Blaster Chemical Companies, Inc., doesn’t have a huge advertising budget, but somehow it finds ways to get the word out about its innovative products that can loosen rusty bolts, lubricate garage doors, or improve an automobile’s engine performance.
Company officials are still bragging about their decision to hire Jim Rome, the outspoken sportscaster, as a pitchman. Once, when Rome was on the air, there was a mechanical malfunction that prevented the roof at Toronto’s Skydome from opening for a baseball game.
“Rome said, ‘If they just had a can of Blaster PB they would have gotten that thing open,'” recalled Bill Matthews, the company’s president and CEO. Matthews laughed and said that publicity alone was probably worth $1 million.
Creativity and a flair for the dramatic have helped Ohio-based Blaster Chemical grow from its obscure start in 1957 to a line of popular products sold in most major auto-parts chains as well as leading hardware and farm-supply stores. The company is growing its business by keeping a special emphasis on its core products like the Blaster PB Penetrating Catalyst, which quickly breaks loose the surface tension of frozen parts and protects against further rust and corrosion.
A tight focus
“What we’re trying to do is build the brand,” Matthews said. “We found that the thing to do is to reduce the number of offerings on the shelf and focus more tightly on what is selling.”
The company’s brash attitude has a lot to do with its flamboyant founder. In 1947, William K. Westley, a World War II marine veteran, founded the first of several chemical companies to bear his name. He started by inventing a product that removed lipstick from wall paint. That product was eventually sold to Proctor & Gamble.
In those days, many gas stations would ex-plode from the fumes created when attendants cleaned the floors using gasoline. Westley invented a water-based concrete cleaner that worked – and didn’t explode. He then went on to develop a spectacular whitewall tire cleaner and a car polish that outlasted anything on the market. Westley’s Car Polish was the first to use silicone as a polymer protectant instead of the old stand-by carnauba wax.
After selling his company in 1955 for $5 million, Westley retired at the age of 38. But after two years of restlessness and boredom, he was inspired to go back into business. An avid Lake Erie boater, Westley discovered that flat head marine engines had a lubrication problem that caused major mechanical problems. He developed an oil additive that collects moisture in oil, stops foaming, decarbonizes the engine and adds a high-pressure additive. Thus, the B’laster division of William K. Westley Company was born. This product, then called yacht valve fix, remains popular and is sold today as Trans Valve Fix (TVF). “One of his true loves was boating, and he called his boat the Blaster – nobody knows why,” Matthews said. He added that Westley was “a bathtub chemist, not a trained chemist,” with a flair for invention and marketing.
In 1959, Westley invented his star product, PB B’laster, in response to problems a friend was having with a phosphate mine in Florida. Phosphate is corrosive, and the damp Florida air exaggerates the problem. Mining equipment could not be taken apart for maintenance and repair because of the build-up of corrosion, phosphate and moisture. Nothing could break through the corrosion — until PB B’laster was developed. PB B’laster penetrates corrosion to allow easy disassembly. It also acts as a lubricant and rust inhibitor to extend the life of the equipment and make future maintenance easier.
Era of major growth
Westley headed his last company for 20 years, developing new products and increasing sales. In 1980, he was ready to retire again. Bernard L. Porter, a former Cleveland investment banker, bought the company and began working to increase its market share.
Under the Porter family’s direction the company has continued Westley’s legacy, adding several new successful products to its automotive hardware and industrial lines. As the current chairman, Tom Porter has engineered continual growth while fostering an environment that encourages employee involvement and well being. In particular, he has built a strong relationship with Matthews, both in and outside of the business realm, to the point at which Matthews has almost become a part of the family.
Matthews said the company has placed an increasing emphasis on advertising, with a sizable 7 to 8 percent of its yearly budget going towards its promotional campaign. In addition to the successful alliance with Jim Rome, the nationally syndicated sports-radio talk host, Matthews said the company is looking to expand advertising to news-talk and other formats. He said the company likes to use edgy tag lines in its advertisements, like: “Bust Your Nuts, Not Your Knuckles.”
But he also said that the key to the company’s rapid growth in the last 10 years or so has really been its relationship with its customers. Although Blaster Chemical uses sales representatives, Matthews said that the firm’s management does much of the key work. “We’re pretty hands on – we try to do the top 10 customers ourselves,” he said. “We’re traveling 50 percent of the time,” which has allowed Blaster Chemical to work with major new clients like Wal-Mart, NAPA, Auto Zone and Advance.
In 1997, the company officially changed its name to Blaster Chemical Companies, Inc., to further identify with the trade name it had now made famous. In the same year, the company moved its headquarters and production facilities from Garfield Heights, Ohio, to a brand-new building in Valley View, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. Despite its growth in sales – the firm recently had to rent additional warehouse space — the company has sought to remain lean with a staff of just 25 people.
Matthews said the staff is organized into a unique management system with teams of five or six employees that address key areas – manufacturing or sales growth – and that essentially have the decision making powers of a company vice president. “It fosters ownership by these groups, which has been great,” Matthews said.
Blaster Chemical sees strong growth in the coming years, especially for its so-called “drop-in” products like fuel additives that are increasingly popular with female car owners. “Today, people really want to do things to their car to maintain it and keep it running longer. “It’s a customer need that William K. Westley certainly would have understood.