Bob Rich, Jr. is perhaps best known as the chairman of Rich Products, the frozen food conglomerate. The company was founded by his father—for whom he is named—in 1945, on the back of his game-changing invention of nondairy whipped creamer. Rich, Jr., became president of the company in 1978 and, under his leadership, Rich Products experienced explosive growth, with its offerings now found nearly everywhere you buy food, from Wal-Mart to New York City’s Palm restaurant.
Now, at age 75, Rich has found himself in the midst of a second career—in the arts. He and his wife, Mindy, have produced seven Broadway musicals, including Honeymoon in Vegas, Chaplin, and a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, and have been nominated for two Tony Awards. Last fall, he published his first novel—and fifth book—Looking Through Water, a story of intergenerational familial relationships set on a lake in the Adirondacks and the flats around the Florida Keys, where Rich lives for part of the year. The novel has particular resonance this Memorial Day: All of the proceeds benefit Project Healing Waters, a charitable group that sponsors fishing excursions for disabled veterans.
We caught up with Rich to talk about writing, fishing, and his upcoming Broadway musicals.
Garden & Gun: Memorial Day is around the corner. You decided, from the get-go, to give all the proceeds from your latest novel to veterans, through Project Healing Waters (PHW). Why?
Bob Rich: We owe our veterans so much and Project Healing Waters is doing the good—often quiet—work of restoring hope and dignity to our veterans’ lives. A main theme in the novel is getting out onto the water to confront adversity, and this is exactly what their outreach promotes. So, we thought that was a great fit. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to take part in some PHW fishing excursions alongside our veterans and I’ve been so inspired by their courage. Water soothes the soul and it’s been my privilege to witness their stories.
G&G: Your book involves a lot of things that I’m also interested in—family relationships, business, and of course, fishing. This is a dangerous question to ask any novelist, but how much of this book was autobiographical?
Rich: Well, it would be hard not to draw comparisons between some of the locales I love and the sport-fishing quest. But I’m pleased to say that’s where the similarities end. This is a work of fiction and I actually found that quite liberating. While this is my first novel, this is my fifth book: The first four were nonfiction. It’s been a joy for me to be able to express myself and not be bound by history. The creative process is fascinating and surprising. I found that at times I was leading the action and at other times, the characters were leading me! It’s been wonderful to pursue and then surrender a bit—not unlike fishing, I suppose.
G&G: Your father started the company that you would eventually run. What lessons from him—both in and out of business—did you learn that you still lean on today?
Rich: The lessons my father taught me could fill their own book. More than anything, he taught me to stay a lifelong learner—personally and professionally. Let me tell you, I’ve observed many people who think that once you get that degree and get hired, you don’t have to worry about reading, learning, listening, or continuing your education. And that’s really not true. The people who thrive are the ones who keep a youthful curiosity throughout their life. I think these are the people who are really setting it on fire. Learning never stops, and that lesson from my dad has brought me on some wonderful adventures.
G&G: You’ve had an incredibly successful career as a businessman. Now you’re off to a successful second career in the arts, with your Broadway plays and your books. Are there parallels between the two vocations?
Rich: Passion is an obvious theme. If you’re not consumed by it, why bother? There’s some inherent risk in what we choose; it’s imperative to take some risks in order to continuously improve and grow. I’d say another common element is that my wife Mindy and I are storytellers, and that transcends corporate business and the arts, whether that’s in the boardroom, on the manufacturing line, or on the Broadway stage. Everyone has a story in them, and Mindy and I have always loved surrounding ourselves with people who excel at what they do and who are excited to share their talents.
G&G: What’s next?
Rich: Fishing. Always, fishing. Travel. A few new musicals: one brings Bull Durham to Broadway; another features the music of Jimmy Buffett. Another book is in the works—this one will be a cookbook featuring anglers who are also chefs. I’m excited about that one.