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The quiet billionaire: Bob Rich is still Buffalo's ultimate booster

Bob Rich won’t be here long. He’s drifting in a boat, wearing a khaki-colored fishing vest and blue Buffalo Bisons baseball cap, casting his fly line into the Lake Erie waters.

“I may change a fly 20 times before I induce a bite,” Rich said.

But that’s only where there are fish. Here, there seem to be none.

You have to go where the fish are – this is a basic angler rule Rich applies to life. He’s a billionaire frozen food magnate, the richer-than-Trump second-generation leader of Rich Products Corp., but he has always been more than a businessman. He is a storyteller, a sportsman, an artist. He has devoted much of his life – publicly and privately, with wins and bruises – to building up Buffalo beyond his core food business. On the horizon in front of him is downtown Buffalo, a place Rich and his wife Mindy kept relevant – publicly as owners of baseball’s Bisons, more quietly with hockey’s Sabres – long before the downtown development boom.

Rich, 76, has legions of powerful friends who laud his legacy and impact. “Bob Rich and Rich Products are synonymous with Buffalo,” said former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello.

But slightly anonymous, too. In the 1970s, '80s and '90s, Rich was a fixture, running the company his father founded and hawking Buffalo as a big-league sports city. At the turn of the millennium, he quietly helped save the Buffalo Sabres. In the early 2000s, his wife Mindy Rich – and by extension, Bob – were part of the group that catalyzed the development of Canalside. But they had a big idea that failed, and they emerged from that process wounded.

They haven’t shown up as much publicly in Buffalo since then.

The Riches still steer their company – Bob as chair, Mindy, 59, as vice chair – but their day-to-day work usually has them elsewhere. Bob, with Mindy as his at-home editor, is a memoirist and novelist. Mindy, with Bob at her side, is a Broadway producer. (Both are Tony voters.) Bob, who in his low-key, self-deprecating way once referred to himself as “the clown prince of creampuffs” (a reference to Rich’s extensive bakery business), spends several days a month in Ohio, where he is chair of one of the world’s most lauded health care systems, the Cleveland Clinic. (Mindy is also a board member.)

Bob and Mindy have a place just across the border in Fort Erie along with their primary residence in the Florida Keys. They have a presence in Buffalo that is strong as an employer, but they’re here infrequently.

The fish are elsewhere nowadays.

* * *

Robert E. Rich Sr. and Robert E. Rich Jr. with their famous non-dairy whipped topping. (Buffalo News archives)

Rich didn’t want to work for his dad.

Robert E. Rich Sr. founded Rich Products in 1945, four years after the birth of his first son, Bob Jr. The elder Rich, a former wrestler, football player and coach, was competitive and creative. His original product was a whipped topping made with soybeans instead of dairy, which meant it could be frozen, stored and shipped. He fought off a spate of lawsuits from a nervous dairy industry as he scaled up his business to become a dominant company in the frozen food industry.

Today, Rich Products Corp. is a $3.6 billion business with 10,000 employees globally, including 1,300 at its Niagara Street headquarters on Buffalo’s West Side. Rich’s sells more than 4,000 products, from frozen seafood to Carvel ice cream, one of several companies Rich’s has acquired over the past couple of decades. Its client list is largely unknown but includes Walmart, Starbucks, Disney, Subway, California Pizza Kitchen, Hard Rock Cafe, big-scale grocers and large food service companies including Sodexo, Aramark and Compass Group.

The staggering success of Rich Products came with expectations and opportunities, even if the younger Rich didn’t want them. Bob, who had an older sister and younger brother, was working in the plant by age 8, earning three pennies for every case of food he packed. “I always said my dad had four children: my brother, my sister, this business and myself,” he told Michael J. Billoni, former general manager of the Buffalo Bisons and author of “Memoirs of an Innovator,” a 2000 biography of Rich Sr. that was commissioned by the younger Rich.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Bob Rich, a man who wears many hats]

As a kid, Rich wasn’t close to his father, who was frequently away on business. The household was a competitive one. The elder Rich began his kids’ day at 6:30 a.m. with push-ups. “Somehow that competitive spirit stuck with us throughout the day,” Rich Jr. told Billoni.

