Change or Die: How Diversification Keeps Ziebart Thriving After 60+ Years Why Innovation Never Has a Stop Date
In 1959, inventor and entrepreneur Kurt Ziebart invented a new automotive protective product, creating buzz and sparking public interest in the budding automotive aftermarket services category. Ziebart’s groundbreaking rustproofing invention put the company on the map and set the stage for what would be decades of continued innovation.
The creative ingenuity behind the brand’s first service is ingrained in the company’s culture. Innovation, invention and problem-solving not only continues to protect the millions of vehicles Ziebart services, but also protects the brand’s own legacy.
When I joined the company in 1976, we offered our original rustproofing and a few protection products. Though Ziebart’s customer base was expanding and the company was enjoying strong financial performance, the market had started to change. New trends were introduced. The brand itself was at a crossroads; either continue to sell the same products to a new generation of car owners or take on the task of reinvention. I knew it was time for the company to make a real change.
Then, during a 1990s company conference, I firmly declared to our devoted franchisees: “Ladies and gentleman, we have to change … or die!” The words were startling at first, but to my pleasant surprise, our franchisees and company leaders quickly shifted gears toward reinventing the brand to meet the current needs of our clients. With the motto solidified in Ziebart’s history, I stepped into the role of company president; focused on the goal of diversification.
Over the next few decades, Ziebart transformed into a multi-service solutions car care provider. In addition to the original rustproofing service, new appearance and protection services were rolled out, including interior detailing, paint protection and correction, window tinting, spray-on bed liners, windshield coating, undercoating and more.
But here’s the most important part: We are not done, and we will never be done, because innovation doesn’t have a stop date.
Weaving Innovation into Company DNA
Incorporating new products and services was only half the battle. The real test of character for the company was that of advancement in the industry. The ‘Change or Die’ motto never left us; it spurred us on to solve new problems for car owners. Our customers have always relied on us to keep up with their lifestyles as they purchase newer vehicle models – with varying maintenance needs. If we aren’t prepared to offer a unique experience to each customer, we aren’t fulfilling our duty. We pride ourselves on our ability to offer products that represent all car owners.
More than the products and services, Ziebart’s devotion to research and reinvention is made possible by the people behind the brand. The company’s success is attributed to our carefully curated team of experts. I believe so fervently in our people that in 1994, I helped champion the employee buyout from the previous owners as an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan). This was a huge success for the brand and its people. Employee owners lend to an even greater pride in the company’s success – everyone is pursuing the same goal, and that’s truly something to celebrate. From its executive leaders, to researchers and developers, to individual franchise owners, the hardworking Ziebart team continues to adapt based on brand goals and consumer trends.
A New Generation of Innovators
Looking to the future, I made it my mission to prepare Ziebart for what lies ahead and to set clear goals for how we will continue to lead the automotive aftermarket service industry for decades to come. The industry itself is expected to reach $477 billion by 2024. With so much expected industry growth, I knew I needed to prepare the company for its next chapter as I transitioned to a chairman role. Part of that preparation came in the form of readying and confirming a leader to take my place as president of the company.
The Ziebart Board of Directors recently passed the baton of president/CEO to my son Thomas A. Wolfe, and one of the main lessons he will carry into his leadership role is the importance of constant innovation as a focus.
As I think back to that company conference over 30 years ago, I am so proud to say that we challenged ourselves to change while protecting the legacy of the Ziebart brand. Kurt Ziebart may not have created all of the products we sell today, but his passion for meeting the needs of the public continues at Ziebart today.
Thomas E. Wolfe was recently named Chairman of the Board of Ziebart International Corporation in March of 2022, previously acting as President and CEO since 1994. Prior to that, he served for four years as Executive Vice President and CFO.
Tom is currently a member of the International Franchise Association and the Detroit Athletic Club, for which he served on the Board of Directors from 1994 to 2000, serving as President in 2000. He is a past member of the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants and American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. He has also served as Trustee of the Eastern Michigan University Foundation, on the School of Business Advisory Committee at Eastern and on Oakland University’s School of Business Advisory Marketing Committee.