Sanity and Sanitizer | The Story of Purell

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S1: David Owen and I’m a staff writer at The New Yorker. And as far as I know, I don’t have the Corona virus several years back.

S2: David O. And got to tour the headquarters of the company that makes Purell.

S3: All the employees have little bottles of Purell hanging from their belts, almost all of them. There’s Purell on every desk. And it’s all seem sort of unnecessary because as you walk, you can barely walk 10 feet without passing the dispenser.

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S4: David Story about Purell ran in The New Yorker in 2013. Back then, pandemics weren’t top of mind for most Americans. It turned out the people who make Purell were way ahead of the curve when it came to antiviral hygiene.

S3: I think the thing that struck me about everybody I met there and people are constantly rubbing their hands and, you know, they squirt some Purell into their hands and they’d be rubbing in people with very, very clean hands in that company. I’m sure not to touch any surface there and not have any concern at all about that. You were picking up any kind of infectious agent. There’s got to be one of the cleanest places around. And in fact, they have a very low employee absentee rate for that very reason. They just don’t get colds as often as people typically do.

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S4: Of course, these days, it’s not just manufacturers of hand sanitizer who are acutely aware of the importance of keeping clean.

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S3: Go to the grocery store and feel self-conscious about using the Purell dispenser by the door. Now, now, I don’t.

S5: Purell was invented in 1988, and for the first decade of its existence, the product lost money. People didn’t see any reason to buy a special goop for cleaning their hands. Pure oil eventually became profitable. But nothing in its history compared to what happened when Cauvin, 19, arrived in the world. People were suddenly willing to pay exorbitant sums for even small amounts of Purell.

S1: A friend of mine spent 80 dollars a month ago to get two little tiny bottles of it shipped to him, and they actually came. But it’s, you know, it’s like he bought maybe ten dollars worth of Purell for 80 dollars an ounce. He says it’s much too valuable to actually use, you know.

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S5: In response to what they call a dramatic expansion in demand, the makers of Purell say they’ve ramped up their manufacturing. They’re operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week in order to meet the world’s newly insatiable craving for hand sanitization.

S6: Before this pandemic, the story of pure oil was mostly a story about innovation, about inventing something people needed before they realized they needed it. Now it’s a story about something every business executive dreams of a sudden influx of customers desperate to get their hands on your products. But what happens when demand for a product surges so fast that the leading brand can’t produce enough of it? You get scarcity and price gouging and other companies jump in to fill the gap. Business wise, it might seem like the corona virus is the best thing that ever happened to. But when life returns to some level of normalcy, pure oil might discover that this moment has brought a whole raft of new competitors, rivals born of necessity and honed in a time of crisis. Will there still be enough unclean hands to go around? I’m Seth Stevenson. Welcome to Thrilling Tales of Modern Capitals.

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S7: Today on the show, Sanity and Sanitiser, The Story of Puro.

S4: The Ohio based company that makes pure was founded in 1946. It’s called Gojo, named for its co-founders Goldie Lipmann, and her husband, Jerry Lipman.

S3: Goldie had worked in a rubber plant in a rubber plant. People hands get filthy, especially during the Second World War. And the workers are cleaning their hands with benzene, which you don’t even want to be near washing your hands with it. And the women especially hated what it did to their skin. So Goldie and Gerri came up with this hand cleaner that was not it didn’t give you cancer, didn’t burn your skin off.

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S2: And you’re still seeing that product called Gojo is a heavy duty hand cleaner that’s used to this day in places like car repair shops where workers hands get covered in thick grease and oil.

S4: Go just hand cleaner was invented with the help of a chemistry professor at Kent State back in the early days, Goldie and Jerry would mix up batches of it in a washing machine. Then they’d bottle it in old pickle jars they’d get from local restaurants. Jerry was the salesman of the pair.

S3: And the way that he would sell it, he would go around. He’d put a lot of it in his hand before he went to pitch the product to a garage owner. And when they shook hands, the owner would get a big glob of Gojo on his hand, which he would then wipe off it as he wiped it off. He would see that his hand was coming clean, sometimes for the first time in years.

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S4: Jerry created a dispenser that garages could bounce on their walls. It doled out dollops of Gojo whenever a worker needed them. Jerry got a patent for this device in 1952, and the company claims his invention is the ancestor of every wall mounted soap dispenser in the world today. Heavy duty hand cleaner was the company’s staple product for decades. In the 1970s, Jerry and Goldies nephew Joe Kanfer took over as CEO of Gojo, and it was Kanfer who presided over the development of a new kind of hand sanitizing gel, one that was less boop than Gojo, as previous products was meant to clean off germs, not motor oil.

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S8: Kanfer called this new product pure out.