The competitive spirit was a free spirit, too. At Williams College, Rich Jr. was a star hockey goaltender who was among the final cuts from the 1964 U.S. Olympic team. (His athletic career continued, however: Rich went on to compete in squash, polo, team handball, and later in life, as a fisherman. He’s a member of the South Florida Fishing Hall of Fame.) He joined a fraternity. But the frat-boy-having-fun also became a bit of a philosopher.

At Williams, Rich absorbed himself in the works of three classic novelists. The writings of Ernest Hemingway instilled in him a sense of adventure. “He introduced me to places I’d never been,” Rich said. “People getting wasted in the south of France. Going to bullfights. It was colorful.” Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” opened Rich’s mind to the idea of chasing monstrously elusive goals. “It was kind of a madman’s quest for a goal,” Rich said, “which happened to be the great white whale.”

Then came Miguel de Cervantes’ early-1600s novel “Don Quixote.” Rich spent a year reading the densely packed tale of a man who leaves his Spanish village of La Mancha to fight for chivalry and justice. “That influenced my life professionally,” Rich said. “The quest to grow a business. The quest to have a successful life, including a happy family.”

Rich calls Quixote his “patron saint.” He has a bronze statue of the character behind his desk, and often makes Quixote references. That Man of La Mancha statue symbolizes Rich’s life today as a businessman, writer and angler. But it is also a window into his past. When Rich was preparing to graduate from Williams, his father wanted him to work for the company. He wanted to venture off.

Rich’s post-college career options included law school and job interviews with the CIA, Air Force and Texaco. But then his dad gave him a compelling offer: Rich Sr. wanted the company to open a Canadian division, and asked Bob, then 23, to run it. Rich Jr. would get a million-dollar budget and full independence; Dad would step in only if asked for advice.

After serving on active duty for the U.S. National Guard, Rich accepted his father’s offer, which changed the dynamic of their relationship: He had his father’s full trust, but could seek out his help whenever needed.

“Sometimes you can get two bulls in the same herd and you’ve got to sort things out,” Rich said. “When you’re young and fiercely independent and you think you know everything, it’s always hard to compromise. That was a relationship that was very interesting for me, and I think probably for my father. But happily we worked things out, and maybe youth will be served.”

A father and son team, pictured in 1975: Robert E. Rich Sr. and Robert E. Rich Jr. (Buffalo News archives)

During Rich’s first decade out of college, he established himself as a credible businessman. He successfully launched the startup Canadian operation and developed a sales force across the country. He earned an MBA from the University of Rochester in 1969, and was brought back to Buffalo and elevated to vice president of sales and marketing.

In 1978, at age 37, Rich became the company’s president. (Rich Sr., who was 65, became chairman.) The promotion to president put Rich Jr. in charge of day-to-day operations, which was always part of Rich Sr.’s plan.

“We learned there were unwritten rules of the road that we were going to obey as a matter of respecting each other,” Rich said. “No one in this company ever saw my father and I argue. No one saw us disagree. If we had a difference of opinion, we would go in, close the door, and work it out. It wasn’t even a shouting match. It was a matter of good communication between generations.”

Father and son worked together closely for the next quarter century as Rich Products kept hiring, acquiring other companies and expanding its geographic reach. People who worked there remember it as a hard-driving time as the company strived to hit Bob Jr.’s goal of $1 billion in sales by 1996. (The company reached that mark in 1995.)

In the early 1990s, Rich Jr. instituted a long-term strategy called “Mission: World Class” that emphasized quality and customer satisfaction. As the company grew, he placed an increasingly formalized emphasis on business ethics. The guiding principle, which remains in place, is captured in a simple command: “Do the right thing.”

Simple, but hardly easy as the company expanded into regions of the world where law and ethics are easily overshadowed by the practicality.

One time, a Rich Products official from a South American country told Rich, “You know boss, we have to bribe the officials at the border to let our products in. We’ll still be allowed to do that, right?”

“No, you can’t,” Rich said. “It’s not doing the right thing. You can’t do that. You’ve got to stop.”

“I won’t be able to get product into the country.”

“There’s no exception,” Rich said.

Rich Products lost its business in that South American country (Rich won’t name which one) for half a year. Ultimately, he said, market pressures prompted that country to relent and allow Rich’s goods back in, and now the company has a thriving operation there.

