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Robert E. Rich Sr., 92, dies in Florida Turned dairy business into a national leader in the frozen food industry

Robert E. Rich Sr., who transformed a tiny dairy into one of the nation's leading frozen food firms, died Wednesday at his home in Palm Beach, Fla. He was 92.

"He had been ill lately, and it just caught up with him," said William G. Gisel Jr., chief operating officer of Rich Products Corp. "He died very peacefully last night."

Born July 7, 1913, in Buffalo, Mr. Rich was equally well known for his contributions to area sports and community service.

Robert E. Rich Jr., Rich Products president and one of his three children, recognized his father's many contributions this morning.

"I have had the honor of learning from my father as we worked side by side for more than 40 years in this great family business environment, experiencing firsthand his passion and commitment," the younger Rich said. "My father shared with me as a young man the most valuable gifts a father can give -- the gifts of his time, his knowledge and his trust. I will continue my father's spirit of innovation and dedication to this company he founded more than 60 years ago."

Frequently listed on the Forbes magazine list of the nation's wealthiest people, Mr. Rich was the founder and chairman of Rich Products Corp. here, the nation's largest family-owned frozen foods manufacturer, developing Rich's Whip Topping and credited with launching the nondairy segment of the frozen food industry.

It all stemmed from his founding of Wilber Farms Dairy in 1935, a one-horse, two-truck operation that he bought with a $5,000 loan from his father. It was through the dairy business that Rich became aware of research at George Washington Carver Laboratories in Michigan, owned by Henry Ford Sr., that replaced cow's fat with vegetable oil to produce dessert topping. He used the technology to start a subsidiary company employing three people with first-year sales in 1945 of $28,000.

Today Rich's sales are in excess of $2.5 billion, with an international work force of more than 7,000 in 85 countries. Last year, the company celebrated its 60th anniversary.

Asked in 1991 what he believed to be his single most important achievements in both his personal and professional lives, Mr. Rich cited receiving the second Frozen Food Industry Founders Award in 1976. Clarence Birdseye had received the first.

Professionally, he said, he was most pleased when, in 1975, Rich Products received the first Grand Award from the Frozen Food Industry.

Despite those achievements, Mr. Rich told The Buffalo News that "the single event" that gave him the greatest personal pride was "coaching Riverside High School to their first Harvard Cup Football Championship in 1936."

A 1931 graduate of Bennett High School, he received his bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Buffalo in 1935.
Active in UB's sports programs, he was a star collegiate football player and the founder of the wrestling program at the university. He was well known throughout his adult life for his skill at squash racquets and golf, even until the end of his life.

In 1972, Mr. Rich purchased the naming rights to Erie County's 80,000-seat football stadium, home of the AFC champion Buffalo Bills and, in 1983, led his family's efforts to keep baseball in Buffalo by purchasing the Double-A Bisons. A year later, his company purchased a Class AAA franchise for the team.

In 1988, Mr. Rich joined with his son, Robert Jr., to open what is now Dunn Tire Park, home of the Bisons.

His was the first major Western New York corporation in 1990 to offer quality on-site child care to all employees. He took pride in creating "one of the finest employee centers in the country," the Rich Renaissance Niagara Center near the Rich plant on Buffalo's West Side, completed in 1991.

The longtime chairman of Rich Products, he also served as chairman of Rich Products of Canada, Ltd.; Rich-SeaPak Corp., Georgia; Rich/Baker Co., Ohio; and Rich Holdings Corp., Buffalo.

He was also president of the National Association for Advanced Foods and was a member of the board of directors of Buffalo's Gibraltar Steel Corp. He served for 18 years on the board of Marine Midland-Western and for 21 years on the board of Albright-Knox Art Gallery. He was a past president of the Better Business Bureau of Western New York and the University of Buffalo Alumni Association.

He was the recipient of numerous citations for his civic and community contributions.

He was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in October of 1991 and earlier into UB's Athletic Hall of Fame. He received several other university honors, including an honorary doctorate of laws degree.
His first wife, Janet, died in 1998. He then married Vicki Danielle McDuffee, who survives. He is also survived by another son, the Rev. David Rich, a daughter, Joanne Healy; a sister, Doris R. Corya; a brother, Paul J.; two stepdaughters, Stacey Bankston and Kristi LaRoche; 20 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

A private family service will be held Saturday in Palm Beach, and a tribute ceremony will be scheduled in Rich Renaissance Niagara.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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