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S5: It took a year and a half to perfected the current formulation of pure oil is about 70 percent ethyl alcohol, with some emollients thrown in to make it easy on your skin and some fragrance to make it smell nice. Pure oils development phase was complete by 1988, but Kanfer told David Owen that it took quite a while for it to catch on.

S1: It was a product that nobody knew they wanted until they had it.

S5: Pure ales. Early adopters were mostly healthcare professionals. Doctors and nurses discovered that it was a more convenient and efficient way to clean their hands. They didn’t need to stand over a sink for 20 seconds. They could just squirt some Purell into their palms and rub them together while they were walking to their next appointment. Pure Oil also had another advantage over soap. It was gentler on skin.

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S1: When it really took off was when nurses who liked it began asking for bottles for themselves.

S5: Joe Kaffirs wife started getting calls from some of these nurses.

S1: She told him, she said, you know, nobody ever calls me about anything else that the company makes.

S5: So I think this product has a future for finally introduce Purell to the wider consumer marketplace. In 1997, almost a decade after its invention, here’s an ad from that era, an ugly journey.

S9: Catch it. And it could really get ugly. And the worst part is germs live on all kinds of things, even things we touch every day. But now there’s Purell, instant hand sanitizer. Purell is clinically proven to kill germs on your hands.

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S6: That may cause disease without water or towels. So use it off at any time, any place.

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S5: In 2002, the Center for Disease Control endorsed alcohol based hand drugs as an effective way to fight germs. And that was the benediction that pure needed. Sales steadily grew as Puro bottles made their way into soccer moms. Purses and Purell dispensers popped up at large gatherings of all kinds. The military became an important customer, as did other big institutions.

S10: It’s no wonder Purell is the number one brand trusted by hospitals and moms, because we all know it’s about more than health. It’s about showing you care.

S5: Gojo says Purell is the number one selling hand sanitizer in America, which is maybe not surprising since it’s the product that created the category 74 years after its founding. Gojo remains a tightly held family owned company. It doesn’t release its sales numbers, but at least one estimate suggests that Go Johs revenue in 2018 was around 370 million dollars and that the company was worth around one billion dollars. But that was before covered 19.

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S2: Gojo says it has an in-house group that monitors public health situations around the world. The company became aware of this new emerging corona virus pathogen in December and immediately activated what it calls its demand surge preparedness team. They may not have been able to predict the course of the Koven epidemic, but they knew one thing. When people heard about a deadly new germ that was spreading around the world, they would start hoarding hand sanitizer. And that’s just what happened.

S10: Well, if you’ve tried shopping for soap, hand sanitizer or a mask, there is a run on all these products and the price gouging has begun.

S2: This morning, sold out Corona virus, driving a consumer scramble for hand sanitizers. Matt Coleman bought 18000 bottles of sanitizer after the U.S. saw the first Corona virus death. Amazon took down his listings after some were posted at 70 dollars each. The Food and Drug Administration has tight rules about the claims companies can make when it comes to fighting diseases. And Gaudreau isn’t allowed to say that Purell is effective in killing the coronavirus. But the company doesn’t really need to. The CDC recommends using hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available and pure oil is so deeply associated with fighting germs in consumers minds that plenty of them made the connection themselves. Gaudreau hasn’t released any hard numbers, but they say they started ramping up Purell production in January, adding workers operating around the clock and moving product at a record pace. The bulk of that product has been reserved for health care workers and first responders around the country. People who need to clean their hands while on the move. Dojo says it will make Pierro available to places like convenience stores where regular consumers can buy some quote when it is able. Which leaves a gap in the marketplace. That gap has led to some price gouging with bottles of Purell selling for obscene prices online. But it’s also led to new competition.

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S11: I remember the staff meeting that we were and when I brought it up to everybody. And the reason we brought it up was because we couldn’t find any.

S6: Matt Cunningham is the co-founder of the Old Glory Liquor Distillery in Clarksville, Tennessee. About 45 minutes north of Nashville, he makes bourbon and whisky and other spirits. And they also host things like weddings and their events, things. Early on in the Corona virus crisis, Matt was having trouble finding any hand sanitizer for himself or for his employees. So he wondered if they could just manufacture some hints. Incisor is mostly alcohol, and a distillery knows plenty about that. He started looking into it.

S5: So how tough was it to figure out a recipe for a hand sanitizer? How complicated is the process of making it?

S11: A lot easier than making whiskey, to be honest. When the World Health Organization issued the guidelines, they were very specific on what those ingredients could be. That went into this specific formula that we’re allowed to use. The FDA followed up with the exact same. And so its ethanol, glycerin and hydrogen peroxide, very simple.

S5: The harder part was packaging and distributing it. He managed to convert old Glory’s liquor bottling line and use it to bottle their new hand sanitizer instead. But when it came to shipping those bottles, it turned out to be more complicated and regulated.