As company president, Rich was a highly visible, connected, hands-on leader. Peter Ciotta, Rich’s longtime and now former public relations executive, remembers a marketing program called “L.A. Blitz” in which the Rich sales team spread out in Los Angeles and made door-to-door sales calls with potential customers. Bob and Mindy Rich were among the “salespeople” on the ground.

When Ciotta’s father fell sick to cancer, Rich called him aside one day in the lobby and said, “Peter, I want you to make sure you take care of your father. That’s most important now. Come in later, leave early, do what you need to do.”

Many of Rich’s employees and friends have similar stories, which span decades and reach to today: Rich, upon learning an employee’s child is sick, having his secretary dial a specialist and set up an appointment. Or upon learning someone’s father is sick, flying him to the Cleveland Clinic.

Bob Rich talks with his employees during a lunch at Resurgence Brewing Company in Buffalo on Tuesday, July 28, 2015. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Howard Rich, who is not related, is a vice president at Rich Products. His father owned Rich Dairy, which Robert Rich Sr. purchased in 1965. As a young man, Howard Rich played on Bob Rich’s team handball squad, which competed in the Empire State Games in 1978. Since then, he has become a trusted member of his boss’ inner circle. Most recently, he oversaw the renovation of Rich Product’s atrium into an $18.5 million Innovation Center, where clients from around the world can come to Rich Products to custom-develop products and food preparation processes.

Decades into their relationship, Howard Rich still sees competitiveness permeate his boss’ approach to work. Losing bothers Bob Rich “every bit to his core," Howard Rich said.

“I’ve never seen (Bob) mad in business,” he continued. “But in sports, he was an uber, uber competitor. So, losing is what I would say makes him mad.”

So does something else, which is likely worse than losing.

“Now, I also think if you screw Bob, or if you lie to him,” Howard Rich said, “that would not be good.”

* * *

Frozen food has been a financially healthy business for Rich, who is listed at No. 150 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans, with a net worth of $3.8 billion. That’s higher than President Trump, who landed at No. 156, with a net worth tagged at $3.7 billion.

Speaking of Trump: The commander-in-chief is a good example of the circles in which Rich operates. “I know him,” Rich said, during an interview in his office the morning after the November election. Rich, a Republican, hosted a fundraiser in 2015 for then-candidate Jeb Bush at Rich Products’ headquarters. But Rich didn’t offer any opinion on Trump – he steadfastly refuses to talk politics – and only offered, “He came to our stadium once.”

Rich was referring to a 1992 fundraiser at Coca-Cola Field (then Pilot Field). Trump, who donned red Zubaz pants, and his then-wife Marla Maples showed up via helicopter for a charity event hosted by Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.

Buffalo in the '90s: Donald Trump, Jim Kelly and Zubaz

But to judge Rich by his financial proximity to people like Trump would give you only a surface view, and a muddled one at that. He could dress fancily but rarely does, preferring button-downs, khakis and colorful socks over suits. He could insulate himself from the 99.9 percent beneath him on the financial hierarchy, but doesn’t: For the most part, when Rich has been publicly visible in Buffalo in recent years, it’s been sitting at a store table, autographing books. At his corporate headquarters, he insists employees – or associates, in Rich Products parlance – refer to him as “Bob.” The reverent “Mr. Rich” is reserved for references to his late father.

The elder Rich was the statesman of the company; Rich Jr. is the company’s all-powerful everyman. Whereas the elder Rich was almost solely focused on the company, and deeply passionate about its products, Bob Rich Jr. is focused on experiencing life. That was as true 30 years ago as it is now, and Rich Products’ success has allowed him to do it.

An early example: In the early 1980s, Rich was offered the chance to buy the then Double-A Bisons. He asked his father for permission, and received it, but with a caveat: You can only do it on your lunch break.

That lunch-break business grew into something much grander.

Rich had big-league visions for the Bisons: Elevate the team to Triple-A status, get a shiny new downtown ballpark, and then land a Major League Baseball expansion franchise. The first two goals happened. In 1988, the Triple-A Bisons moved into Pilot Field, a publicly funded stadium that was considered to be the best in the minor leagues – and ready to be expanded for a big-league franchise.

As the Bisons set seven-figure minor league attendance records in the late '80s and early '90s, the Major League initiative was the buzz of Buffalo. Bob and Mindy Rich’s public presence and name recognition was never higher. They fastidiously networked in big-league circles, dining and pitching executives and owners. They became on a first-name basis with many, including the controversial Marge Schott, the late owner of the Cincinnati Reds. In his sports memoir “The Right Angle,” Rich recalls a “three-Bloody Mary luncheon in Cincinnati” where Schott asked, “Mindy is your first wife, isn’t she, Bob?”

