I’m trying to do a bit of organizing and purging (you know, in the 20 minutes a day you have when naps are happening, after you have showered, done laundry, and eaten), and came across a wonderful bio of my Dad, Rich (Wilbert) Richardson. Words can’t describe what my Dad meant to me and to my family, and for those who never met him, this is a fantastic ‘overview’ of the man he was. The biography was written by Maria Goldblatt, and to this day I thank her for using my Dad as the topic for her Global Entrepreneurial Management assignment, as it allowed his journey to be documented.
It is a long read, but one hell of a good story. I’ve broken it up into manageable parts. Enjoy.
Rich Richardson – Entrepreneur Extraordinaire by Maria Goldblatt
We agreed to meet at the Devon Horse Show. Pennsylvania is much closer to New York than Toronto. And this event, as he informed me, was the ‘Olympics’ of the breeding equestrian world, after all. You could smell it. The air wafted a scent of barn, horse and wealth. Rich was there because his wife, Prue, was a breeder with champion ponies to show. Rich, well, he says that he is just the truck driver. This cavalier comment offers a glimpse into the essence of this quintessential entrepreneur and self-made man.
“Just luck, he says, just luck” as I asked about his numerous and highly successful ventures and followed him through a back gate to the car. Over lunch, the real story unfolds.
Scene opens in Asbury Park, New Jersey at a Navy hospital. The year is 1943.
The Early Years
Rich awoke to the crash of a metal tray hitting the tile, springing up then hitting again before it came to a stop. Mumbled voices; he couldn’t make out what was being said, and then the sound of those rubber-soled shoes with a barely audible squeak on the scrubbed floors. These sounds were familiar to him having spent 6 months in Hawaii before coming here. Hospitals are noisy places; hard to get rest. Everything was so white. He preferred this place though. No roommate right now and somehow, it always seemed like the hospital in Hawaii had too many fresh ghosts from Pearl Harbour, the Philippines and beyond. WWII was done for him. Driving a jeep over a mine will do that.
He winced as he reached for a drink of water. God, when is the nurse coming with the morphine. The Medical Officer says he’ll be another year here. This confinement was hard. His mind was working, planning and energy was building, intensifying but he was trapped in this bed and this room. But the confinement, well that was not so different from the cramped living on the Navy ship. It smelled a little better here; antiseptic instead of all the sea sickness and close living. Wonder how the guys are doing there; too bad their laundry blew up and worse yet, their bootleg booze. That was a good money-maker for Rich. Thanks to Bob for selling him that “business” connecting sailors and the locals. Good money and a good run until the mine. He grinned at the irony then grimaced as the pain shot down his back and into his legs.
The starched white hat bobbed by the door then back past and finally entered, checked his chart and gave him the morphine jab. As the pain ebbed and his mind freed, Rich was transported back to 1940 in Donora, Pennsylvania riding his bike down the country road to his Dad’s Roadside Stand. He had helped out for the afternoon because the folks were off to Virginia to see his Grandfather, a sharecropper, and Great Grandfather. Great Grandfather always sat under that big tree shaded from the sun. He didn’t talk much about being a slave but everyone knew that the severe whippings had taken an enormous toll and his eyesight was gone now, had been for years.
Rich pumped the bike pedals faster; getting to the Stand. he liked to work at the Stand because there were always people to talk to and stories to hear. It was good to connect and good for business. He heard the crunch of gravel under the bike tires as he pulled to a stop feeling the swell of pride of having bought this bike all himself with earnings from selling Zanol products door-to-door. His Father was proud of him too. Rich knew it. “Got a flair for hard work and business”, Dad had said. And if Dad said that, it had to be true because there was no one harder working then him. Dad didn’t sleep much. HE had that good job at the steel mill and started the Roadside Stands and used that money and his network of friends and business connections to start up the long haul trucking company. “Don’t use your own money unless it is a sure thing”, he heard his Dad say.
Rich sunk deeper into the cloud of morphine. He felt the broad, thin steering wheel of the truck rumble in his hands. Ten and Two. Making the deadline needed. Good. It is good to be early. Working the pedals with his feet, he turned, widely swinging into the lot and jumped out.
There was his brother holding out his football gear. Let’s go. Kirk is waiting, you know. Rich pulled on his gear and then his helmet and began to run. His strong, powerful legs carried him across the field. He heard cheers and shouts from the crowd. He was flying; the drug carrying him higher into the euphoria.
