After unsuccessfully investing in a railroad company and then buying out what would become a failed book and stationary store, 49-year-old S.C. Johnson was looking for a fresh start when in 1882 he moved to Wisconsin and became a salesman for a small flooring company. Unfazed by his previous failures, within four years he bought out the company. For the first few years, sales were modest at best.
That would all change, however, when Johnson began receiving letters from customers asking how to care for their new floors. With a plan in mind, Johnson gathered ingredients, and took to his bathtub to develop a new floor wax -- which he would give away to customers who purchased new floors. Sales of "Johnson's Wax" exploded and quickly outpaced flooring sales.
Johnson died in 1919, and while he had finally found success, his company was still far from a billion-dollar business. However, by developing and staying true to a mission, his son, grandson, and great-grandson would turn this floor wax company into an $25.5 billion family fortune.
Herbert Johnson Sr.
Due to the product's high quality, Johnson's Wax was becoming a household name. But to further expand the its reach, the company needed to think globally -- and Samuel's son, Herbert Johnson, was just the man for the job. He established the company's first international location in England in 1914, followed by Australia and Canada.
Though important, Herbert's legacy isn't tied to the company's international growth, but rather to his parting speech in 1927 made only a few months before his death , in which he laid out the company's mission:
The goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in any business. It is the sole substance. The rest is shadow.
Key takeaway: Herbert Johnson believed a family business, one that stood for people and symbolized integrity, could stand forever. With those words Johnson laid the foundation for S.C. Johnson's mission.
H.F. Johnson Jr.
After his father died in 1928, H.F. Johnson Jr. would take over the now-$5 million company at just 28 years old. Despite being handed an enormous responsibility on the eve of the Great Depression, the company would not only survive, but flourish.
An adventurer at heart -- and an unquestionably savvy businessman -- Johnson in 1935 flew to Brazil to see first-hand the "Carnaúba palm, whose wax was the principle ingredient in all [S.C. Johnson's] products at the time," according to the company website. While there, he would establish a plantation that ensured the company's supply of wax.
Just as important, Johnson was an early adapter of advertising on national radio broadcasts, which was essential for growing and maintaining the S.C. Johnson brand.
Key takeaway: Ensuring quality products though the availability of raw materials, and developing brand awareness, were key to the company's success. Johnson also reaffirmed the company's mission of taking care of employees by being one of the first to offer employee pension plans in 1934 -- this went along with the profit sharing and paid vacation that Herbert Johnson started.
Samuel C. Johnson
By the mid-1950s, S.C. Johnson was a $150 million company specializing in the wax business. The next heir to the throne, Samuel C. Johnson, would elevate the company into something more.
Sam Johnson took over the position of new products director in 1954, and it wasn't long before the company developed an aerosol insecticide. A radical turn for a business that, to this point, exclusively made wax-based products. Despite this fact, the product was an incredible success, and would lead to the launching of new brands such as Raid, Glade, Pledge, and OFF!.
In the 1970s, now-CEO Sam Johnson would be challenged to stay true to the company's mission. Research had emerged that chlorofluorocarbons -- a key organic compound in aerosol sprays at the time -- could be damaging to the earth's ozone. With little hesitation, Johnson banned its use from all products. Due to the lack of alternative chemicals, S.C. Johnson's sales took a hit.
Three years after the company made the change, chlorofluorocarbons were officially banned from use in aerosol sprays in the United States. While other companies scrambled to find alternatives, S.C. Johnson was well ahead of the game, and the decision to be proactive helped the company find a cheaper alternative, saving millions of dollars.
Key takeaway: As a company that built its reputation on integrity and quality -- something Sam Johnson continued to prove -- consumers had no problem believing this wax company could make quality bug sprays, air fresheners, window cleaner, or any other product for their home.
The last word
In S.C. Johnson's first year, the company made just over $250. Today, with the fifth generation of Johnsons at the helm, Forbes estimates that the company's yearly revenue is $9.6 billion, making it the 36th-largest private company in the United States.
Ultimately, for investors looking the build their own net worth, companies that are mission-driven, focused on quality, and take care of their employees, are companies that not only feel good to invest with, but can be some of the top-performing and most successful businesses.
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