Opening day at Pilot Field, 1989: as the excitement swirls around them, Mindy and Bob Rich take a moment for themselves. (Buffalo News archives)

She was his third, actually. Rich already had four children with his two ex-wives. Mindy, who grew up as a Reds fan in Cincinnati, moved to Buffalo in 1982, three years after graduating from the University of Colorado. She had a marketing and advertising background and was introduced to Bob Rich by her father, Dick Roth, who ran a wholesale baked goods company in Cincinnati and was a Rich Products customer.

Fittingly enough, Bob and Mindy’s first meeting was at the ballpark. She became a key member of the Buffalo Bisons front office, championing the team's "Every Game is an Event" marketing approach, and they eloped after the 1985 baseball season. But he sensed that Schott, a strict Catholic, didn’t need the details. So instead, he adapted a quip he’d heard Mindy use.

“Believe me, Marge, Mindy is my last wife!” Rich said.

“Good,” Schott said. “I just love that Mindy.”

But neither love nor attendance records would prove to be enough to overcome small-town economics. As the expansion process continued, it became apparent the Buffalo-as-big-league model wouldn’t work.

“If he was really willing to do it, we would have joined him and helped him,” said Jeremy Jacobs Sr., chairman of Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos., and owner of the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins. “To be very candid with you, irrespective of whether it was successful or not, we would have joined it, because Bobby is a good leader. I would have financially helped him and worked on it. But I think in my heart of hearts, it wouldn’t have been a great idea.”

The baseball dream ultimately failed when expansion franchises were awarded in 1992 to Denver and Miami.

“I think both of us have an aspect we share and that’s tilting at windmills,” said Mindy Rich who, like her husband, is a fan of Cervantes. “Tilting at windmills” refers to a scene from the story in which Don Quixote is jousting with windmills that he imagines to be giants.

“We seem to take on big challenges, oftentimes, and I find that really rewarding," Mindy said. "Also it feeds your humility, because when you do things that are really hard, you fail more than you succeed.”

Mindy is philosophical, like her husband, but more guarded than he is. She has a vigorous disposition and measures her words with precision. If Bob has a point to make, especially one that defends her, he'll do it in a story. His voice will be calm. Mindy, though, is more likely to leave the point alone – publicly, at least – but her lively eyes betray her emotions.

Their styles complement each other well: Years ago, they took a test that described their decision-making processes. Mindy’s is fast; she reaches a decision quickly. Bob likes to think a problem through.

Bob and Mindy Rich in front of the Broadhurst Theatre where the show "Tuck Everlasting" was playing in New York City on May 5, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Jon Dandes, who is president of Rich Baseball Operations, has worked for the family since 1986. He calls Bob and Mindy “partners in the truest sense of the word.” They’ll disagree openly; Dandes admits he occasionally makes a graceful exit from meetings: "Gee, I need to excuse myself, I’ll see you later."

“They are two very independent thinkers,” said Dandes, noting that it’s important to talk to both Bob and Mindy, because they won’t “rubber stamp” each other’s decisions.

“Their analytics are different,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the dynamism and, I would argue, the success of the business is a reflection of how well they work together. That stuff is not by accident. That’s very real.”

The Riches share a protean view on the meaning of their work. On an afternoon last spring in New York City, Bob sat with Mindy on a couch in the lobby of a New York City recording studio. He was taking a lunch break from recording the audio version of his novel, “Looking Through Water.” Bob was sniffling and coughing. He had been sick for days and canceled meetings earlier in the week, but was determined to get this recording done. She was about to head out to an afternoon filled with Broadway meetings. I asked what motivates them to do this.

“It’s not about the end, or the goal,” said Bob, his baritone voice swollen. “It’s just about the journey. Part of that journey is the search, the quest, what you’re looking for. As I look back on my life too, it’s been about quest. Quest to prove yourself. Quest to run a business, be successful. Quest to get a major league” team.

Mindy laughed. “We did good at that, didn’t we?

