What makes SC Johnson thrive | Inquirer Business

What makes SC Johnson thrive

What makes SC Johnson, today headed by a fifth-generation scion, an iconic family business? The simple answer is: remarkable leaders with deeply held and widely practiced values.

In the 1880s, founder Samuel Curtis (SC) Johnson went into the parquet flooring business in Wisconsin after his first two entrepreneurial efforts (railway and bookstore) failed. Customers asked how to care for their floors, since water warped the wood and soap ruined the shine.


Inspired by the gleaming floors of French castles, SC experimented with different formulations in the family bathtub. Though he was already in his 50s, he soon built a factory to make floor waxes and wood finishes. Eventually, profits from these exceeded those from the floorings. Johnson Wax became ubiquitous in the United States at the turn of the century.

SC donated 10 percent of his income to the community, and headed programs for special needs children. When he died in 1919 at age 86, the local paper had this eulogy: “To enumerate the charity of this grand old man is quite a task; he led a most simple life, living plainly but lavish in his gifts. His special interest was in young people and helping them to help themselves. No one will ever know the help he has given to the needy and struggling humanity.”


The baton passed to Herbert Fisk Johnson Sr., who joined the family business in 1882. A consummate salesperson, he was responsible for company growth beyond American shores. There were more people outside the United States than inside it, he reasoned, and he traveled extensively even in the midst of World War I, establishing the company in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada in a span of 10 years.

One time, Herbert told a British storekeeper, “This product will not only clean your floor. It’ll polish it so shiny that you could drag me across the floor and not see any dirt on the seat of my pants.” Clad in a white flannel suit, Herbert polished the floor, sat down to be dragged about by his posterior, and made the sale by displaying firsthand evidence of the product’s effectiveness.

In 1917, Herbert started a profit-sharing program with employees, one of the first in the world to do so, a practice that continues to this day. On Christmas Eve in 1927, shortly before his death, he made an oft-quoted speech, that read in part:

“When all is said and done, this business is nothing but a symbol. And when we translate this, we find that it means a great many people think well of its products, and that a great multitude has faith in the integrity of the men who make this product. In a very short time, the machines that are now so lively will soon become obsolete. And the big buildings, for all their solidity, must someday be replaced.

“But a business which symbolizes [values] can live so long as there are human beings alive … for it is not built of such flimsy materials as steel and concrete. It is built of human opinions, which may be made to live forever. The goodwill of people is the only enduring thing in any business. It is the sole substance. The rest is shadow.”

When he passed away, his son HF Johnson, who was not even 30 years old at that time, took over. He led the company with grit, courage and compassion and no employees were laid off in the Great Depression, in no small part because the company sponsored a popular weekly radio program that reached 20 million Americans. The show not only touted company advertisements, but also incorporated its products in their stories, literally making the waxes and mixes household names.

An environmentalist way ahead of his time, HF commissioned legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright to build a company headquarters that was integrated into its surroundings. With Pyrex glass tubing and dendriform columns, the SC Johnson Administration Building, Wright told HF, is a “torch lifting to the sky to inspire your employees around the world.” It is now ranked among the top 25 buildings of the 20th century.


(To be continued)

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or the ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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