Wet & Forget founder Rod Jenden tells Jane Phare how he went from doing an early-morning bread run in an old van to establishing the iconic multimillion-dollar company, in this NZ Herald Premium article.
Touring Wet & Forget’s new state-of-the-art headquarters in Auckland, you could be excused for thinking life has been sweet for Rod Jenden.
Squirt a bit of liquid on a roof, a concrete driveway or a shower and, bingo! A winning formula. Now there’s a flash 3000sqm factory, corporate offices and retail shop in a recently developed part of Silverdale.
Upstairs, the management team have “Wet & Forget” etched into the glass walls of their offices, there’s elegant furniture in the common areas, artwork on the walls and eye-catching light fittings. The lunch room is big enough for everyone to have morning tea together at 10am – a company habit that Jenden insists on.
No-one is more important than anyone else at Wet & Forget, he’s fond of saying: his management team, the warehouse staff, the truck drivers, those operating the bottling line, they just have different jobs.
During a tour of the plant, Wet & Forgetters smile and shake hands like characters out of the movie The Truman Show. Many of them have been with the company for up to 20 years and they helped design the new plant. Their boss says they’re like second family to him, and that they enjoy each other’s company.
“We don’t have dramas here. There’s no people yelling and screaming.”
That’s because the company is going well, Jenden says, stress-free. The product is doing good numbers in New Zealand and overseas – going gangbusters in the US, and holding its head up in the UK and Australia. Germany, France and Japan are next in line.
But make no mistake, he says, there’s been 50 years of hard graft behind the company’s success and he admits to moments when he thought the banks were about to close him down. Cashflow – there were times when there was never enough.
He recalls sleepless nights, walking round the house at 2am wondering how he was going to pay the wages that week, how he was going to pay suppliers. He reckons his wife and business partner Leigh, Wet & Forget’s general manager, was probably awake too.
“We’ve been through some pretty tough times and I can tell you it’s not easy.”
The latest was Covid-19. The company had a half-built factory and a string of closed stores. “We honestly thought that we possibly wouldn’t survive it.”
Roll back 50 years and a young Rod Jenden thought starting a business couldn’t be too hard. He grew up in a state house in Ōnehunga, left Penrose High School at 15, finished a five-year boat-building apprenticeship and bought an old van to do a bread run in the early 1970s.
He’d collect the loaves late at night from Findlay’s Bakery and deliver them through the night to homes round Auckland. Married at 21 with a young son, he delivered dry cleaning during the day to earn more money. Rod Jenden was in business.
“When I was driving the bread van around I had visions of grandeur but I had no idea that it doesn’t work like that.”
It was while he was on his delivery runs that Jenden noticed just how many grotty, mouldy tiled roofs he passed. Surely, he thought, there must be a solution, money to be made. He borrowed a water blaster and experimented on his mate’s dad’s roof. The mould and lichen flew off. Sweet. But water flooded the roof cavity below and his mate’s dad was not happy. Not so sweet.
Next, he tried bleach, squirting gallons of the stuff on mouldy tiles and concrete paths with the help of a Bertolini agricultural sprayer driven by a motor, mounted on the back of a truck.
“I was going round knocking on doors and selling the idea that I could clean their roof with this bleach.”
He added more trucks to his fleet but it was wasn’t long before he and his contractors realised that sodium hypochlorite (the bleach) was more of a problem than a solution.
“If you got it back in your eyes you couldn’t see, it bleached all your clothes, it was eating the chassis of our trucks out.”
And the vapour dissolved parts of the pump, causing bleach to spray everywhere, “all over the prized petunias, the cat, mum’s washing. It was just horrendous”. Not to be put off, Jenden tracked down a product developed by the New Zealand Forest Research institute in Rotorua and began trialling it.
It worked. Months after the first spray, the tiles were clean. Jenden couldn’t believe his luck. Here was a product that was non-caustic and non-acidic, with a pH similar to tap water.
“And it didn’t eat all our trucks out. It was absolutely fantastic.”
It was the beginning of what would eventually become Wet & Forget. Back then the business was called Solar Chem Industries. Jenden and a former business partner built a factory in Glenfield and, in the 1990s, developed a roof protector and a paint brand called Skins which they sold to tradies.
“What we didn’t count on was that quite a lot of our customers were in the pub spending the money they owed us.”
By 1995 the brand Wet & Forget was born, the company was growing but cashflow was still an issue. “It was a situation where [there was] too much expansion, not enough advice and we were still really struggling.”
Decades later, sitting on a tasteful cream couch outside the boardroom, Jenden can weave it into a story. He’s a born raconteur, his voice easy and familiar after years of peddling his product on radio and TV.
They were tough years but, as Jenden puts it, “desperation breeds inspiration”. Realising that New Zealanders wanted to buy the product directly, he started doing radio promotions in the mid-90s to sell directly to customers through phone orders.
The punters loved it, sales soared and Jenden thought about retail. He got out of the paint and roof resurfacing lines, opened a little factory shop in Albany in 2003 and kept expanding the range.
