Monday, April 7, 2008 | Garry O. Ridge doesn’t have a garage. He lives with his canary, Tweety, on the 16th floor of one of The Grande condo towers in downtown San Diego, rising three mornings a week to the call of his personal trainer for workouts in his building’s gym. He checks e-mails while it’s still dark and chimes in on early-morning conference calls with his global colleagues.

Ridge is a 21st-century CEO — a bald, BlackBerry-toting, embroidered-logo sporting, urban businessman. And while he remembers his dad, an engineer with the same company for 50 years, always using the ubiquitous workbench product his company’s named for, Ridge himself doesn’t exactly have space to tinker.

“I don’t have a workshop; I live in a condo building,” admits the 51-year-old Ridge, CEO of the WD-40 Company, headquartered in a 1970s-era office building near Morena Boulevard. “I’m not a big user. I probably use it more to clean my stainless steel refrigerator.”

WD-40 is the all-in-one product in the blue and yellow can that is kept under the sink and on the tool benches of the world. It was developed here in 1953 as a corrosion-protector for a missile. Three founders of the Rocket Chemical Company patented the product when it was en vogue to name a product exactly what it was: a water displacement formula, perfected on the 40th attempt. They wrote down the chemical recipe in pencil on a piece of paper, a piece of paper that still lives in a bank vault in Union Bank on Rosecrans Street.

More than a half-century later, Ridge is at the helm of the company, and has been for a decade. Under his direction, it has become what he calls a fortress of brands, including 3-in-One oil, Lava soap, Spot Shot carpet cleaner, 2000 Flushes and X-14 cleaner. The company exists to fight squeaks, smells and dirt, he says. And the company’s “Team Tomorrow” seeks to find new ways of doing so, like the pen-like container for portable use, and the “smart straw” innovation for dispensing the product without fiddling with the little red straw that used to be taped to the side.

About 1,180 San Diego companies name a CEO. Three dozen or so of those are publicly traded companies worth more than a half-billion dollars. Ridge fits in that group, and is friends with some of the region’s other chief executives, like Linda Lang, the CEO of Jack in the Box, another San Diego company, who sits on the WD-40 board.

With all forms of compensation counted, Ridge earns about $1.1 million annually, about half of that in earned salary. The company’s been lauded for its relative modest executive pay compared to its profits for investors.

A more paradoxical relationship would be difficult to find between product and CEO. WD-40 is known for its simplicity, its lack of fuss, its utility as a cleaner, a lubricant, a rust-fighter.

Ridge, though, speaks fluent 21st-century corporate touchy-feely. At WD-40, employees don’t make mistakes, they have “learning moments,” the concept behind Ridge’s side project leadership program and upcoming book that he fleshed out in executive leadership courses at the University of San Diego a few years ago.

Posted in Ridge’s office are the phrases “Blame-Free Zone — Leaders at Work” and “Only happiness welcome” and “Nearly all conflict comes from differences in ‘expectations,’” a quote from Stephen Covey, a guru for this kind of workplace groupthink. Ridge says he’s there not to mark his employees’ papers, but to help them get an A. If they don’t want an A, WD-40 will “share them with a competitor.”

He keeps a little blue card from his wallet, the “WD-40 Company Corporate Values.”

“We value doing the right thing,” the card says atop a list of like sentences. And, “We value owning it and passionately acting on it.”

Five years ago, Ridge packed the original recipe for the product in a box and flew to New York, where he dressed in armor and rode a horse through Times Square to open the Nasdaq stock exchange for the WD-40 50th birthday.

“In the fortress of brands, I’m the guardian,” he says. It was the only time the original recipe had left San Diego.

By the time Ridge arrives at the San Diego office at 8 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, he’s been plugged into e-mail since 5 a.m. There’s not an hour in the day when there’s not someone working for WD-40 somewhere in the world, Ridge says. He catches the European offices in the morning, the Asian ones in the afternoon. The company employs about 300 people around the world, about 80 in San Diego. Ridge has personally met nearly all of them.

