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True colors Featured

6:31am EDT August 31, 2004
Sherwin-Williams has been creating innovative concepts for 138 years, so it's no surprise that innovation is ingrained in the company's culture.

"We view innovation as being more cultural than structural or policy driven," says Christopher Connor, chairman and CEO of Sherwin-Williams. "It is an important part of our heritage, beginning with Henry Sherwin's invention of the pigment grinding mill in 1876 that made possible the first premixed paint, to the invention of water-based paint in 1941, the first paint roller in 1941, the first latex paint in 1950, and the list goes on.

"Over the years, Sherwin-Williams has amassed more than 500 patents, but innovation goes far beyond product development. While we have a responsibility to our customers to continually advance coatings technology, we also have a responsibility to our shareholders to continually advance the productivity and effectiveness of our company. As such, we expect innovation in every discipline of the company."

To keep fresh ideas coming, teams of employees compete to win recognition in an annual contest.

"Each year, we sift through dozens and dozens of nominations to recognize four teams of employees within our company for their outstanding performance in the areas of technical achievement, marketing achievement, cost reduction and quality," says Connor. "The names and photos of the four winning teams are posted in a permanent display in the Center of Excellence (a company museum), by no coincidence on the Spirit of Discovery wall. These four awards are among the highest honors one can receive in our company.

"Although there is not an 'innovation award' per se, being selected for one of these honors has everything to do with innovation. In my 23 years with the company, I cannot recall a team winning in any category by doing the status quo better. Given the intense competition each year, everyone knows that marginal improvement won't cut it. You win by quantum leap improvements, and that requires leapfrogging existing methods and technologies.

"The fact that we receive so many applications for these awards each year underscores the point that innovation is part of our company culture. Everyone understands that innovation is an integral part of their job. Continuously improving how you do your work becomes as important as the work itself."

Connor says there is more to innovation than coming up with a unique idea. How the idea can be applied and what value it brings is the true measure of success.

"There is a difference between innovation and successful innovation," says Connor. "Doing something unique is innovation. Doing something that brings unique value to your customers and shareholders is successful innovation."

Connor lists Krylon Fusion for Plastic aerosol paint and the Twist & Pour paint container as two examples of successful innovation.

"In both cases, we began with well-recognized challenges -- traditional spray paint doesn't adhere to plastic and traditional paint cans are not user-friendly - and we developed straightforward solutions: A spray paint that forms a molecular bond to plastic and a plastic paint can with a screw-top and integrated pour spout," says Connor. "The benefits of these innovations were obvious to end-users, and sales took off. Twist & Pour is now available in four of our best-selling paint lines, and Krylon Fusion soared over our first year sales plan.

"An important lesson here is that the market is the ultimate judge of successful innovation. The genesis of most successful innovation isn't in a lab or an office, it is with the customer in a store or on a job site."

Every spring, paint companies hold events for painting contractors called pro-shows to unveil new products and write orders for the start of the painting season.

"Last year, I was talking with a contractor at one of these events, and he told me that he attends many competitors' pro-shows each year, but makes it a point to never miss ours," says Connor. "I asked him why, and he said, 'Because this is where I find out what's new in the industry.'

"We think it's significant that in an industry that many view as a commodity, professional customers come to us to find out what's new and exciting, to learn about new leading-edge products and services that will make them more productive and their business more successful." How to reach: www.sherwin-williams.com