Bob Rich Interview: American Food Tycoon, Australian Marlin Fisherman Keeps 'The Right Angle'
Image attributed to Bob Rich
As chairman of Rich Products Corporation, Robert (Bob) E. Rich, Jr. has led the largest family-owned frozen foods manufacturer in the United States to more than $2.4 billion in worldwide sales revenue. His father, Robert E. Rich, Sr. founded Rich Products after World War II with the invention of the first non-dairy (soy) whipped topping.
Rich’s posts annual sales exceeding $2.64 billion, employs more than 7,500 people worldwide, and sells a variety of products to 73 countries. Product categories include: toppings, icings, fillings and finishers, appetizers, cakes and desserts, shrimp and seafood, breads and rolls, barbecue, sweet goods, beverages, pizza products, and Italian specialties.
"You have two commodities – your money and your time. I think time becomes the greatest gift to all of us so that we can have time to spend with the people we like."
In 1983, Rich Products purchased the Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball team, the AAA affiliate of the New York Mets, and last year, Rich sponsored the Bedlington Terriers, a football club based in Bedlington, England after his wife purchased the title of Lord Bedlington for him as a gift.
An avid sportsman and fisherman, Rich has written four books: The Fishing Club: Brothers and Sisters of the Angle, Fish Fights: A Hall of Fame Quest, Secrets From the Delphi Café: Unlocking the Code to Happiness, and his latest, The Right Angle: Tales From a Sporting Life.
Rich is married and has four children. His wife, Mindy, is Vice Chairman of Rich Products and has been with the company over 24 years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bob, are you at your home in Florida, today?
Bob Rich: No, I’m in West Virginia. We have a great getaway home here.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How’s the weather?
Bob Rich: It’s much better than Florida. I hear it’s just horrific and the local high school cancelled classes today. There are a bunch of little mini tornadoes going through so it’s a mess.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m in Birmingham, Alabama and we’re having a chilly day.
Bob Rich: Yeah, well, I noticed you speak the King’s English a little bit (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Right (laughs). Let me ask, what inspired you to write books?
Bob Rich: I think it’s one of those right brain/left brain things. While I’ve had a great career in business, much of my education was Liberal Arts and I love English. I love to read and love the way words fit together. I love chatting with people who use English properly, so I thought if I had some time I’d write. The Right Angle was my fourth book, and it was a lot of fun.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I spoke with Henry Winkler recently and he wrote I Never Met an Idiot on the River.
Bob Rich: I read your interview. He’s got to be great. I didn’t know he was dyslexic. I thought that was very interesting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, he struggled with that his whole life. You and he share the philosophy of catch and release. For you, is that for humane purposes or for sport?
Bob Rich: I think what’s happened, Melissa, is that many of us who love to fish have realized over time that we are talking about a finite supply of opponents and that we really have to protect the species. I have a friend who always asks, “You wouldn’t need your golf balls, would you?” I think it’s the same thing. I think all of us are realizing that catch and release is vital to the species we’re after so I guess it’s self-serving.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was there a time, when you were wrestling with the 1,100-pound marlin off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that you thought you might not land him?
Bob Rich: Oh, you heard about that (laughs). One of the reasons we were able to catch him so quickly, Melissa, is that he came right at the boat. If you saw the video, when he jumped he started swimming right at the boat. When that happened, the line really went slack and it was just that horrible feeling all anglers have when you think your quarry might be off the hook, but we got it tight. He had enough left to still charge the boat, which was kind of exciting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I heard that was an item on your bucket list.
Bob Rich: It was. I’ve been after that fish for a long time. We do many different kinds of fishing, but every year I try to get at least a couple of days when I can go out. It sounds sexist, but I have to refer to the fish as “her” because the male marlin only get to be about 300 pounds, so you pretty well know the big ones are female. It’s ironic that I talked about that quest for a Black Marlin Grander in The Right Angle a year later, and right after the book was published, I actually found the fish. I guess I’ll have to write another book.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are some other “wishes” on the bucket list?
Bob Rich: I think one of them is more fishing. Another is more time with my grandchildren. That’s one of the more important ones. Everybody talks about immortality, and I think that all of us who fish will never forget our first fish and who we caught it with. In the majority of times, it’s a grandmother or grandfather, so I think taking your grandchildren out and spending time with them in the outdoors is a way to gain a small degree of immortality with at least one person.