He walks into his office and logs on to his office computer. He unhooks his ear from his Bluetooth device.

“CrackBerries are great, aren’t they?” he quips.

From a stereo in the corner, music fills the room. It’s been playing all night. Ridge never turns it off.

“I like bright and noise,” he says. “Some people like dark and quiet, right?”

He replies to some e-mails, listens to a voicemail, pours himself a cup of coffee, then walks around the building, showing a visitor the new employee lunchroom and the warehouse, where the secret formula is mixed. Ridge points out a window where 10 tanks protrude from a paved lot, four containing raw materials and six with the finished concentrate. This and similar plants in London and Sydney, Australia, are the only places in the world where WD-40 is mixed. About two million blue-and-yellow cans are sold around the world every week, he says.

Ridge retrieves a stack of papers from the printer and carries them into his office, which is decorated with elements from Ridge’s native country, Australia. He sits in a high-backed swivel chair with chrome sides to review the stack of papers, with page after page of red text. They’re financial disclosure forms the company will submit to the Securities and Exchange Commission, quarterly filings that have been mandated under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that was passed in 2002 in the wake of the Enron scandal to better oversee publicly traded companies.

It’s having a document like this on his desk that underscores Ridge’s fervor for creating a trustworthy workplace. He has to rely on the work of every employee who’s reported a number for the report.

“They’re looking for a certification from me that all of the things in this document are correct,” he says. “And I have no way of knowing that.”

To screen employees, Ridge maintains a quiver of unconventional questions for interviewees, asking who is their favorite television character and why.

When his question is turned around on him, he responds without hesitation: “Columbo,” he says. “He’s relentless in his simplicity. His elegant simplicity. He sees what’s not obvious and he digs into it.”

When the company began acquiring the other brands, Ridge toyed with the idea of renaming the company Global Household Brands. But that wouldn’t have the same allure when Ridge introduced himself at parties, he jokes. When people hear he’s the CEO of WD-40, they nearly trip over themselves to tell him the unconventional ways they’ve used his product.

Being Aussie helps him as a global CEO, he thinks, as global markets constitute an ever-growing percentage of the WD-40 business. People from countries around the world have an affinity for the Down Under because of its folklore and its people’s reputation for being easy-going and gregarious.

“U.S. culture is different,” he says. “In Australia, if someone asks, ‘Will you do me a favor?’ You say, ‘Yes.’ There’s an element of trust. Here, the first question is, ‘What is it? I want to know what you want from me first.’”

The national differences landed Ridge in some trouble soon after he arrived in the United States in 1994 as the director of international relations for the company. He asked a female coworker to help him find some office supplies.

“Hey, Steph, you got a rubber?” he asked her.

“A what?” she asked, incredulous.

“A rubber,” he replied.

The exchange repeated, Ridge growing frustrated and the coworker turning red, until suddenly it clicked.

“Oh, you mean an eraser!” she exclaimed.

The adjustment to life in the United States was even easier for his kids, who were 12 and 10 when the Ridges moved to Escondido from Australia, he says. Now his son lives in Pacific Beach and his daughter lives in Escondido.

Ridge says he dreams of spending his time between living in the United States, Europe and Australia. At the start of his career, Ridge worked for the WD-40 licensee in Australia, and thinks he took one of the first cans of the product into mainland China. Now, he spends about one-third of his time traveling, having visited 52 countries.

For his most recent vacation, he stayed at home.

“I didn’t want to go anywhere,” he says. “You get a bit sick of airplanes.”

When Ridge first started working with companies to distribute WD-40, his dad gave his endorsement.

“How could you fail with that?” he remembers his dad saying. It’s an honest product; it does what it says it’s going to do. Ridge laughs about the more than 2,000 uses the product’s 100,000-member fan club has come up with for WD-40.

“WD-40 is a product of last resort,” he says. “People have a high degree of forgiveness for it. They use it, thinking, ‘Maybe it’ll do this.’ And if it works, they love it. And if it doesn’t work, they forgive it. It probably wasn’t supposed to do that, anyway.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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