In 1866, an industrious 24-year-old from rural Vermont named Henry Alden Sherwin found himself with $2,000 in his pocket and a life-changing decision ahead of him.
Over the years, Sherwin had worked a variety of odd jobs, from shoveling snow to keeping the books for a local dry-goods store. Following a move to Cleveland, Ohio, he had three promising job prospects. One was with a bank. Another, a drug store. And a third was an investment opportunity with a small paint company.
To the astonishment of many, he chose the latter, which he admitted was the least prestigious of the three options. Elevated social standing had little appeal for Sherwin. What he really wanted to do was develop a dependable product — high quality, easy-to-use paint — that could fulfill the basic needs of everyday Americans.
Blessed with innate curiosity and an unwavering work ethic, Sherwin often recited the phrase “What is worth doing, is worth doing well,” and used that maxim as his guiding principle in his new line of work. During the day, he put on paint-soaked clothes and worked as a porter, learning about different paints and varnishes. At night, he studied books and catalogs to better understand how those products were made.
Three years later, when his partners suggested the company focus on manufacturing linseed oil — the base ingredient for many paints — Sherwin broke off from the company, retaining the right to make the paints themselves. He quickly aligned himself with industrious individuals who displayed character, intelligence and enthusiasm, including his new partner, Edward Williams.
From the inception of Sherwin-Williams, Henry Sherwin placed an extraordinary emphasis on cleanliness, thrift and quality. “A fine sense of order,” he said, “prevents mistakes, saves time, pleases patrons, [and] is real economy to any business.”
He constantly inspected his first plant in Cleveland, always arriving unannounced and taking different routes through the factory, offering critiques where needed, and providing bonuses to the tidiest and most efficient departments.
He did not tolerate waste and carelessness. One day, when he saw an employee rolling a punctured barrel about and spilling its powdery contents on the floor, he called the man’s supervisor over.
“If you saw a dime on the floor,” he asked, “would you pick it up?”
The supervisor said he would.
“Good,” Sherwin replied. “There’s a dime worth of my merchandise on the floor. Go pick it up.”
Sherwin’s exacting business practices paid extraordinary dividends. During his tenure as president from 1870 to 1909, Sherwin-Williams not only created the first high-quality ready-mixed paint, it also revolutionized the varnish trade and expanded across the United States and into Canada.
Under Sherwin’s leadership, Sherwin-Williams made it a priority to care for its employees, establishing a legacy of awards, bonuses and welfare initiatives that continue to this day.
In one of Sherwin’s final keynote addresses in 1906, some 10 years before his passing, he succinctly captured the reason for his company’s success, then and now.
“We live,” he said, “in the days of large affairs, and while principles never change, methods do, and great opportunities open to those who have the ability to see and grasp them.”