Just a year after joining SC Johnson – then known as Johnson’s Wax – in 1954, Sam Johnson was given the job of New Products Director. He threw himself into the assignment, and in just a few months came up with a new product – a Johnson’s aerosol insecticide.
Taking it to his father for approval, he announced that this was a business we surely ought to enter. His father looked at him, looked at the can, and said, “Don’t you realize we don’t make any products without wax in them?”
“We could put a little wax in it,” Sam answered. “But I don’t think it would kill bugs any better.”
Expanding Beyond Wax
He may have been joking, but Sam’s response led to an extraordinary insight – a little more wax wouldn’t help SC Johnson grow and expand. Rather, it needed new ideas and businesses to prosper in an increasingly competitive world.
New ideas, Sam had plenty. Over the next 45 years, the company grew from a $150 million wax business into a $6 billion family of companies. He propelled SC Johnson into more than 65 countries – selling products in more than 100 – on six continents. He introduced powerhouse brands including Raid® insecticides, Glade® air fresheners, Pledge® furniture products and OFF!® repellents.
But that was just the beginning. Sam also led the company to new heights of environmental responsibility. In fact, in 1975, he did something that shocked the chemical industry.
A Leadership Position for the Planet
Responding to yet unproven research that suggested chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, might harm the earth’s ozone layer, he banned them from all the company’s aerosol products worldwide.
Employees were stunned because the decision forced us to pull out of the aerosol business in countries where we didn’t have a suitable substitute formula. Outside our walls, chemical industry executives accused Sam of being reckless and irresponsible, and trying to destroy the entire chemical industry.
But Sam was right. Just three years later, the United States and Canada banned the use of CFCs because of their threat to the environment. And by that time, SC Johnson scientists had discovered a cheaper and better substitute – meaning the company saved millions of dollars and was well established in CFC-free products by the time competitors caught up.
It was a boon for the environment and for business. But for Sam, it was just doing what’s right.
He used to say: “Am I an environmentalist? Yes. Am I a businessman? Yes. But what I am more than anything else is a grandfather who wants his grandchildren to have the same kind of place to live and grow up in as I did.”
A Family Adventure
Sam didn’t just share his leadership with the company, he shared his sense of adventure and family spirit, too. In the late 1990s, he came up with a bold idea – he wanted to recreate his father’s 1935 Carnaúba Expedition, to reconnect with the memory of his dad and reinvigorate the company’s spirit of adventure.
First, that meant recreating his dad’s historic amphibian airplane, since the original plane was long lost. Sam commissioned a replica Sikorsky S-38 aircraft to recreate the 7,500 mile trip from Racine, Wisconsin to the jungles of Brazil.
But even more than the adventure of the expedition, this time the trip would be about family. Sam set off in 1998 with his sons, Fisk and Curt, on the adventure of a lifetime. Beyond the magnificent vistas and thrill of the trip, they strengthened their own bonds and reconnected with H.F.
Sam even discovered the two carnaúba palm trees his father had planted 60 years earlier...still thriving.
Putting Family Above All
In 2000, he produced a film about the expedition, and in it he shared his deepest personal feelings about the journey to reconnect with his father. The film has since reached countless audiences with its messages about parents and children, love and support. It was even shown on the Hallmark Channel in the United States.
In the film, Sam explains, “As I thought about the plantation and what my father had done, and then thinking also about the future, I came to the conclusion that as a son I shouldn't worry too much about whether I have lived up to the expectations of my father...but whether we as fathers live up to the expectations of our children.”
An avid pilot, a supportive parent, an energetic grandfather and a talented photographer...Sam loved to look at the world from new vantages. But at the same time, he never let go of the true north of family – his own family and the global family of Johnson people.