I have eight grandchildren, and I’ve been with them all when they’ve caught their first fish. That was part of my bucket list. But, I just want to get to know them better as people, too, so that’s become very important to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Should I now call you my lordship?
Bob Rich: I’d like to see Bedlington win a championship also (laughs). We took a sponsorship, and it was rather whimsical. I got to know the people there, and they’ve been just great. They’ve been very good to me. By the way, they all call me just plain “Bob” which is good for me.
One of the ironies of that whole story is that, after the story appeared on the front page of The New York Times, we got many calls from Hollywood. We ended up choosing an agent, and we now have a producer and they’ve written a screenplay. They’re turning that story into a movie as well. That story comes right out of The Right Angle. My first book, Fish Fights, is being turned into a film also. I’ve written four books, and two movies are already coming out of them, so that’s pretty exciting for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was an interesting story about the filming of Academy Award nominated The Natural (1984) in Buffalo, New York. I can’t believe your son didn’t pursue an acting career after he landed the role of Robert Redford’s son.
Bob Rich: Well, he waited by the phone for a while. Hollywood is rather secretive about what they’re working on. The location director’s name was Mel Bourne, and it turned out he was Woody Allen’s location director also. When Mel called, none of us knew who he was. I remember asking our Buffalo Bisons’s marketing director if he could find out who the actors were, thinking we could be doing a porn movie or something (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mel Bourne?
Bob Rich: Yeah (laughs). It was too surreal. He came back and said, “They don’t have any women lined up, but the star is Robert Redford.” That was time to send the limo to the airport.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yeah, all I would need to hear would be “Robert Redford.”
Bob Rich: He’s such a luminary. What a career he’s had!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, and I always thought he’d be great in politics. Have you ever thought about running for public office?
Bob Rich: I’d be the worst politician in the world. I have horrific problems with authority figures. I think I’m too candid. I wouldn’t last a day in politics.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s just say you did run and were elected president. What would be the first think you’d do to help the economy?
Bob Rich: I think the answers are fairly simple. You talk to a lot of business people like myself, and they’ll tell you that their businesses are doing very well, and that we’re enjoying great growth in jobs, revenue, sales and profits. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the growth is coming outside the United States. I don’t think you have to be a president to do this. I think that we are on a bad course as far as balance of trade. We’ve become everybody’s favorite market, and we haven’t done enough to grow in our own markets abroad.
We’re like the benevolent godfather with many countries, and we’re happy to take in their goods. We don’t fight hard enough for our goods. If we could do that, we could stimulate demand. At the end of the day, what’s going on right now with TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) and bailouts arguably hasn’t worked at all. It’s not creating demand for goods. It’s really forcing companies like ourselves to look other places. So, that would be the first thing I’d do, Melissa, without a doubt. What I’m saying really is you’ve got to balance trade.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you feel that Obama has been a good president?
Bob Rich: I think I’d better stay out of that (laughs). There are things that we could have been doing that we haven’t been doing. It comes down to leadership.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of leaders, tell me about your dad.
Bob Rich: He was great, but tough, and in a very different generation. First of all, he was very competitive and much of it was rooted in sports. That why in The Right Angle I really tried … it’s a bit autobiographical. But, a lot of it is about sports and how sports impacted my life. Much of that comes from my father. In his generation, he and his peers really measured success if their children came into business and really succeeded in what they were doing.
I think that his generation had tremendous desires to have the children follow in their footsteps, whether it was being a doctor, a businessman, or artist. That’s a bygone era now. All of us as parents are now more interested in seeing our children find happiness in their own fields, and that’s very healthy. In the case of my dad, I was just lucky that I shared the love of business with him. In later parts of our lives, I felt like we were more business partners rather than father and son.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Robert Rich, Sr. invented the first non-dairy whipped topping made from soybeans. He faced lawsuits from the dairy industry in an effort to stop distribution of his product. What are some of the other struggles he faced while building his business?
Bob Rich: First of all, many of the early things we did flew right in the face of the dairy lobby. Picking up on one of your points, having the courage to stand up and fight legal battles (especially as a defendant) was one of the critical things. There were many times that he could have gone a different route, but he fought for his rights. I think that was a huge part of our company’s success.
