In a global economy where today’s must-have is tomorrow’s e-waste, what if you manufacture a product necessary on a foundational level? In effect, for any system with moving parts?

By Tony Tedeschi

In 2014, I was hired by Dave Willis, the CEO of Whitford Worldwide Company, to help with a corporate history.  Whitford is the manufacturer of the world’s largest, most complete line of fluoropolymer coatings for a vast array of industrial and consumer industries.  Whitford’s coatings are on everything from frying pans to the nuts and bolts on oilrigs, pistons in motor vehicles and air conditioners, molds for giant wind turbine blades, even fabric for athletic socks.  The corporate history, I was to help write, would celebrate Whitford’s 50th anniversary in 2015.

Whitford is a company that impacts the lives of millions of people on a daily basis, but its coatings have little to no brand identity among end-users, even in terms of popular consumer items such as cookware and bakeware.  The effects of its coatings reduce friction on the components of products in so many areas of our lives that the company has a demonstrably beneficial effect on how the world works.

As more and more aspects of the Whitford story began to unfold, I became convinced that it was much more than just a limited corporate history.  I asked Willis to let me run with this for a while and see where it led. That came to involve more than 60 interviews with employees, former employees, suppliers, bankers, customers and media.  The process took me deep into a company that managed to achieve what all companies, which intend to be there for the long term, seek to achieve but few manage to actually accomplish: a future-proof business model.  

Countless white papers and business conference lectures continually caution successful companies not to get too full of their successes, even though solidified over a period of years.   They warn against failing to recognize and react to competition creating a future, which all but assures the resistant company’s obsolescence. Where other companies, whose business models had worked well for their prospects today, by tomorrow had faded or died off completely, Whitford had managed to successfully navigate the global business landscape for decades, with a near continuous growth arc.  

At or near the top of all the recommendations for business longevity is anticipating, then adapting to changing markets.  Some argue that the future depends upon an ability to step from one business model to the next, as if moving along a timeline from the fox trot to the cha-cha to the macarena to the . . . what do you dance to rap?  Or perhaps the long-term answer is a collection of disparate business models, hedging the company’s bet, to deliver on whatever the future requires. Upgrading the corporate infrastructure and the talent pool, however, can’t address product lines or services that no longer fit into the demands of an ever-modernizing business world.   Think flip phones, film cameras, incandescent light bulbs.

But, what if you manufacture a product useful on a foundational level, so it is not negatively impacted by changes which occur beyond those foundations?  In effect, a product necessary for any system with moving parts, where friction is a negative factor. Any system where corrosion decreases lifespan. Any system where ease of release is a major factor.  Even in a world of rapidly changing technologies, some basic requirements remain unchanged.

Case in Point: Energy Generation

A significant market in Whitford’s business is the oil and gas industry, where its coatings reduce friction on moving parts in all manner of equipment and provide a high level of corrosion resistance, especially needed for equipment that is in or near the sea.  As the world begins an inexorable shift toward renewal forms of energy, there is no less a need for the friction and corrosion reduction that Whitford coatings provide. Additionally, Whitford coatings increase ease of release, an important element in the molds for the giant blades of energy-generating wind turbines, some of which are two-thirds the length of a football field.   
An area of renewable energy, which does not get as much attention as wind turbines, is tidal power.  In the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), is conducting tests and installing multi-ton turbines that generate energy from the ebb and flow of tides, which are particularly strong there.  Here again, Whitford coatings are involved, providing corrosion resistance for the nuts and bolts that hold these giants together and anchor them to the ocean floor.

Whitford World HQ Elverson, PA

So, whether energy generation moves from fossil fuels to wind or tidal power; oilrigs, wind turbines and tidal turbines all still depend upon corrosion-resistant fasteners in the battle against their hostile environments.  Whether automobiles move from gas-driven engines to electrical motors, the smooth operation of moving parts throughout the vehicles will still be dependent upon friction-reducing coatings. If electronic “Instant Pots” are replacing traditional pressure cookers, the need to deal with the stickiness of rice or the ingredients in stews becomes even more pronounced. The chemistry of nonstick coatings, however, is not anchored to its own past.  Intensive research and development are ongoing at company labs.  The result has been a decades-long parade of new formulae, which continually advance the technology and open new markets throughout the business world.

A Visit with Dave Willis at Whitford HQ

Whitford Corporation is headquartered in Elverson, Pennsylvania, a tiny town of just over 1,200 citizens, set in the eastern part of the state, some 50 miles from Philadelphia.  Once off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a visitor approaches the town down country roads, past rolling hills, thick woodlands, cornfields and houses, spotted here and there, until they congregate in small groupings around the center of town.  Making a hard right turn off Park Avenue into the company’s parking lot, you confront Whitford’s stone-and-spired exterior, suddenly looming over you with the look of a chateau, as if in defiance of the glass-box shapes of modern corporations and manufacturing facilities.  There is an immediate sense of swimming against the current.  