S11: We didn’t really think about it, but we I guess we knew it after we brought it up. The product that we’re shipping now is flammable. That’s very flammable. It’s 80 percent ethanol, 85 ethanol, which you pump at the gas station is 85 percent. And this hand sanitizers, 80 percent. And so it is a flammable product that we’re shipping for different areas where we’re shipping more than, let’s say, more than a gallon that more than a gallon is considered. Has that shipment.

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S5: Wait, so if I squeezed a little this into a spoon and took a lighter. Can I just light it on fire?

S11: Yeah, no question. It would light up quicker. And gas.

S6: At first, they donated their hand sanitizer to local first responders and health care workers in Tennessee. But soon they were getting requests from all over the country and from businesses, too. At that point, they couldn’t afford to keep giving it away, so they started charging. The mayor says it’s a below market price. They’ve gotten so many orders that they’ve had to double their staff to keep up. How much have you made in total so far?

S12: Oh, gosh. Quick math. We’re we’re probably getting close to 15000 gallons. You know, most people have had to lay people off, and we’re very fortunate that we’ve had the opposite. You know, we’ve had to hire more people to make this happen. So it would have feel very, very fortunate that there.

S6: So the hand sanitizer business is keeping that people employed and even creating new jobs. And it’s easier to make sanitiser than whiskey. It’s a quicker process. And he’s already got all the tanks and special equipment he needs. And although there would usually be a lot of regulatory hurdles involved in making a product like this, in this case, because of the crisis, the FDA slashed the time it took to get approval. So no problems there.

S8: Huh? All this made me wonder something.

S5: If and when things go back to some kind of normal, will you keep making some hand sanitizer? I mean, could you see this as an as a new business for you or is this strictly a temporary thing?

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S11: It’s been a really fun conversation to have when you go home with a dinner table. Right now, we don’t have a definitive plan to do that. But as this goes on, we don’t think that hand sanitizer is going to go away. We know this product that was something that you saw sporadically is now something that’s going to be a staple and it’s maybe something that we look into keeping around in the long term.

S5: What are the margins like? Is this something that could be a successful business for you if you wanted it to be?

S11: We would definitely need to get our cost down. Right now, it is a profitable products for us, one that is kind of stepped in to fill in where our events have been canceled and our gift shop traffic has essentially died completely. But if it is something that we were to stick with, I think, you know, we’re pretty good at what we do on the liquor side as far as our Costco. So I think we could price on the same cost, get them down, get the margins right.

S13: So this pandemic has sent hand sanitizer demand through the roof. And that might be a lasting effects if we keep cleaning our hands with great frequency even after the virus feeds.

S4: This is great for Purell. Gojo invented this product that’s turned out to be incredibly useful in a moment of crisis, and the market is rewarding them for it.

S13: But a rising tide can lift a lot of boats. The barriers to entry to the hand sanitizer market aren’t very high right now. Demand is soaring. Regulation is eased. And Matt Cunningham is far from the only person to have the idea of pivoting to hand sanitizer.

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S4: Plenty of others are having a go to, including lots of other liquor distillers, big and small, and also some fragrance makers, and even Kylie Jenner, the world’s youngest billionaire who’s helping to convert a cosmetics factory for the purpose. So what happens if the tie goes back out and demand slows down a bit? We’ll prl maintain its dominance in this category. Will one of these upstarts, born in a moment of need, turn out to have staying power? It’ll be a challenge for the newcomers. Bureau had a long head start and built a brand so strong that, like Kleenex, its name is synonymous with its category. But Matt Cunningham thinks he’s got at least one advantage.

S12: To be honest, the aroma of ours is much more pleasing to me. It’s an ethanol base that really kind of smells like the distillery. We’re making whiskey. And so I love that little bit different than the chemically smell that you get from hand sanitizer sometimes.

S4: How would you feel if it turned out that you were a more successful hand sanitizer company than than liquor company?

S12: You know how things work out and weird ways. Sometimes we’ll see that happening. But if it does, then how exciting and how awesome that we’ve been able to build a brand on something that was able to help hopefully so many people out during a time when obviously is a sadly historic time. And so if that’s the way it works out, then then, hey, that’s all right.

S13: That’s our show for this week. This episode was produced by Just Miller with help from OSHA’s Lucja and Meghan Karlstrom, our technical director is Merritt Jacob. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. Jay Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. If you like this show, leave us a review and I choose it helps other listeners find our ship. And you can also help support us by signing up for Slate. Plus, Slate works hard to bring you great journalism and podcasts like this one.

S4: And right now we need your help. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you’ll get this and other Slate podcasts ad free. Sign up now at Slate dot com slash. Thrilling. Plus, I’m Seth Stevenson. More thrilling tales. Next week.