Bob Rich Interview: "Looking Through Water: A Novel" Explores the Intricate Tapestry of Family Relationships
Image attributed to Bob Rich
Robert E. “Bob” Rich, Jr. is the Chairman of Rich Products Corporation which is the largest family-owned frozen food manufacturer in the United States, making its mark with the first nondairy whipped cream. He owns three minor league baseball teams, and the Islamorada, Florida resident is a member of the South Florida Fishing Hall of Fame. Together with his wife, Melinda (Mindy), the food magnate is the founder of Rich Entertainment Group which produces theatrical entertainment.
In addition to authoring several non-fiction books, Rich has written his first novel, Looking Through Water: A Novel, which explores the complex waters of familial relationships, the bond between several generations of men and the incredible transformations that can take place on the water while waiting for a fish. The book was released November 3, 2015.
"I have great memories of fishing with my father. I went out with my grandfather and my father. For an older person, of which I’m now in that category, you now have a chance for that one day of immortality when your grandchild will always remember who he or she caught their first fish with. For many people, that may be the only thing they remember about their grandparents. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been with all eight of my grandchildren when they caught their first fish. That’s a wonderful memory for me."
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bob, it’s great to talk to you again!
Bob Rich: How are you, Melissa? Catch me up. It has been four years since we chatted last. Is all well with you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very well, Bob, thanks. How about you?
Bob Rich: I’ve been busy as can be. We’re having a ball. Life is good. We’ve been blessed, and we’re just having fun. I have a new book just out and a new play that opened on Broadway. Everything’s good right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any shark attacks down your way in Islamorada?
Bob Rich: They’ve been up north and closer to the the Palm Beaches. In the Keys, we don’t have any issues at all this year. I’m knocking on wood as we speak.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found your novel very entertaining.
Bob Rich: Oh you’ve read it? Thank you! Would you call it a novel or a novella?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Perhaps I would call it a novella.
Bob Rich: Yeah. It’s a short read, isn’t it?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Short, but definitely a page turner and as much a story about family relationships as a fishing tale. As my dad used to say, “It’s not just about catching fish.” What does fishing mean to you, Bob?
Bob Rich: Well, I wrote a book about the subject, and it was my third book called The Fishing Club. I took fourteen anglers aside and asked them why they went out there, what the lure was. Believe it or not, I came up with fourteen different answers. I realized, first of all, that it’s life itself. It’s about opportunities for hope. You hope that you’re not going to get caught in a lightening storm. You hope that you’re not going to drown, and you hope you’re going to catch a fish.
It’s that kind of never-ending opportunity for moments of hope. But to your question. For me, on one day it can mean comradery like going out with a friend or family member, and another day it can mean solitude and being by myself, not talking or having to answer to anybody. I think the composite answer is that the fourteen anglers are probably right. It means different things on different days.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know the book is fiction, but is there any part of the story that is autobiographical?
Bob Rich: First of all, not only is it my first novel, but it was an attempt to get away from fishing genre books and really make a kind of crossover into the general area of a larger audience that reads novels. But fishing is such a great allegorical backdrop that I had to work it in (laughs).
Secondly Melissa, a lot of people have read it and said, “This is an autobiography.” Really it is not. This is totally fiction. I met the composites of many of the characters in the book. I’ve known the people that I wrote about, but they’re usually a composite of a bunch of people that I’ve known. So for me, it really is a chance to break away from the constraints of factual non-fiction and really exercise some more creativity.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you and your dad fish together?
Bob Rich: Oh sure. I have great memories of fishing with my father. I went out with my grandfather and my father. For an older person, of which I’m now in that category, you now have a chance for that one day of immortality when your grandchild will always remember who he or she caught their first fish with. For many people, that may be the only thing they remember about their grandparents. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been with all eight of my grandchildren when they caught their first fish. That’s a wonderful memory for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the book, the protagonist has a harrowing experience at Cay Sal Bank. Was it really a place where drug smugglers load drugs to other boats, and does it hold a particular significance for you?
Bob Rich: It was, but I have no personal knowledge of that, Melissa (laughs). But Cay Sal Bank is about sixty miles out. It’s just a strip of land kind of in between the United States and Cuba and the Bahamas, so it was a great place where, legend has it, smugglers used to offload drugs or what have you.
It’s kind of a mystery place, and it’s also far enough away that you’re not going to have any weekend boat traffic around. So when you go out there as Will and his guide, who turned out to be more than that, went out there together, they were at sort of the end of the earth. That’s like no man’s land. Of course, they got in trouble out there which is not unusual in that neck of the woods.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And it made for quite the exciting turn of events.
Bob Rich: Well, I wanted to find a place where, if I’m going to build a crescendo of action and suspense, that would be a great place to do it because it’s known in the Keys as a mysterious place. It’s a great backdrop for the story.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever been in a horrible storm on a boat in all your years of fishing?
Bob Rich: Yeah. I’ve been in a few situations, and I’ve been in some rough weather at Cay Sal Bank. But one of the wildest ones, to give you an example of danger, was fishing in a place called Lost Man’s River appropriately named, when we were driving with a guide in the middle of the night with no lights on and with the prize being record-size fish.
It was a very interesting thing where you feel fear at first, and then all of a sudden it just goes away and you say, “Well, I’ve committed myself to this. Whatever comes my way, I’m committed to it.” I’ve been in that situation a couple of times in the water also in a storm, an electrical storm, where that feeling of fear just comes and goes away.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Interesting. How is your company, Rich Products Corporation, faring in this current economy? We’re talking about a very large one here.
