John Barry, the unpretentious Midwesterner who made a San Diego product called WD-40 into a national sensation by “breaking all the Harvard Business School rules,” died July 3 at a skilled nursing facility in La Jolla of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 84.
Barry’s business genius during three decades at the company was in emphasizing brand loyalty for a lubricant that fights rust and eliminates squeaks. He preached the value of staying focused on your product and your market, and not being distracted.
“He had a saying: ‘Don’t be like a blind dog in a meat house,’ ” said Garry O. Ridge, WD-40 Co.'s current president and chief executive officer.
As WD-40, in its blue-and-yellow spray can, began to become more popular in the early 1970s, Barry, as president and CEO, led the drive to take the company public. But he resisted advice from business gurus that said a one-product company was a bad investment.
He declined suggestions that WD-40 expand to other products, engage in slick advertising or partner with large retailers.
In later years, he liked to show visitors his “graveyard of imitators,” products developed by larger companies that failed to break into the market. He told reporters that he owed his company’s success to breaking all the rules about mergers and acquisitions and shelf-space in stores.
“When you have a good product, don’t tinker with it,” Barry said.
He avoided the trappings of corporate life. He answered his own phone, he flew coach and he held business meetings at Denny’s restaurants. He insisted that subordinates call him Jack.
“Dad was a meat-and-potatoes guy,” said his son Randy, who works in the operations supply part of WD-40.
Barry never hid behind publicists and he often had a snappy quote.
He once explained why the WD-40 ingredients were a closely guarded secret to thwart rivals: “Competitors can’t shoot you off the fence if they can’t get you in their sights.”
During Barry’s tenure, San Diego newspapers regularly carried two kinds of WD-40 stories: about the early investors who had made a killing and about the many and exotic uses for the product.
“I remember one lady who said she used WD-40 to polish the fruit on her dinner table, and another said it cured her arthritis,” said Tom Blair, editor and columnist for San Diego magazine.
In San Diego, WD-40 Co. was a kind of corporate celebrity. “We had so few large companies in those days,” Blair said. “It was the only San Diego company that was making something used worldwide.”
John S. Barry was born Aug. 31, 1924, in Minneapolis. He served as a supply officer in the Navy and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering, and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master’s in business and engineering administration.
He worked in marketing, sales and new product development for 3M Corp., Solar Aircraft and Adams Rite Manufacturing Co., among other jobs, before joining a San Diego company called Rocket Chemical Co. in 1969 as president and chief executive officer.
Within weeks he changed the name of the company to WD-40 Co. after its product, known as “water displacement” formula 40 because the inventor had supposedly failed 39 times in the process.
In Barry’s first year as president, the newly renamed WD-40 Co. had $2 million in sales. Within five years, sales were $10.4 million, and in 1990, when he retired as president, revenue was $90.9 million. He remained as chairman of the board until 1999.
In recent years, the company has acquired other products, including Lava soap, and expanded its marketing to 160 countries, with sales of $317.1 million in 2008.
Besides his son Randy, Barry is survived by his wife, Marian; son Steve; and daughter Deborah Faneros.
Private services are planned.