Writing about the passing of industry leaders is one of the regrettable, but necessary, assignments in this job. After 33 years of covering this business, though, this time feels different.
Dave Willis, the nonstick coating leader and innovator who passed away last week at 87, was the first housewares industry chief executive I ever met in person.
I was just a few weeks into my position as a junior editor for HomeWorld Business during the spring of 1990 when I was sent to the West Chester, PA, headquarters of industrial and consumer coatings manufacturer Whitford to meet with the executive team for an editorial feature on the company. I’ve shared the story of what happened on that day many times, but more on that later.
Willis, who co-founded Whitford in 1969, was an unpretentious, no-nonsense entrepreneur with a sharp intuition for what the market wanted and needed. In his unofficial uniform of a dark blazer, grey slacks and a button-down dress shirt, Willis, a salesman-turned-fluoropolymer guru, was always at the ready with a detailed explanation and convincing demonstration of the company’s nonstick housewares coatings. He understood the secret to success with such complex chemical science, however, was to strip it down to what matters most to manufacturers, retailers, and, ultimately, consumers: how it can make life easier.
Willis, without the deep marketing coffers of primary rivals, spearheaded the type of shrewd, proactive guerilla marketing that no large corporation could match. He knew focusing on the trade in the housewares business— the manufacturers that would apply the nonstick coatings and the retailers that would sell the coated products — would be a cost-effective and convincing way to build market share and shelf space, which, in turn, would build credibility among consumers. It worked exceptionally well for 50 years, leading to the sale of Whitford to PPG in 2019.
Willis’ legacy in this industry runs far deeper than the cooking surface of a nonstick-coated fry pan. Behind the constant pursuit of innovation was Willis’ unrelenting competitiveness and grit — a resolve that cleared a path to global leadership that was methodical, consistent and humble. He formulated and preserved an entrepreneurial, never-say-never, get-it-done culture that permeated everything and everyone at the company, eventually turning the everyday reins over to his daughter, Anne Willis, in 2016. Working for Whitford was demanding, but it was rewarding. The company was as close to a big family as any growing organization could be with a workforce spread across the globe.
And it was OK, even encouraged, to blow off steam after a long day of work — oh, those lively dinners at Machiavelli in Frankfurt during Ambiente — as long as everyone answered the bell early each morning. They did (most of the time) knowing full well Dave Willis would be there ahead of them.
I was privileged to have a close view of the Whitford culture the past three decades, beginning with that spring day in 1990 when I first met Dave Willis. I walked into the Whitford office that day wondering how in the world a reporter who once dreamed of covering the New York Mets was about to interview the management team for a manufacturer of nonstick coatings. Nonstick coatings?
Then I sat down with Willis and the Whitford team, who couldn’t have been more accommodating, informative, supportive and… just real. As I departed that day, I realized for the first time this business isn’t just about nonstick coatings or any of the other products it makes and sells. It’s as much, if not more, about the people who make and sell the products. That changed everything for me, just as Dave Willis helped change the housewares business.
Some 33 years later, I, like so many others, owe much to Dave Willis for the high character and spirit he passed along during a remarkable career… a remarkable life. I didn’t get the chance to thank him properly for that. But I’d like to think, in his unpretentious, no-nonsense, intuitive way, he knew.