The secret WD-40 formula lives in a San Diego bank vault
SAN DIEGO (KSWB) – It’s one of the most recognizable names on any garage shelf, under kitchen sinks and tucked into most tool belts. For years, its hand-written secret formula has lived in a San Diego bank vault, a place where many know its location but few can visit.
The WD-40 Company goes to great lengths to protect the formula of its flagship product, according to longtime CEO Garry Ridge.
Written on a notepad in pencil, the formula has been moved a couple of times, most recently upon the company’s 65th anniversary in 2018 when it was handcuffed to Ridge and escorted with Brinks guards and an armored car to a Bank of America in Rancho Bernardo.
They believe deeply in the power of WD-40, the seemingly do-it-all water displacer known for its yellow and blue can with the red top. Ridge said they know customers are believers too, confident in the product that’s the backbone of a company with annual sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars with some 2,000 unique uses submitted by the people who know it best.
“We’re in the memories business,” Ridge said in a June phone interview with Nexstar’s KSWB. “We create positive lasting memories fixing things around the world.”
Those memories date back generations to the early 1950s and the then-Rocket Chemical Company, historian and longtime UC San Diego professor Iris Engstrand wrote in “WD-40: San Diego’s Marketing Miracle.” It was the work of Iver Norman Lawson, who was tasked by a naval commander friend with helping the U.S. Navy prevent corrosion on the gears of ships, which was able to be done on the 40th such experiment — hence, the company’s name.
According to Engstand, the formula then was turned over to Rocket Chemical for marketing and distribution with Lawson reportedly receiving a $500 bonus for his efforts.
In its early days, Engstand noted WD-40 was used to protect the outer skin of the Atlas missile from rust and corrosion. The product’s size and scope quickly expanded with the help of another Norm — company president Norman D. Larsen — who is credited with repackaging WD-40 in aerosol cans.
“WD-40 could be used to ‘protect auto chrome, free locks, and check rust on razor blades, guns and fishing reels,'” Larsen was quoted saying in Engstand’s piece. “‘Uses are almost endless.’”
In the subsequent years, WD-40 became a behemoth. It crossed $100 million in sales in the early 1990s with what a Wall Street Journal reporter once called “brand awareness parallel to Coke and McDonald’s.” It spawned an entire genre of YouTube do-it-yourselfers and popularly was found on fictional propane salesman’s Hank Hill’s tool belt in an episode of “King of The Hill,” used to help loosen the cap of a larger can of WD-40.
Today, WD-40 is found in nearly 190 countries worldwide and along with the company’s 3-In-One brand accounts for about 90% of the company’s total sales, Ridge said.
Ridge has had an up-close view of the company’s growth for nearly 35 years since he was hired away from an Australian WD-40 distributor. He’s seen it all and trumpeted the company’s gospel as loud as anyone, as when he dressed as a knight and rode a horse into Times Square to open the NASDAQ Stock Exchange to in recognition of the company’s 50th birthday.
Next month marks Ridge’s 25th — and final — anniversary as CEO. He is retiring from the role Aug. 31 and will be replaced by company president and COO Steve Brass. He will remain on the company board through the end of the year before transitioning into an emeritus role.
Ridge said Brass, a longtime company veteran, understands the brand well, and “most importantly, he really does treasure our culture as a competitive advantage.” Their more than 500 employees at offices around the globe are referred to as a “tribe,” a term that’s about the attributes of tribalism such as becoming a “learner and a teacher,” Ridge said.
“WD-40 is a place where people go to work every day. They make a contribution to something bigger than themselves. They learn something new and they’re protected and set free,” he said, adding that happy people ultimately make for happy communities, which he believes to be the company’s goal.
Even as Ridge sets his sights on the next chapter, which includes a role on the Gorilla Glue board and writing a book called “The Leaning Moment,” his time at the Scripps Ranch-based company has been memorable.
“My heart and soul are always with this wonderful tribe I’ve been privileged to be with for so many years,” he said.
He adds, “If you cut me, I’ll probably bleed WD-40.”