* * *

Rich’s surname is famous; it’s prominently affixed to his company, and for the first 25 years of its existence, to the Buffalo Bills’ Orchard Park stadium. But baseball, business and the occasional book release aside, Bob Rich Jr. largely avoids the spotlight.

His work outside the spotlight, however, is significant. It might have even saved the Buffalo Sabres.

Rich was an original investor in the team, which began play in the fall of 1970. The franchise had a four-part ownership structure: The founding brothers, team Chairman Seymour Knox III and his brother, Northrup Knox, were the leaders. A group of minority investors owned another part of the team. The final two pieces of ownership belonged to a Philadelphia businessman named George Strawbridge, whose family owned the Campbell Soup Co., and Rich and his family. Both Rich and Strawbridge were silent partners, with the Knoxes out front.

Just 28 at the time, Rich was one of the youngest investors. As his family company grew over the next couple of decades, Rich became one of the wealthiest investors in the Sabres group. That put him in position to provide the club with continual infusions of cash when hockey salaries skyrocketed in the early to mid-'90s.

“There weren’t a lot of other people you could go to,” said Seymour Knox IV, son and nephew of the Sabres’ founders. When the elder Knoxes fell ill in the mid-'90s, Rich quietly took charge of the team. As Knox IV puts it, “Bob was able to step in when everybody was dying” — which may have been a saving move for the team. It was clear that the Sabres were going to be sold, and the Knoxes wanted Rich to buy it. At that point, he had moved on from the idea of becoming a full-fledged big-league sports owner, and so he declined. (Rich did the same years later when NFL officials asked him to consider bidding on the Buffalo Bills after team founder Ralph Wilson’s death.)

Rich did, however, commit to overseeing the sale of the Sabres. Larry Quinn, a developer-turned-executive who oversaw the construction of now-KeyBank Center and then became president of the hockey team, remembers a meeting with bankers in which Rich was unrelenting in his intent to keep the team here.

“One of the lawyers said, ‘You know, you really need to move this team,’ ” Quinn said. “Bob was there. Norty was there. I remember Norty slamming his fist on the table and saying, ‘Goddammit, I didn’t put all this energy into this for somebody to take it away.’ Bob looked at the lawyer and said, ‘I don’t ever want to hear that from this table again.’ ”

Bisons President Robert E. Rich Jr. takes in a game with Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mayor Jimmy Griffin in 1988. (Buffalo News file photo)

Rich was key in negotiating the contentious sale of the Sabres to John Rigas, then the chairman of Adelphia Communications. As history played out, the situation wasn’t perfect: Rigas and his son, Timothy, also a Sabres executive, went to jail for fraudulent activities connected to Adelphia. Both the cable company and the Sabres filed for bankruptcy, which prompted NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to call Rich and ask him to buy the team.

“We all felt he would have been a terrific owner,” said Jacobs, who was chair of the league’s board of governors. “He’s been a terrific owner of a minor league baseball team. I think he could have played that role in major league hockey. He would have been a very attractive owner.”

Rich again demurred, assuring Bettman he would consider purchasing the team only if another buyer couldn’t be found. That turned out to be unnecessary: In 2003, Paychex founder Tom Golisano, working with Quinn, bought the Sabres.

Eight years later, Golisano sold the team to Terry and Kim Pegula, who then built the HarborCenter rink-hotel-retail complex in front of the arena, bought the Buffalo Bills, and created the “One Buffalo” initiative that’s symbolic of a new energy in the city.

The Riches, in a sense, were Buffalo’s original Pegulas. Through the Bisons and the Sabres, they brought a vibrancy to downtown when there was little else to excite people.

“The Bisons and the Sabres kind of held downtown together when nobody else was there,” Quinn said. “Imagine downtown Buffalo in the winter without the Sabres. Today you might be able to imagine it. But 15 years ago? It would have been a ghost town. And the Bisons did the same thing in the summer.”

* * *

Bob Rich sits on the bow as he heads out to fish on Lake Erie on Sept. 22, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

This is Bubba. Bob Rich, relaxed on a boat, fly rod in hand. His athletic frame is slightly rounded beneath his plaid shirt and fishing vest, but he still stands tall and in command. The sun is beating on his ball-glove skin; his sandstone hair peaks out from his ballcap as his glacier-blue eyes – the same eyes as his dad – scan the water. He’s looking for bites.

