How CEO Garry Ridge has made WD-40 a well-oiled machine

By Karuna Kumar

Maintaining the legacy of a 57-year-old company is difficult enough, however driving it towards an employee retention rate three times the national average while significantly growing sales is an achievement that deserves much admiration.

We caught up with the man responsible for those feats, CEO Garry Ridge, at WD-40’s headquarters in San Diego, California. While the Australian-born Ridge oversees the trademark name of the ubiquitous household spray used by millions across the globe, the company also owns several other brand names such as 3-In-One Oil and Carpet Fresh.

The rise from down under to the top

Swapping one warm climate for another, Ridge left Australia and arrived in the in San Diego in 1994 to become the Director of International Operations at the company.

From there he was elected as Vice President of the organisation in 1995 and finally, took the position of the Chief Executive Officer in 1997, where he found himself in a consumer facing company producing a product that had gradually found a place in toolboxes around the world.

“When I moved to the US, the three words that became vital to me were, ‘I don’t know’. I accepted that I didn’t know and accepted that if I did know, things would get better. I surrounded myself with people who were competent and gave them the freedom to be heard. I always listen with the intent of being influenced.”

Back to school

In his early 40’s, Garry Ridge went back to the books and completed his Masters in Leadership from the University of San Diego. It was there that he met Ken Blanchard, the management expert and co-author ofThe One Minute Manager, the management bestseller that has sold over 13 million copies worldwide. So taken was Ridge with Blanchard’s teachings, that together they co-authored the well received book, Helping People Win at Work.

Through his academic experiences Ridge reaffirmed his ideologies of leadership and developed his theory – ‘I’m not here to mark your paper, I’m here to help you get an A.’ “It is all about helping the employees to get an A and not follow some normal distribution curve. I do not build failure in the mentoring of my employees. Instead, I create a culture that encourages knowledge sharing and non-stop learning.”

Leading a growing company

So, what are the key drivers that have enabled WD-40, to grow from $152.7 million in turnover in 2000 to more than $292 million for 2009?

“I have advocated three strategic drivers for the company: brand, border and business channels. Including more brands in our portfolio, targeting more opportunities internationally and selling our products in multi-trade channels are issues I address consistently,” Ridge explained.

Under Ridge, WD-40 has become an internationally acclaimed brand that has more than 50% of its operations outside the US and has been growing at a 20%+ compounded annual growth rate for the past five years.

Maintaining a globally engaged work force

In a company like WD-40, it’s no surprise that engagement levels are high. Contrary to the shocking statistics of only a third of people in the United States going to work engaged everyday with two-thirds of employees not engaged or actively disengaged, WD-40’s figures present a welcome contradiction to the norm.

A global employee opinion survey revealed that a remarkable 93.1% of the employees in WD-40 are engaged with 96% of them demonstrating trust in their supervisors. “The employees must feel they are in a trusted environment and among people who want them to succeed. We put the responsibility of the employee development on the leader,” Ridge pointed out.

Stats aside, it hasn’t always been a bed of roses for Ridge and WD-40. “I had a lot of pushback, a lot of resistance but I knew that if I could create an atmosphere where the employees had a clear vision, clear guiding values, an exciting future in front of them and people who wanted them to win – we would win. There were times when I wandered but I never gave up.”

For his 300+ employees, Ridge has initiated innovative ways of communicating and motivating his staff. Besides sending his employees a daily quote of the day and signing off his emails with ‘Believe in yourself ’, he gives an assurance to his employees that he will address each of their grievances within 24 hours.

“Communication doesn’t come in one flavour. The key to communication is the permission to communicate. There are four things that come into play here: care, candidacy, accountability and responsibility. I care about my people. I take a deep interest in who they are and what they do. I consistently take initiatives to make them feel cared for. Ultimately, communication is all about consistency.”

Ridge also believes in dual focus. The well being and personal growth of the people he leads is as important to him, if not more, than the organisational goals he seeks to achieve. “When you lead at a higher level, the development of the people you are leading is just as important as the performance and results you desire.”

To err is more than human

With such a down-to-earth approach to his work, Ridge has set a benchmark for leaders of organisations around the world. His strategies and model of leadership can act as a guideline for many others in the business. “The attributes of a good leader start with identifying yourself as to who you are. Having a good look in your own mirror. In addition, a clear, concise and easily explainable vision and a clear set of values must be implemented in the organisation, the violation of which should not be allowed at any point.”

Opening the door to learning is significant to the growth of WD-40. Ridge ensures that his employees share the positive and negative outcomes of any situation. “At WD-40, we don’t make mistakes. We have learning moments.”

WD-40 as a brand has reached out to varied markets worldwide. From direct markets like the UK, the US and Australia through to relationship building markets such as China. Ridge professes a ‘tribe’ philosophy is the underlying current for his success. “Tribes are enduring. They believe in learning and teaching. They also bring in a sense of belonging and think about longevity. We all here, belong to the WD-40 tribe.”

The agenda before the team is global extension, developing around categories, joint ventures and acquisitions and leveraging the trust people have in the WD-40 brand. “For brand extension and border expansion, I have devised a special team called ‘Team Tomorrow’ that is focused on only one thing: tomorrow,” Ridge explained.

Sniffing competitors

Of course, success never comes alone; it often brings stiff competition, with more competitors wanting to get a slice of the cake. Though for the rather calm and composed Ridge, nothing seems to unnerve him. With total employees numbering just over 300, Ridge has managed astonishing annual sales figures of close to $300 million in 2009 – working out at almost $1 million per employee.

While not every organisation can be a WD-40 and not every manager can wear the shoes of Garry Ridge, the point that this CEO constantly makes is that leading at a higher level is about treating people the right way by providing the direction, support and encouragement they need to be their best.

He staunchly stands by the theory that it is not about marking the paper, instead it is about being instrumental in the achievement of an A by the employees. The leader must hold himself responsible for the people he leads. The personal well being of the employees and the organisational goals should be pursued with the same vigour and zeal.

Garry Ridge is not among those resting on his laurels, he is focused about the vision and goals of his organisation. He knows he is here to stand as a winner and sustain the winning streak that WD-40 is on. Brand extensions and border expansions are on the agenda, but making his tribe strong enough to face the storms of stiff competition and entering new markets is his constant challenge.

“My dream is to have WD-40 Company viewed as a leadership laboratory for business.”

For more insight on Ridge’s leadership learnings and expertise, be sure to check out his website,


So what about that name, WD-40?

Norm Larsen, a scientist at the Rocket Chemical Company, San Diego, was attempting to concoct a formula for displacing water and preventing corrosion in the early 50’s.

It was on his fortieth attempt that he was met with success, hence the name: Water-Displacement 40. The spray has created ripples in the market ever since.

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