Business Monday

Q&A with frozen food mogul Robert E. ‘Bob’ Rich: ‘Perseverance is critical’

Rich Products’ CEO Robert ‘Bob’ Rich Jr. recently signed copies of his first novel, ‘Looking Through Water,’ in Islamorada.
Rich Products’ CEO Robert ‘Bob’ Rich Jr. recently signed copies of his first novel, ‘Looking Through Water,’ in Islamorada.

Frozen food mogul Robert E. “Bob” Rich Jr. is ranked No. 164 on the Forbes 400 list for 2015 with a net worth of $3.7 billion, but you would not have known it as he greeted people at a book signing for his first novel Looking Through Water in his adopted hometown of Islamorada.

Several times, he grabbed his smartphone from the table filled with books to show strangers pictures of a baby, his ninth grandchild.

And with most every book he signed at the event last month, Rich pointed out the gold circle on the cover that says: “Proceeds to benefit our veterans.”

Rich smiled, explaining: “I don’t need the proceeds. I’ve got a pretty good day job.”

Rich’s father, Robert E. Rich, Sr., began his foray into the food business in 1935 with the establishment of Wilber Farms Dairy. Rich said his dad had two milk trucks and a horse-drawn milk cart. After learning about research being conducted on soybeans that showed it could be used for innovative new food products, Rich Sr. used the vegetable as a replacement for whipped cream and invented Rich’s Whip Topping, the world’s first nondairy whipped topping.

In 1945, at the end of World War II, Rich’s dad used that landmark creation to start Rich Products Corp. in Buffalo, New York.

“Our first year sales were $28,000 for a whole year,” Rich Jr. said. “I think some guys spend more on that for a business dinner.”

Rich Jr. was about 4 at the time. As his dad grew the business by developing other revolutionary products including Coffee Rich, the nation’s first frozen, nondairy creamer, Rich Jr. grew up and went to Williams College. He starred on the hockey team and after graduation wanted a professional career that required wearing goalie pads. He was good enough to be drafted and become the backup goalie for the Buffalo Bisons, a minor-league team of the New York Rangers. He tried out for the 1964 U.S. Olympic hockey team. He was the last player cut.

On that same day his Olympic dreams were dashed, Rich Jr. said he got a call from the draft board. He spent several months on active duty with the Army National Guard before entering the family business as president of the company’s start-up subsidiary in Canada.

“I was on top of my game and I really thought I was going to make the Olympic team,” he said. “I was crushed when I didn’t, but you rebound. A lot of wonderful things happened after that. As you mature and get older, you know it. I thought I could be a better businessman than a goalie, and I think I proved that.”

Rich Jr. became president of the company in 1978 and led a global expansion. Today the company sells more than 2,000 products in about 112 countries, employing about 12,000 people. Its revenue this year will be about $3.5 billion, Rich Jr. said.

In 2006, when Rich Jr.’s father died, he assumed the chairmanship of Rich Products Corp. and became majority owner. He decided it was a good time to also give up the day-to-day operations and allow the “young people” to run the show while he continued to oversee the big picture. It would mean more time for his passions: fishing, writing, sports and spending time with his family, especially the grandkids.

He shared a few observations about his long career with the Miami Herald:

Q: Looking back at your long career in business, what do you think is your biggest key to success?

A: I used to think it was patience, whether it was in business or sports or fishing or writing. If you were really patient … But as I’ve gotten older, I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think I am a very patient person. I now think perseverance is critical. If something is worth doing, then don’t give up and just persevere.

I remember a lot of times in business, when we wanted an acquisition and it wasn’t going well, we would just persevere. In fishing, I wanted to catch a 1,000-pound black marlin. It took seven years, but I did it. In writing, I have painted my character in the latter part in the book into horrible situations: ‘Ah, how am I going to get them out of it?’ But if you persevere, things will work out.

Q: In 1990, after the company had been in business for 45 years primarily in the United States and Canada, the decision was made to expand into the global market. What guided the company during this transition?

A: We asked ourselves: To be a successful international company, what do we need? We really needed a set of defining principles to inform everybody throughout the company what we believed in and held to be sacred. One of the first things was to do the right thing no matter what. That comes down to a whole bunch of circumstances. It means you’re not cheating or cutting corners about your ingredients. You’re not lying about your taxes. You’re not bribing officials. You’re not doing things that could be injurious to people who work for you.