Along came products with jolly names like Ants In Ya Pants (ant control), Miss Muffet’s Revenge (spider control), Shower Witch (shower cleaner), War Paint (boat antifoul), Bugga Off (insect control) and I’m Pretty Dishy Darling (dishwasher powder). Jenden dreams up some of the names and his staff invent the rest.
“We don’t like to take ourselves too seriously so we like fun names.”
In 2010 the company opened its first standalone store in Hamilton, followed by Mt Wellington a year later. A decade on, there are 21 throughout the country employing more than 60 staff selling 50-odd products. (Two more are in the pipeline, this time dealing with odours – one for pet smells, the other for boots and shoes.)
Observers thought it was a slightly mad concept, opening standalone stores for cleaning products when they could be sold in big-box stores like Mitre 10 or Bunnings, and online.
Jenden shrugs that off. He’s a man with a winning formula. He doesn’t want untrained staff reading the back of a Wet & Forget bottle before instructing the customer what to do. His staff are highly trained and know how to sell.
“They know every detail of how it works and why it works, where it should and shouldn’t be used.”
The stores also help with R&D, acting as “the lab rat for the rest of the world”.
“We might change labels and formulas of a specific product two or three times in the first 12 months due to feedback from our customers.”
And he’s wily enough to know that when a client walks into one of his immaculate stores looking for shower cleaner, they are likely to leave with an armful of additional household products they’ve spotted. In any given area, the Wet & Forget stores sell more than twice as much as online sales.
There are plans for new Wet & Forget outlets plus stores-within-existing-stores in smaller rural areas. The company owns some of its retail sites, including the latest store that opened in Mt Eden last month. Dave Hookey, once a commercial rep for Wet & Forget, is the company’s retail operations manager, with the job of running the stores and finding commercial sites with good retail foot traffic.
The company’s new headquarters in Silverdale’s Emirali Rd is a case in point. It’s diagonally opposite where a new Mitre 10 Mega will open within walking distance of the Wet & Forget store.
The vast warehouse and production line is state of the art. Overhead, 56 cameras record everything that’s happening inside and out. If there’s an accident in a plant dealing with millions of litres of chemicals, Jenden wants to know exactly what happened and how to prevent it occurring again.
And if there is an accident, the warehouse is designed to be spill-tight. Its huge pre-stressed polished concrete floor is completely sealed, poured in one go from 2am until 5pm the following day. The result is a floor without cracks or joins, with raised buffer edges and stainless steel gutters to make sure nothing will seep sideways either.
With 2000 pallet bays, the warehouse is set up for dealing with impressive volumes. Jenden’s coy about giving too much away, particularly with pesky Spray-and-Walk-Away-type opposition sniffing around. “Don’t get me started,” he says.
He won’t reveal company turnover, and controls what the Herald is allowed to video on the production line. But he does say they are selling “millions and millions” of litres of Wet & Forget products through 20,000 outlets in the US.
And the company is exporting hundreds of containers of the Wet & Forget bottle nozzles to the US, a design that took them six months to perfect and is now made in Whanganui.
There’s nothing else with that squirt power or quality anywhere in the world, Jenden claims proudly.
Breaking into the American market was hard going; it took years before the product sold there in any volume.
“We used to go to these trade shows and we’d be lucky if we spoke to the janitor. Nobody wanted to know us. It was embarrassing.”
At one stage during the interview, Jenden starts singing. “It’s easy to apply, you can say goodbye,” he trills remarkably melodiously. “To all that moss and mould. It’s no sweat. It’s Wet & Forget.”
It’s a jingle that played all day at trade shows, including the Easter Show, sometimes from 10am until 10pm.
“It used to drive all the neighbours either side of us nuts. That’s all you could hear when you went to sleep.”
Now, Jenden sleeps easy. At 70, he has no plans to retire. He and Leigh still work fulltime. What would they do if they retired, he asks? Besides, they enjoy coming to work.
They’re good mates, he and Leigh. He calls her “my beautiful wife” and boasts that she is such a marvellous cook, she is publishing her own cookbook.
They’ve got four grown children and six grandchildren between them, all living in New Zealand. They lead a simple life, Jenden says: dinner with friends, time with the family, boating and fishing. He does admit to an impressive boot collection, saying “I must have been a cowboy in my last life”.
He’s lived at Whangaparāoa since 1976 when he borrowed almost the entire amount needed to buy his first house.
“The options were Māngere East, Manurewa or Whangaparāoa. I couldn’t work out what the catch was. Because I was contracting it didn’t really matter where I lived.”
He’s moved on since that first house. Seven years ago he and Leigh bought a double beachfront site at Arkles Bay and have built a large home. They keep a launch at Gulf Harbour Marina and have a new 20m sports Riviera on order.
They’ve travelled widely, exploring Europe or going on an African safari after attending annual trade shows in Las Vegas with their US team. None of the children are involved in the business but there is a succession plan.
“If I fell off my perch tomorrow nothing would change. We’ve made sure it would be relatively easy for somebody to step in and carry on.
“We now have a company which is relatively successful and we’re enjoying the benefits of 50-odd years of blimmin’ hard work.”
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