GOJO Industries celebrates 75 years of growth

GOJO Industries celebrates 75 years of growth

(October 18, 2021) - GOJO Industries Inc., the maker of Purell sanitizing products, was born 75 years ago to solve a problem tied to Akron's then-booming tire and rubber industry – dirty hands that were being cleaned with harsh chemicals.

It's a tale that involves insight, ingenuity, determination, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and popcorn. And now a pandemic.

At the beginning, Goldie Lippman was working as a supervisor in one of the city's rubber factories during World War II. She saw firsthand as workers, lots of them women as many men were off fighting in the war, washed their hands with kerosene and benzene to remove carbon black and graphite. The chemicals did more than remove the dirt and grime — they also hurt the skin.

Lippman talked with her husband, Jerry, about the issue. And Jerry, who never finished high school but has been described as a natural born problem solver, took on the challenge to create a cleaner that didn't damage dirty hands.

Basement beginnings

Out of those husband-and-wife discussions, GOJO, a take on the names Goldie and Jerry, was created. Jerry helped develop the cleaner and used a bread and dough maker in the basement of the couple's home to mix batches. Goldie, meanwhile, ran the finances.

The waterless cleaner was refined with the help of a Kent State chemistry professor, Clarence Cook. Pickle jars collected from restaurants were repurposed to hold what they called GOJO Hand Cleaner, with Jerry selling the stuff from the trunk of the family car.

From its founding on March 6, 1946, the company has grown into one of the Akron area's largest private employers with more than 2,500 people in the city and in outlying facilities. Over the years, the company broadened its focus from helping people in automotive and rubber industries get safely clean to a broader based skin-care company for everyday consumers.

The shift worked. According to Forbes magazine, the born-in-a-basement business is now worth about $1 billion, and Purell is a trusted, well-known consumer brand with myriad formulations of its basic germ-killing ethyl alcohol solution. (The privately held company does not disclose its finances.) 

GOJO is not resting on its history, say its chief executive officer, Carey Jaros, and Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, executive chair. While the company has a strong foundation and will celebrate its 75th anniversary through March 2022, it is firmly looking ahead, not behind, they say.

"We're so proud to be a third generation business in Northeast Ohio. Seventy five years is a huge milestone," said Jaros. She joined GOJO in 2016 as chief strategy officer and was promoted to CEO in January 2020.

The company and employees have been celebrating with such things as a "virtual" 5k race, commemorative apparel, an employee appreciation event where everyone received a 75th anniversary cookbook, gift cards and more, and there will be an upcoming digital memory book.

Pandemic creates unprecedented response

More significantly, in the midst of the celebrating, the company had to respond to unprecedented demand for its sanitizing products because of the COVID-19  pandemic.

The world is undergoing what may be the biggest disruption it has seen since probably WWII because of the pandemic, Jaros said.

"This has been pretty remarkable amount of disruption," she said.

"I think that our heads are on straight. We are calm. We are confident about the decisions we made. And we're excited about the capacity and flexibility that we have as a company to serve our customers and public health and wellbeing," she said. "We are very optimistic about the future with respect to our business."

GOJO's research indicates that people's attitudes about hand and surface hygiene have shifted in a way that they think is permanent, Jaros said. The number of people saying they are now using hand sanitizer after pumping gas, checking out at a retailer or after shaking hands is higher than pre-pandemic, she said.

People are realizing it's now easier to use hand sanitizer in those moments, Jaros said. GOJO's Purell brand is top of mind for many consumers for hand and surface sanitizing, she said.

GOJO expands to meet Purell demand

While the company won't say how much money it spend in 2020, GOJO more than doubled the number of its locations in Northeast Ohio to meet unprecedented demand for its products.

GOJO built out and expanded its 1.3 million-square-foot Wooster facility, something executives had originally planned to do over 10 years. The Wooster site is now fully utilized and is where the majority of Purell is made, along with making bottles and pumps, she said.

"We added additional locations in Navarre and Maple Heights and in Ashland," Jaros said. "We pulled forward about 10 years of capital expenditures into one year. This would be totally unprecedented in the history of the company. It really puts us in this incredible position, as we look forward to the next 75 years, to really think about all the ways that we can continue to bring health and wellbeing in our product portfolio. We also have the strongest innovation pipeline we've ever had, all kinds of things I'm not at liberty to discuss yet."