I’m not saying we were broken, but when companies go through growth spurts you have to make sure to get that all right. And when you get it right, guess what? I sleep like a log. I don’t worry. Now things can still happen, but we’ve mitigated the risk because we have people aligned around doing the right thing.

Q: Did you ever consider taking Rich Products Corp. public?

A: Our company started when my father came out of school in 1935, and this year it’s 2015. We’ve had two chairmen that have been head of the company and both share the same name. I’m one of them. We have the long-range continuity. We’re not worried about the short term; we’re not worried about quarterly earnings. We’re worried about investing money back in the company, and staying privately held, being a family business and doing the right thing.

Any thoughts of going public have always been quickly dashed. To go public, in many ways, is for short-term gains or the family lost interest or there was a need for capital. For us, none of those have been issues. We are well capitalized.

We also have a lot of families in the business not named Rich. We have people who have more family members in the company than I do. A big “ah ha” moment came when people say: ‘I get it. It’s a family business but they are not the only ones who benefit. They made a commitment not to sell; I’m not going to get a call to come to the cafeteria at 5 o’clock on Friday and be told my job is done, or have a lot of other horrible things happen to me that happen in publicly owned companies.’

Q: How has the business world changed?

A: When I came out of graduate school, and finished with the Army, all of our professors used to say: ‘Listen: the business of business is business. Don’t worry about anything else. Create shareholder value, and to hell with everything else and to hell with everybody else.’ Thankfully, those days are gone. You have to care about issues. You have to care about the environment. You have to care about your communities. If Rich’s headquarters in Buffalo is the shining castle on the mountain and everybody around us is living in abject failure, we’d fail. You have to make very local commitments, and make global commitments.

Q: What is your role today as chairman?

A: At the end of the day, I’m still responsible for the business, and I love it. It may sound like a terrible word, but for a lack of a better word, I was groomed to do this. My father and I became business partners and this was going to be my destiny to do this. And happily I liked what I was doing.

My job is to look over the overall welfare of the company, which includes how much money we spend, how much money we take in, what are our annual budgets, what acquisitions we make, what countries we enter, what the rules of the road are that we set up. Quite a group of things.

I also do a whole basket of ceremonial things. We did a round the world trip, stopping in about 10 manufacturing facilities between China and North and South Vietnam and India.

Internationally, people love to see somebody whose name is on the door. The old-timers are revered. They don’t kick you to the curb. So it’s nice to do those things. I think it is reassuring to people. I know my role. I’ve gone from being the young buck, the hell on wheels, to now I’m maybe more the grandfatherly guy, but I’m comfortable with that.

Robert E. Rich, Jr.

Position: Chairman of Rich Products Corp.

Career: In 1964, Rich began his career in the family business — which was founded by his father Robert E. Rich, Sr. — by running a start-up subsidiary, Rich Products of Canada. In 1969, Rich Jr. started the company’s sales and marketing department. In 1978, he was named president of the company. In 2006, when his father died in Palm Beach, Rich Jr. assumed the chairmanship.

Rich Jr. also owns three minor league baseball teams and is chairman of Cleveland Clinic. He has also has been an owner of the Buffalo Sabres NHL team, vice chairman of the International Game Fish Association and president of the Bedlington Terriers football team in the United Kingdom. He currently owns two popular restaurants in the Keys, the Green Turtle Inn and Kaiyo Grill & Sushi.

Books: He has written three nonfiction books: “Fish Fights: A Hall of Fame Quest,” “The Fishing Club: Brothers and Sisters of the Angle” and The Right Angle: Tales from a Sporting Life,” and co-authored, with Scott Friedman, a fourth: “Secrets of the Delphi Café: Unlocking the Code to Happiness.” He just completed his first novel, “Looking through Water,” which takes place primarily in Islamorada.

Education: Graduated from Williams College in 1963 with a Bachelor of Arts. Earned an MBA in 1969 from the University of Rochester Simon School of Business.

Personal: Resides in Islamorada with his wife, Mindy, who is vice chairman of Rich Products. He has four children and nine grandchildren.