When he was only 28 years old, H.F. Johnson Jr.’s father died and he found himself President and CEO of a $5 million company with 300 people counting on him for continuing employment.
In that situation, many people might simply try not to rock the boat. But not H.F. Instead, he made Johnson’s Wax, as we were known then, a household name.
A Spirit of Adventure
Having steered his company through the worst of the Great Depression without laying off any people, in 1935 he set off on an adventure.
His focus was the Carnaúba palm, whose wax was the principle ingredient in all our products at the time. H.F. was fascinated by the Carnaúba palm and its incredible resilience. Its wax protects it from the harshest droughts. Its fruit is edible. Its trunk and leaves can be used as building materials. Its roots are used in medicines.
It is called the “tree of life” by some Brazilians, and that stirred H.F.’s imagination. He wanted to see its source and, ultimately, worked to ensure a sustainable supply of this substance that was so important to the survival of his company.
So H.F. set off on an expedition by airplane into the jungles of Brazil. His “Carnaúba Expedition” was daring enough to be reported by Time magazine. It was 15,000 miles over seas, deserts and jungles. And it was a huge success. He established a plantation to sustainably supply the company’s needed wax. But even more important, he found inspiration...in fact later he would say the trip changed his life.
It was one of many adventures that set a course for our company.
Committed to Creativity
Another was H.F.’s recognition that national advertising was the wave of the future. He made SC Johnson a household name through a visionary sponsorship of the popular radio show Fibber McGee and Molly in the 1930s and 40s.
That was long before many companies had discovered national advertising – and it helped SC Johnson become an enduring part of people’s homes.
H.F. also commissioned legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design an innovative building for the company’s Racine, Wisconsin headquarters.
“Anybody can build a typical building,” he said. “I wanted to build the best office building in the world, and the only way to do that was to get the greatest architect in the world.”
The SC Johnson Administration Building was not only an architectural masterpiece; it became an enduring symbol of the company’s creative and adventurous spirit. And that same spirit energized H.F., and the company, throughout his leadership of SC Johnson.
Inspiriting Understanding and Optimism
In the 1960s, that same spirit which helped bring about an important social contribution by the company – the film To Be Alive, made for the 1964 World’s Fair.
While most companies that participated in the World’s Fairs offered small exhibits in industrial halls, H.F. wanted to do something different. He wanted to build a golden pavilion and make a film.
Imagine the world in the early 1960s. Political and social upheaval were rampant. A U.S. President was assassinated, people feared nuclear war, the Berlin Wall was rising in Germany, issues in Vietnam were escalating, and the battle for civil rights raged throughout America.
Against that backdrop of pessimism and fear, H.F. championed the creation of a film about peace, understanding and the joy of being alive.
But it wasn’t an easy sell. In fact, when H.F. presented it to his own leadership team, they all agreed the project was too costly and risky. They offered up many reasons why H.F. shouldn’t proceed. He simply looked them straight in the eye, and said, “Gentlemen, some decisions are only for the brave.” And he walked out.
When the 18-minute film premiered at the Fair, critics and audiences alike showered it with praise. Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower called it “… a most imaginative film and very beautifully done. It shows the world through the children’s eyes, where there is no room for prejudice or arrogance.”
With its uncommon blend of authenticity, social progress and optimism, the film became one of the most popular exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair.
It was a perfect example of H.F.’s unique and adventurous vision, cultivated throughout his life, and still alive and well in his family’s company today.