GOJO said it delivered about 140 billion doses of its Purell products in 2020. "That's either a pump of our Purell sanitizer, a pump of our soap, or our surface spray or a wipe," Jaros said.

Many of those doses were in hospitals and similar settings. GOJO made a priority during the pandemic to supply health care providers and first responders with its products instead of restocking retail shelves.

"Our business is certainly no stranger to surges. But nothing has come close to this in magnitude or duration," Jaros said. 

"I feel really good about where we are," she said. "I think we moved early. We made hard decisions fast. We ordered a lot of the equipment before other companies made decisions about increasing capacity. And we were able to have a vast majority of that capital investment installed and up and running even before the end of the year. So I feel great about where we are."

GOJO has dramatically increased its capacity and its flexibility, Jaros said. "They give us room to grow and they support demand that we believe will continue to stay more significant than before the pandemic."

GOJO employees, the company's best asset, were outstanding during the pandemic, Jaros said. "We're emerging with an incredible set of infrastructure and the same incredible people who have always been at the core of who we are."

Cookbook celebrates anniversary

Jaros said one of her favorite things about the company's 75th celebration is the cookbook, with all recipes coming from GOJO employees.

One chapter, "PBJ & Popcorn with a Twist," dates directly back to the earliest days of the company, Jaros said. 

"Those were two things the founders, Goldie and Jerry, always provided our team members on site, to make sure people were getting a good lunch," Jaros said. "We always had peanut butter and jelly available. Still do. Plus popcorn and milk."

Jaros contributed a recipe called "cheese dreams": A grilled sandwich made with buttered sourdough bread, fouur slices of cheddar or Colby cheese, a tablespoon of cream peanut butter and a tablespoon of jam or jelly.

Marcella Kanfer Rolnick, GOJO's executive chair, is the daughter of Joe Kanfer.

Kanfer, nephew of Jerry and Goldie Lippman, is the former president and now has the title of Venturer.

"[GOJO] has been an inspiration my entire life," she said.

Founders Jerry and Goldie Lippman "were motivated together to solve an important human problem and I think that is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago," she said.

GOJO is a purpose-driven organization, Rolnick said. "We have something very important to do, that really matters, to helping people in the world make their life better. That's the reason we've been successful through ups and downs, different business cycles and economic times, and different needs in the market."

Being innovative and problem solving is why GOJO has been successful, Rolnick said.

"We always say that there's got to be a better way," she said. "That's what Jerry and Goldie did from the very beginning."

GOJO's real family are the employees who make the company succeed, she said. "We've got 2,500 team members who are part of this GOJO family. And what's exciting, frankly, is that many people have recruited their loved ones, their aunts and uncles, children or partners, to come and join the team, too. We have a lot of people who have relatives who work in the business."

Jerry and Goldie Lipman started that family feeling from the beginning when they began providing food such as peanut butter and jelly for employees, Rolnick said. 

Employees now "are driven to solve these important human problems because they know that it matters, that they're saving lives by keeping people healthy," she said.

A company 'game changer' 

GOJO realizing it should be a broader skin-care company was a game changer for the business, Rolnick said.

"It was a massive breakthrough back then," she said. "It was a pivot that allowed us to expand what we saw ourselves as doing. And that lead us to the invention [in 1988] of Purell, the hand sanitizer."

Even with the ongoing evolution, GOJO has remained true to its roots, she said. 

"Over the last decade or so, we have realized that it's not just OK to focus on skin, to keep the skin intact, and to disrupt the transmission of germs by hands but we also have to consider the surfaces that hands touch," she said. That led GOJO to expand into surface hygiene products.

"It still comes back to taking care of skin, taking care of surfaces that hands touch, both for skin care and for disease transmission disruption," she said.

One result of that focus is GOJO's Purell brand is now the most trusted sanitizer in hospitals and elsewhere, the company said. GOJO actually bought back its Purell brand in 2010 from Johnson & Johnson after selling the consumer brand in 2004.

The people at GOJO try not to be very nostalgic but instead be forward looking, Rolnick said.

Still, bits and pieces of company history are around, including a restored green bicycle that Jerry Lippmann used to ride around on the factory floor to meet with employees. Rolnick had the bike in her office.

"We use the bike as a symbol to get out and connect with each other," she said.

GOJO created a miniature replica of the bike, called the Jerry, to give out as an employee award, she said. - (Akron Beacon Journal)