Am I the only person who didn’t know that bleach is a product of salt brine? It was saltwater from San Francisco Bay that helped create The Clorox Company, which this year celebrates its first hundred years. Last week at the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s annual luncheon, guests in the packed banquet room were treated to the remarkable story of how a one-product company has constantly reinvented itself.

As Clorox CEO Don Knauss told us in his keynote speech, the company was founded in 1913 by five businessmen, but it took a woman to make it a success. Pooling their funds to come up with $500, the five men opened America’s first liquid bleach factory at 809 High Street (pictured below). They called it the Electro-Alkaline Company. At first, they sold only to industrial customers, delivering it in horse-drawn wagons to laundries, breweries, and municipal water companies.

Clorox High Street plant

Unfortunately, the business nearly collapsed as the founders tried to more effectively market the new product. Then Annie Murray, the wife of one of the early investors, had a novel idea: she’d market the liquid bleach to homemakers through her popular Oakland grocery store. She gave away free samples and talked up the product’s benefits as a “bleacher, germicide, cleanser and disinfectant.” Consumers loved Clorox and told their friends.

The company began shipping boatloads of liquid bleach from the Port of Oakland to the East Coast via the Panama Canal, and the company officially reorganized as The Clorox Chemical Company in 1922. At around the same time, the company invested a whopping $75 a month for a large billboard that could be seen (pre-Bay Bridge) from the ferries that traveled to and from San Francisco.

The company went public in 1928 and flourished, even during the Great Depression. But it was during World War II that Clorox earned the respect of customers and consumers by “doing the right thing,” as the corporate values statement now puts it, even though it would mean a loss in profits.

Bleach was a vital resource during wartime: it could disinfect wounds, neutralize enemy gases and purify water. But chlorine, a prime ingredient in bleach, was rationed during World War II. Recognizing the need to stretch the supply of chlorine, the U.S. government allowed liquid-bleach manufacturers to dilute their products. In a decision that helped define the soul of the company, Clorox opted to decrease production rather than compromise on quality. “You can’t cheat the public for long,” is how CEO Knauss put it.

Through most of the 1950s, Clorox was still a one-product company. Then, beginning in 1957 with the company’s sale to Procter & Gamble (with effective advertising on that company’s soap operas), Clorox entered the modern era. It switched from glass to plastic containers and would diversify its product portfolio to include Formula 409 spray cleaner, Liquid-Plumr, the Glad bags line, Kingsford charcoal briquettes, Hidden Valley ranch dressing, K. C. Masterpiece Barbeque Sauce, Brita water filters, Pine-Sol, Burt’s Bees and more. Spun off from Procter & Gamble in 1969 and independent once again, Clorox embarked on a program of global expansion. (Consider the potential of bleach sales in Saudi Arabia, for example, where people wear quite a lot of white clothing.)

We at Fairyland know the company for its philanthropic and civic role in Oakland. Clorox helps fund Fairyland’s outreach program to low-income and at-risk kids, and The Clorox Company Foundation, founded in 1980, has awarded grants totaling more than $87 million to nonprofits, schools and colleges, with more than 75 percent of these funds (estimated at $65 million) benefiting Oakland.

Learning about the company’s role in infection prevention and in domestic and international disaster response gave me a broader perspective of Clorox’s humanitarian efforts. It’s no surprise that the Red Cross calls on Clorox for donations of Glad bags and bleach.

Clorox is now a $5.5 billion Fortune 500 company that does business in 100 countries. Of its 8,400 worldwide employees, 2,000 of them are in Alameda County. “At the end of the day, it’s really the people who make this thing go,” says Knauss.

He runs a company whose mission is to “make everyday life better, every day,” whether it’s in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, or around a barbeque.

Happy 100th birthday, Clorox!

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