The other thing that entrepreneurs always struggle with is that you’re always under capitalized. You’re always scraping to get backing to grow the business and take advantage of the opportunities. That was a major battle. We had to change attitudes also on products being part of a frozen food industry where some of the earlier entrees that were served up were just not very good. But, it was an alternative. You know, the technology came along so far that it gave frozen foods a seat at the table (excuse the bad pun) when you could guarantee freshness. My father was a fighter, and it was critical to our success.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your wife, Mindy, is Vice Chairman of Rich Products. Do the two of you run into problems working with each other?
Bob Rich: No. First of all, we both grew up in family businesses. Ironically, both businesses were heavy into baking so we both understood the business. Secondly, in the growth business, I think you have enough going on that you can kind of carve out the areas of interest that you have so that you’re not tripping over each other all the time.
I am very comfortable in the things that Mindy is doing, that she is handling the questions the way I would, or in many cases much more creatively than I would. We’ve kind of continued a relationship I had with my father. We may disagree on things, but it’s always behind closed doors. When we emerge, there is one decision and we both stand up for it regardless of whose idea it was.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You present a united front.
Bob Rich: Absolutely. I think that’s important. I grew up in an environment where I was introducing new things to the company. We’d be in a meeting and all that my father had to do was raise one eyebrow, and my program was dead. Mindy has had similar experiences, so we know how that works.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bob, how do you balance all that you do – work, sports, family?
Bob Rich: Sometimes I don’t. It’s difficult and challenging. I guess maybe in many ways I have a short attention span. I need to fill up my dance card. I need to keep busy. I’ve given up the day-to-day management of our company to a chosen successor, but I really feel I need many things going on all at once. That was one of the things that motivated me to become chairman of the Cleveland Clinic too. It was just a very exciting opportunity in healthcare and to work with a very good friend of mine who runs the clinic. I guess, like many people, Melissa, I have trouble saying no.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever been approached about doing a documentary of your life?
Bob Rich: I’ve been approached about that and about doing a business book also. But, for me, it smacks too much of self-aggrandizement. It’s too much like, “I did this and I did that.” One year, we bought an autobiography opportunity for my father for Christmas where he could write one. He did that, and it was fun, but all the way through I remember him complaining that, while he appreciated the gift, his life wasn’t over yet. I feel that way also. I think the minute you stop and do something like that, it’s kind of saying, “I’m done for now.” So I turned that opportunity down.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As of September 2011, I believe you were worth $2.1 billion.
Bob Rich: That’s what they tell me (laughs). We call Forbes “the liar’s club.” Half the people lie to get on the list, and half the people lie to not get on the list. Who knows whose who?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Other than a lordship, what does someone give you for Christmas?
Bob Rich: You have two commodities – your money and your time. I think time becomes the greatest gift to all of us so that we can have time to spend with the people we like. The lordship was funny. We just got a big kick out of that. But, it ended up more being an opportunity to do something for the people in the town of Bedlington where they’d lost their mining and their self-esteem as well as jobs. We’ve been able to really help out some good people, and that’s what that story is all about. I think that’s how Hollywood is going to treat it too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): After leading Rich Products all of these years, have you ever wished you had become a professional athlete instead or wished your life had gone in another direction?
Bob Rich: I look back, and I’ve been blessed to have been able to do many things. I think my father realized that was a great gift for me. When I was coming out of college, I thought I was going to be the greatest hockey player in the world, and he gave me the chance to pursue that. I ended up getting cut from the Olympic team. That was fine, but as a result, I have no regrets.
I’ve tried to think of that with my children also, to just let them follow their dreams. The Right Angle tells many stories from many different parts of my life. I guess that’s as close to an autobiography as I’d want to come.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your children out there in the business world also?
Bob Rich: Yeah, three out of four have chosen to come into the business. The fourth works with children and is a Lacrosse Coach. I have four children and eight grandchildren.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Wow, it does take some time and energy to keep up with eight grandchildren.
Bob Rich: It sure does, but we’re fortunate that we spend a lot of time together. We vacation together, too, so it’s all good.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bob, thanks for the time today.
Bob Rich: Melissa, you’re great, and I want to thank you for caring about this. Obviously, you took the time to read up on some of this stuff. It sure makes it nice for someone like me to talk to somebody who’s done her homework. I’m sure that’s why Smashing Interviews is a great success and will become even bigger!
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