Rich became Bubba about 20 years ago, which is when he learned he was about to become a grandfather, and also around the time he got deeply serious about fishing. He needed a good grandpa name and fishing nickname. Bubba fit both.

Today, Bob-as-Bubba is on Lake Erie, in fishing guide Jim Hanley’s charter boat, looking toward the shore. A glimpse of Buffalo’s waterfront is sending him back in time.

“I’ll tell you who we had a ball out here with, was Johnny Morris,” Rich said. He’s referring to his Florida Keys neighbor, who is also the founder of the Bass Pro Shops chain.

A decade ago, Bob and Mindy Rich courted Morris’ support for building a Bass Pro megastore at the site of the former Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. The Bass Pro store was, at the time, the anchor idea for the redevelopment of Buffalo’s inner harbor, now known as Canalside.

“Early on in the process when they were going to come here,” Rich said, “I brought (Morris) out here with Jimmy.”

“We had a miraculous day,” Hanley said.

“How many fish did we whack?” Rich asked

“We whacked 30 fish in two hours,” Hanley replied. “All big ones.”

Rich nodded and smiled. Good memories, that day. He turned to me.

“Have I ever told you about our involvement with the waterfront?”

“I know the basics of it,” I said.

“I bet you don’t,” Rich said. He motioned to waterfront and continued: “This is not a narrative. This is just some facts. It’s one of the reasons I feel connected and proud of what happened here.”

If Rich were a billionaire like Donald Trump – even before Trump was president – he’d do this from a microphone, or during an interview from behind a custom oak desk, or maybe in an acerbic tweet. Or he’d have one of his staffers write an op-ed.

But that’s not him. Rich is good at a podium, but he’s even better from a front porch – or a boat. He’s more of a let-me-tell-you-what-really-happened-as-we-sit-here-on-this-beautiful-day kind of a guy.

And so he starts:

More than a decade ago, then-Gov. George E. Pataki formed a local board for waterfront development. The group, which would become the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., included Mindy Rich and Larry Quinn. Businessman Anthony Gioia, a Republican who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Malta from 2001 to 2004, became chair.

“Mindy brought incredible passion to the project,” said Pataki, a Republican who counted the Riches as political allies. “These things require not just that the economics to make it work, but that you have the enthusiasm to make it happen. Mindy certainly had a tremendous business sense from working with her husband, but she also had that emotional commitment to Buffalo and to the revitalization of the waterfront that you need to make something like that successful.”

In 2004, Bass Pro announced plans to build a large retail outlet that would function as a hub on Buffalo’s inner harbor area, now known as Canalside. Before he retired from Congress in January 2005, Rep. Jack Quinn secured $50 million in federal funds that could aid in waterfront development. But a larger, and ongoing, stream of funding would be required to build and operate a burgeoning waterfront. That core funding was secured later in 2005 through an agreement with the New York Power Authority to pay $279 million as part of it relicensing of the Niagara Power Project.

This story, so far, reflects the publicly accepted version of events. Then Rich adds a twist: Gioia, he says, was key in securing that money.

This is true. Most people involved in the project back then describe a team effort in which the former diplomat worked deftly behind the scenes. But there's a name Rich isn't bringing up, and this is the twist: Rep. Brian Higgins, who succeeded Quinn in Congress. The Democratic congressman from South Buffalo, who loudly challenged the Power Authority and Pataki back then, is largely credited with securing the settlement money.

I pointed this out to Rich.

“No narrative,” Rich said. Which is this: Bass Pro was “really dealt dirt.”

In the years following that 2004 announcement, Bass Pro spent in excess of $1 million on planning and design for the store and surrounding area, which would include retail, restaurants, a museum and resurrected canals. But negotiations trickled, slowed by studies and legal actions and complicated by widespread public criticism that a large retailer was getting public subsidies.

In 2010, with no agreement in place and public money about to be spent on Bass Pro-related infrastructure, Higgins sent the company a letter. He gave Morris and Bass Pro a 14-day deadline to make a legally binding commitment to Buffalo. When Higgins sent that letter, he knew he was likely sacrificing what had been a positive relationship with the Riches.

But demanding a Bass Pro decision, Higgins said recently, “had to be done.”

Bass Pro's response was decisive. The company pulled out.

Higgins calls it "a game-changing move" that ended the “tradition of paying … a huge public subsidy” to companies that were making similar developments elsewhere with no government aid. The hit to his relationship with the Riches was the complicated cost of doing what he felt was right.