If you have a few moments in the lobby, while the receptionist notifies your appointment, you are drawn to a wall display of products whose manufacture is greatly impacted by Whitford chemistry: applications for all manner of industries, an encapsulation of decades of innovation by a company whose employees are the embodiment of a bias for action, the practice of which begins at the top.  

From a person’s initial contact with Dave Willis, it becomes apparent that he is a born salesman, but that initial impression also belies any image of a huckster just pushing a product at you.  Willis is, first and foremost, a problem-solver. When he and, by extension Whitford, have taken a significant step at solving a customer’s problem, then the process moves toward finalizing the sale.  

Dave Willis at Whitford 50th anniversary celebration

Seated at his desk, Willis sketches, on a piece of paper torn from a notepad, a graphic explanation of a chemical transformation.  The exercise, in response to an interviewer’s question, is perhaps the antithesis of sophisticated, computer-assisted design, but the drawing, and Willis’s explanation, make a complex point easily understandable.  

That’s not to say Whitford doesn’t have its complement of the latest technology.  Down the hall from Willis’s office, on the second floor of the company’s headquarters, is a state-of-the art meeting room – the corporate “War Room” – that looks as if it could provide the wherewithal to plan and launch drone strikes.   Whitford labs and quality control departments around the world are equipped with an expansive array of state-of-the-art, research-grade instrumentation.

Willis is quick to point out that while he is the cofounder of the     company and has been its point man ever since, he credits many     employees, both past and present, for having made the company     the success it is today.  A good deal of that success is a result of the company’s dogged pursuit of innovative products, and its emphasis on providing specific solutions to customers’ specific requirements.  Long term, it is a matter of the professionals at Whitford recognizing opportunities that its competitors had overlooked or decided were not cost effective. Not surprisingly, this long journey really did begin with a single step.  

The Innovation that Launched a Global Company

How often in the history of American business has a giant corporation ignored, downplayed or simply rejected a business opportunity, while the tiny start-up saw the possibilities?  How often has the recognition of that doable opportunity provided the startup with the wherewithal to thrive? Welcome to Xylan® 1010.

In the late ‘60s, early in Whitford’s corporate history, the company bought raw material from DuPont to make Teflon® molding compounds.  Consequently, DuPont reps came calling, sometimes even bought lunch.  At one of those sales lunches, the DuPont reps were ballyhooing the low coefficient of friction of the company’s newest Teflon formulation, which was the combination of a polymer called fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP) and a binder resin.  While listening to the DuPont sales pitch, Willis was intrigued with the possibility of replacing the FEP with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), which he felt could result in a superior nonstick coating. He asked the DuPont people if they thought it could be done. Their “no” was emphatic. And, since PTFE had been discovered by a DuPont chemist in 1938, the company was the recognized authority on what could or couldn’t be done with the chemical.  

When Willis returned to his six-person company, he asked his chemist, Paul Fields, if the DuPont people were correct.  When I interviewed Fields for the book, many years later, he said he agreed with the conventional wisdom, but he told me that a young chemist enjoys few things more than the more-experienced heads telling him something couldn’t be done.  Despite his youth, Fields already had a great deal of experience working with fluoropolymers. So, he began spending days – and nights – in the lab, fine-tuning his focus into experiments beyond what had been tried and failed, including a unique ionization process.  He eventually managed to create a matrix, a kind of “plastic alloy” that achieved exactly what Willis had speculated about. Christened Xylan 1010 the new coating had a coefficient of friction lower than anything yet created. Willis sold just $2,000 worth of Xylan 1010, in 1969, to a company that made valves for oil drilling equipment.  Nonetheless, his young company was off and running.

During the course of the next half-century, Whitford grew to a presence around the world, including R&D labs, manufacturing facilities and sales offices.  The company’s thousands of variations on the original Xylan theme address the needs of a near-incalculable number of products. Simply listing the applications would fill pages and not account for new applications being developed as those pages were being written.  

By mid-December 2018, with Whitford long established as a world leader in low-friction coatings, Whitford and PPG, announced they had reached a definitive agreement for PPG to acquire Whitford Worldwide Company.  Established in1883, PPG, a global supplier of paints and coatings, is a Fortune 500 company, with 47,000 employees worldwide headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA.

“Joining PPG is a giant step forward for Whitford,” Dave Willis explained.  “In one fell swoop, we will have access to new technologies, diverse R&D facilities, strong financial support and global coverage in areas where we have wanted to expand but did not yet have sufficient resources. This is very good news for our customers and good news for our employees.”

The Whitford Way

Fifty years ago, a company was created, which began making for a world that ran more smoothly.  While it continually expanded its quiet presence in the world of the present, its products always pointed toward its ongoing relevance into the world of the future.  And, most of us didn’t even know it was there . .

Read the full story of “The Whitford Way,” published by Amazon:

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