Garry Ridge is a firm believer in a winning formula.
For nearly 25 years, including the last 15 as CEO, Ridge has been linked to WD-40, a publicly traded company and trusted 59-year brand. Its products are available in 165 countries and the company reported $336.4 million in sales in 2011.
This easy-to-use spray in the blue and yellow base and red-topped can is equipped to stop squeaks, loosen rusted parts and free sticky mechanisms among its 2,000-plus uses. Ridge believes it has a transforming effect on its many users.
“WD-40 multi-use product makes heroes out of people,” said the 55-year-old Australian-born leader of this San Diego company. “That’s what it does because you can solve problems, save time and money and you become a hero in someone else’s eyes.”
Even country music singer Toby Keith mentions WD-40 in a recent song, “Made in America,” about his father’s fondness for U.S.-made products.
But WD-40’s success extends well beyond emitting the powerful-yet-secret formula through a patented Smart Straw. WD-40 stands for Water Displacement 40th formula, the number for the just-right formula after 39 attempts. Some call it perseverance, but Ridge calls it one of WD-40’s “learning moments.”
“We like to think of it as 39 great formulas and the 40th was the magnificent one,” he said. “Back then (1953) they wanted to get it right. We’ve often reflected on the fact that we want to get it right, but we’re not afraid of failure.”
CEO Enjoys Going Back to School
Ridge isn’t afraid, either, to enhance his leadership skills and knowledge. In 1999, two years after becoming CEO, Ridge enrolled in the University of San Diego’s Master of Science in Executive Leadership (MSEL) program.
“I wanted to confirm what I thought I knew and learn what I didn’t know. I was in my early 40s and I’d just been appointed CEO. I really wanted to go back and sharpen the saw,” he said. “The three most powerful words I’ve ever learned in life are ‘I don’t know.’ That’s my theory on life. I’m not that smart; there are a lot of smarter people. I just want to find them, learn a bit from them and go out to see if I can put it into practice in my own basic way.”
MSEL, which is housed in the School of Business Administration (SBA), delivered. Ridge, a 2001 alumnus, said 18 WD-40 Company employees have since earned an MSEL degree and a few more are currently enrolled. Ridge also serves as an adjunct professor for the program.
“I’d learn it on Sunday and use it on Monday,” recalled Ridge about his MSEL experience. “I’d come back and we’d start making changes. The model we use in the company now is what I developed through my final strategy class at USD. The model has carried us through the last 11-12 years and we’ve tripled the size of the company. We’ve really built a culture that’s envied by many.”
It’s a three-pronged business approach: “We’re in the memories business. We’re about positive, lasting memories for three constituent groups – our shareholders, who trust us with their investment; our customers, who interact with our brands every day; and our people, who we call our tribe. We call WD-40 Company a tribe because it’s something you belong to and belonging is very important in life. We want to create positive, long-lasting memories for our people.”
The MSEL formula, which includes the courses such as Situational Leadership and Leading through Change, helps Ridge oversee 365 global employees, 90 of who work in the San Diego headquarters located less than two miles from USD.
“I learned it’s about being tough-minded and tender-hearted in business,” he said. “As a business leader you have to get people not just in the head, but also in the heart.”
Ridge enjoyed the cohort learning experience with leaders and aspiring leaders from different backgrounds and experiences. “We had a judge, a minister of religion, a whole culture within our cohort. It wasn’t just walking through this focused lens of what was expected.”
He liked, too, that the degree was multi-faceted: “MSEL takes the basic elements of an MBA such as marketing, finance, accounting and statistics, but then brings in other subjects around it that are about people, asking ‘Who are you as a leader? How do you lead through change? How do you build high-performing teams?’”
Putting Education to Work for Success
The lessons he’s learned, personally and professionally, led him to co-author a book, Helping People Win at Work, with MSEL Professor Ken Blanchard. In it, Ridge explained that mutual trust and direct communication with employees helped WD-40 Company earn top marks in sales and earnings during a recession.
Ridge said WD-40 Company’s employee engagement rate of 93 percent is well above the national average of around 30 percent. Ridge developed an employee survey to measure effectiveness and leadership and it produced amazing results. The top survey mark indicated that 98.7 percent of employees felt they were treated with dignity and respect. Questions pertaining to topics such as employer-employee communication, expectations and dependability all graded out at 97 percent or higher.
“We treat people with respect, we honor each other. We’re here to create memories together, we’re here to do good work, we’re here to keep promises,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”
A trusted worldwide brand, happy and focused employees including 12 on Team Tomorrow, a group whose sole existence looks at the company’s future, and his MSEL-infused leadership principles constitute Ridge’s ingredients for maintaining a winning formula.
“The sun never sets on WD-40,” he said. “Somewhere around the world, at any time of day, we’re getting sprayed.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
USD’s MSEL program hosts an executive breakfast on July 17. Garry Ridge will introduce the speaker, author and USD School of Law Professor Frank Partnoy, who will discuss his latest book, “WAIT: The Art and Science of Delay.” RSVP required by July 13 at http://bit.ly/MSEL_FrankPartnoy Seating is limited.