He ran and ran. The rain started to come down – heavy. He ran out of the stadium and suddenly the terrain changed. He ran past thick green vines and palm trees. THe air was heavy and tropical hot. He heard shouts and bombs whizzing. He was breathing long deep breaths now; evenly paced. He glanced to his right at the wooden frame barracks and the pile of guys smoking in front of it. “Hey Rich!” Their navy uniforms darkened with sweat in the Philippines heat.
As the morphine began to release its hold, Rich felt his legs continue to pump yet he was not moving. His limbs were weighted and didn’t respond but his mind continued to dart; racing with fury for the evils of prejudice and the brutality of the war that had wounded him; and rushing with energy to excel mixed with pent-up passions of youth. With a start, he left his trance and felt the hospital bed beneath him. The pain still dulled but starting to come on stronger.
A year later, after rehabilitation and treatment, Rich Richardson was released from the Navy Hospital in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
Getting to Toronto
New York City always got Rich going. The hustle and bustle somehow matched his personal, unquenchable drive. Sam White was one of his favorite cronies to go there with because he always had new things to do; like going to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra but not for the music necessarily. Rich met his first wife, Amy, she was a violinist. Amy had a different way about her and Rich liked what she had said about Toronto and Canada. The chance to get away from the US and from the way it was for African-Americans in that time was enough, he moved to Toronto.
Rich immersed himself in his work. The earliest motivation was pursuit of achievement with a key measure of success the money he earned. His ability to identify and apply innovative twists and the entrepreneurial drive that had earned him a new bike at 14 and a freelance business in the Navy were the outlet for his energy, passion, and ambition. This coupled with the principles he had learned and experienced he had gained shadowing his father’s business propelled him forward. He began to create the network of friends and business philosophies that would give him an edge.
Ventures: First Round
The game had ended and the team piled into the locker room; another victory for the Toronto Argonauts. Football helmets rolled under the benches as the team changed out of uniforms to hit the showers. The coach dodged the guys and equipment making his way down the row. He was handing out the cheques for the team members who played by the game. $200 was the going rate. Rich collected his and hurriedly left. He was headed to the offices of Wayne Distributors & Advertising. It was Sunday late and he was drained from the game but really needed to get through some paperwork. Monday – the calls and dispatching of temp workers, rushed orders and selling would all start again. There was no rest when you have your own company, he knew.
It was 1951. Rich had left his job as Foreman of the print shop to set out on his own. He knew he had a unique way to do advertising distribution better. It was the genesis of a philosophy that would continue through his career, “There is always a way to do things better; finding that way can make you money.”
Always inquisitive, the big idea sparked when he chatted with Pat Roach – one of the print shop customers. Pat headed up to Accurate Distributors, a company that circulated advertising materials door-to-door in Toronto. The Post Office couldn’t guarantee a date for delivery of time-sensitive advertising offers. Accurate Distributors filled this gap by getting coupons and flyers to consumers’ homes when the advertisers wanted. They had been doing it for a while and had a full-time staff and a fleet of 60 trucks. High labour costs drove prices up and held Accurate Distributors from expansion. Rich found a way around this by using temp employees. By undercutting prices and expanding the reach of delivery across Canada, Rich usurped the market.
By 1954, Wayne Distributors & Advertising had 14 offices across Canada with 200 trucks and cars delivering always faster and better. Business was buzzing. The dollars were pouring in. A couple of years after that, with everything established and the offices all running smoothly, Rich decided it was time for vacation. The exclusive Pavilion in Jamaica was a perfect place to get the family away from the punishing Canadian winter. Kids’ squeals of laughter punctuated the sounds of pool water splashing. The clink of melting ice cubes adjusting themselves in their glasses completed the reverie. Rich sipped his drink from his recline on the deck chair. Luck just seems to find me, he thought, and I am dumb enough not to say no. Rarer for a black guy to be on vacation in this ritzy place, he noticed, smiled and leaned further back in his chair. Soaking it all in.
A shadow cast over his left shoulder. He looked up. The shadow belonged to Don Schieneau. Rich leapt to his feet and Don clapped him on the shoulder. “Rich Richardson, you son-of-a-gun,” Don exclaimed with a broad smile. “Now I know why you and the family haven’t visited us in Michigan yet. You’re all here sunning in the islands.” Rich grinned back. Their laughter wound down to amused smiled. “Hey Rich”, Don’s tone was hushed, “walk with me.”