answer to boosting the U.S. economy, Ridge said. It might actually be hurting the U.S. economy.

“We need to be the best we can be, to be the most competitive we can be,” he said. A closed market would only stunt innovation in the long run, which could result in the U.S. economy falling farther behind, he said.

While some consumers are willing to pay a premium for the “Made in USA” label — even at the sake of quality — the consumer goods market is heavily populated by goods made elsewhere.

An increasing amount of goods are hybrids, manufactured piece by piece in several different countries.

“We can’t be all things to all people all the time,” Ridge said. “So there will be things that we made in San Diego, in London, in New York, and in Shanghai and in Beijing. Where’s our sweet spot? What can we be best at? I don’t think there’s one simple answer.”

According to Ridge, another key ingredient is consistency, no matter where the product is manufactured.

“When you spray that can…if you’re a new user, you’re going to get our promise. If you’re a returning user, we’re going to keep that promise and the consistency of that brand,” he said. “That little blue and yellow shield with a red top is our promise to you that when you spray, you’re going to get an honest product.”

And that means everywhere around the world: “There are lots of squeaks in China and lots of rust in Russia...and we’re just the boys and girls to help you fix them up.”

Watch "Made In America," a special series by Nicole Lapin, on "Worldwide Exchange," 4 a.m.-6 a.m. ET on CNBC.

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