Bob Rich: Yeah, two hundred and twenty pounds (laughs). We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve been growing the business overseas. I think the last time we talked, our business was about 2.6 billion. This year, we’re approaching 3.5 billion when the year is said and done. So in four years, that’s some pretty good growth. We’re now in 120 countries around the world.
We’re not there to take away American jobs. We’re not there to be low-cost manufacturers and bring product back to the United States, but we’re there in places like China and Brazil to establish marketplaces for our products for the local markets. So that’s been very brisk. In the last year and a half, the US economy seems to be turning around to a point where we’re enjoying very good sales from more people who are dining out, and they’re looking for fancy desserts and unique eating experiences.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has your company experienced many product recalls?
Bob Rich: It’s kind of funny because most of the people you talk to in business, that’s the last thing they want to answer. But I think there’s an inevitability, no matter what your housekeeping practices are, to have issues where a product may come off the line that’s not exactly what you want it to be. The real test then is how you deal with that.
We’ve had situations where we might have had ingredients that were off, or a product that was substandard, and we’ve been involved in some recalls. But I think we’ve been very upfront and candid about them. As a result, we’ve had minimal damage to the customer and to ourselves. We’ve been very fortunate.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Can a company like Blue Bell ever fully recover from a listeria scare?
Bob Rich: I think the secret is honesty. We never have had so many options in food sources. We’re all bringing out gluten-free products and cutting out hydrogenated oils. Our country eats very well, and I think we have a very safe food supply as well. For us, a Chairman of the Board in a growing company has a limited amount of time to spend in each of the locations in the manufacturing facilities. We have 10,000 people working for the company now, so you want to be known for what your core beliefs are.
When I walk into any facility of ours, I want the people to know that the Chairman’s number one issue is safety. It’s our safety. It’s the safety of the products we make, and it’s the safety of our customers. If I can succeed in getting that one message across to the people at Rich Products, then I think I’m on the way to being successful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In our last chat, you said that you’d be the worst politician in the world.
Bob Rich: And nothing’s changed (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But there’s a long line of Republican contenders …
Bob Rich: Oh I know. I think it has been hilarious, Melissa. Those ratings on the Republican debates were high drama and low comedy. They are really entertaining. But I think it’ll shake out. I think it’ll really start to shake out once people see who’s going to be left. We’ll get to see who will be the last man standing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever crossed paths with Donald Trump?
Bob Rich: Yeah. I met him early on when he came to Buffalo and spent time with Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills. I met Trump then, and we renewed our acquaintance several times. I’m on the Board of Directors of the Cleveland Clinic, and we do a dinner every year. He comes to that and has been very generous and outspoken. I think Trump’s a very energetic person one-on-one. He has a public persona, and it really is not the same as his private persona.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your play.
Bob Rich: It’s exciting! We’ve joined with some other producers to be “above the title” on a new play called On Your Feet! It’s the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and it features many of their great songs that she has done throughout her career. For us, it’s like we’re renewing an old friendship because Gloria came to our baseball stadium back in ’84 or ’85 when we were in the old “rock pile.” We were looking at some pictures of her playing to a sold out stadium and just really rocking the place.
Gloria’s been spending quite a lot of time being involved in On Your Feet! We went to a benefit concert of hers a few weeks ago, and she sang for about two hours. She’s just great. We just opened on Broadway, and it looks to me like it could be a hit.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is this play produced under the Rich Entertainment Group banner?
Bob Rich: Yes. Exactly. My wife, Mindy, is the CEO of that operation. That’s Chief Entertainment Officer. I’m the CFO which is Chief Fun Officer (laughs). We are both passionate about Broadway. In April of next year, we have an adaptation of a wonderful children’s book called Tuck Everlasting, and it’s a musical. The book is a children’s classic and explores the concept of immortality.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I cannot believe you have not been approached about a reality show.
Bob Rich: (laughs) Actually I think I’m a little too long in the tooth for that. But my wife has been approached by several food shows because we’re all foodies, but I don’t think she’s going to take anybody up on it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How old are your grandchildren now?
Bob Rich: They range from almost 18 to 8, and we have a baby on the way, too. So we’re excited about that. That’ll be number nine.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has the eldest shown an interest in the family business?
Bob Rich: Actually I think she’s thinking that the family business may be as a Broadway producer. She has developed an interest in theater which has been fun. No one is talking food business yet.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the next idea for a book?
Bob Rich: I’ve been working on two projects. First of all, we now have a motion picture script that we’re going to be trying to sell in the new year and taking it around. Secondly, I’m working on a book of short stories. I love the art of short stories. I think I preface that in Looking Through Water, that I’m more of a storyteller than a novelist. Either way, I hate long books, so I wanted to design a book that people could perhaps read in one sitting, and the feedback’s coming back loud and clear that’s true.
I’ve learned a couple of things along the way, Melissa. Because of the male subject matter and family turmoil, I thought this would be a guy’s book, but I’m getting a lot of feedback from women who are really loving it as well, so that’s very exciting for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is Fish Fights supposed to be made into a film?
Bob Rich: No, this is the new book. This is Looking Through Water. We danced around with Fish Fights a little bit, but I think the economy got really slow. There’s a lot of product out there. The other thing is, with movies, some of the projects take 8-10 years, and I’m 74 years old. I want to be able to go see this movie and be able to eat the popcorn with my own teeth.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) Final thoughts, Bob?
Bob Rich: I’m just trying to eat three squares a day, keep cool and avoid scandal. That’s about it. We’ve been blessed, and I’m happy that our team at Rich’s is doing so well. That gives me a chance to exercise other muscles for things like writing. I feel very fortunate that I have a great family. I appreciate your interest in covering this. It’s always very flattering to talk to you, Melissa. Maybe we can have dinner together sometime.
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