Succeeding through five generations
(Last of two parts)
Today headed by a fifth-generation family member, SC Johnson continues to make its mark in the world. Aside from its stellar products, the company lives by core values set down by the eponymous founder, his son Herbert Fisk Johnson, Sr., and the latter’s son H.F. Johnson.
Last week, we looked at how founder S.C. Johnson had the vision to provide an essential service—cleaning products for wooden floors—and how his son expanded the company beyond the United States. We saw how the third-generation leader, H.F. Johnson, took brave but calculated risks, advertising company products on radio and commissioning a legendary architect to build company headquarters in the middle of the Great Depression.
H.F. was an adventurer at heart. In 1935, he and his team flew on a small plane to Brazil in search of the carnauba palm, a potent source of wax. The wax on the leaves protects the palm plant. The company built a research center to more efficiently process the leaves and cultivate the plant.
In 1970, the center was given to the University of Ceara in Brazil so native farmers can rightfully benefit from its work. Upon H.F.’s demise in 1978, a carnauba leaf was carved into his tombstone.
At the 1964 World’s Fair, H.F. wowed the globe by producing an 18-minute film, showed on three screens, which depicted footage of life around the world. At first, company executives protested against the expense, but H.F. told them, “Some decisions are only for the brave,” and walked out of the room.
Entitled “To Be Alive!,” the film won an Academy Award for Documentary. US president Dwight Eisenhower praised it “as a most imaginative film and beautifully done. It shows the world through children’s eyes, where there is no room for prejudice or arrogance.”
Fourth-generation Sam Johnson was initially not sure if he wanted to work for the family business. He was walking on the factory floor when an older employee showed him a timecard punched two decades earlier, when 8-year-old Sam visited the place. Sam said, “He was expecting me to come back. He was hoping, and that’s why he had saved the card. That’s when I knew that this was the place that I wanted to work.”
Under Sam’s four decades of leadership, the company created products that are household names today: Raid insecticides, Glade air fresheners, Pledge furniture cleaners, Off! insect repellents. The company also acquired Windex glass cleaners, Ziploc bags and other products, and marketed these in 65 countries.
Sam did not place profit above all else. In 1975, even before the US government banned harmful CFCs, the company already rocked the business world by stopping such use in all their products after their scientists discovered they harmed the ozone layer.
An executive in another company yelled at Sam, saying that he would “ruin” the industry, but Sam did not waver.
In the 1980s, the company opened its child care center on-site, a first in the United States. Sam said, “A leader must have a social conscience, an interest in the surrounding community, both within and outside the company. Financial performance in one particular quarter or a year will be forgotten in a very short time. What will remain—and what will determine how favorably [businesses] are looked upon—is the impact they have had on society generally and the environment where they operate.”
In 1987, Fisk Johnson became the fifth-generation leader, and today, he continues in the footsteps of his forebears. The company partners with pyrethrum farmers in Rwanda to create organic pesticides, combats illegal deforestation and plastic pollution in the oceans, and uses wind and landfill energy to power its factories. Fisk says, “Business has both an opportunity and an obligation to make the world better.”
For more than a century, SC Johnson has lived by its motto: “A family company at work for a better world.”
Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her print book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or e-book at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]
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