“I’m highly respectful of the Riches,” Higgins said, adding quietly, “Stuff happens.”

Good stuff happened on the waterfront after that, and Bob Rich is determined to stake out credit for Mindy, as well as Bass Pro, Quinn and Gioia. He believes Power Authority money came because of a plan that included Bass Pro’s involvement – and a plan that closely resembles the Canalside of today, minus “a big hole in the ground where the Aud was.”

“Nobody mentions the fact that we wouldn’t have gotten the project going and we wouldn’t have gotten the plan without it,” said Rich, who makes clear (as does Mindy Rich) that he’s pleased and proud of the waterfront as it stands today.

“It’s coming to fruition,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier. But I also think that I want history to be able to tell the story with some modicum of reality.”

Rich Products will be involved with the now-vibrant Canalside. Earlier this year, Be Our Guest Ltd., a Rich’s subsidiary, received a five-year contract, at $1.3 million annually, from the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., which oversees Canalside. Be Our Guest will run concerts and other special events at Canalside, which last summer was visited by more than 1.5 million people.

Larry Quinn struggles to find the proper descriptor for his friends’ feelings toward the waterfront experience. “I think he and Mindy, rightfully so, feel – I don’t know if slighted is the right word – but nobody appreciates that (part of this is) theirs,” he said. “Because early on, with not a lot of fanfare, there were people working really hard to make something happen, and they are painted with this brush of being aloof businesspeople that don’t care about the people. Which is such nonsense.”

Rich says he isn’t looking for credit, but rather to voice aloud the parts of waterfront history he feels aren’t recognized.

“Mindy and Larry spent a huge amount of time on this and pulling it together,” Rich said. “In retrospect, the work they did, it stands. But I don’t think Mindy would go back to a project like that again. Not in town.”

After Bass Pro left the scene, that’s largely the last we’ve heard from Bob and Mindy Rich in a highly public, visible way in Buffalo.

“I call my shots; I haven’t departed the scene,” he said. “But I tend to do outreach things now very quietly, and things that are going to be noncontroversial and things where I know I can make a difference.”

* * *

Bob Rich wears a red-and-white bracelet (Rich's colors) made by his grandson. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

“You ever play roulette?” Bob Rich asked. He’s in midtown Manhattan, sitting at a white linen table in the dining room of Sardi’s, the storied Broadway restaurant. Mindy will be here soon; she has a producer meeting that is running late. Caricatures of entertainers and politicians cover the walls. He’s wearing a red-and-white bracelet, handmade for him in Rich Products colors by his grandson, and nursing a Stoli on the rocks. A drawing of a grinning Mario Cuomo, the late New York governor who played a key role in making Buffalo’s baseball stadium a reality in the late 1980s, overlooks the table.

The roulette question is meant as a metaphor. Broadway, Rich said, is like playing roulette, where you can bet your chips on one number. Or, you can spread out your chips by investing smaller amounts in several shows.

“If it sounds like gambling, it is,” Rich said. “Broadway is a lot like gambling.”

The Riches have done it both ways. They broke into Broadway in 2012 as the lead producers in the musical “Chaplin” – a bet that never had the chance to pay off because Hurricane Sandy struck New York and essentially wiped out that season’s theater business.

Now, the Riches are invested as producers in five or six shows on Broadway at any one time. For some, their involvement is public. The Riches are producers of “Present Laughter,” which stars Kevin Kline and was just nominated for three Tonys, as well as the revival of “Cats” and the Gloria Estefan musical “On Your Feet!” They are smaller-scale, silent investors in other shows.

“It’s a numbers game,” he said. “Roulette really favors the people who do a little here, a little there. Since that first year with ‘Chaplin,’ we started making some smaller bets on some of the shows.”

Broadway is not what Rich disdainfully calls a “hobby business” – one that’s just for fun; the plaything of a person who’s wealthy enough to lose money.

“I’m not a hobbyist,” he said. “I think if you set a goal of making money in everything you’re in, then everybody from top to bottom is on the same page, and that becomes our objective. And that includes Broadway.”

Mindy arrives. A big-time Broadway producer was at an adjacent table. She says a quick hello to him, and then joins her husband. “Sorry so late!” she said. “My five o’clock didn’t show up till 5:40.”

“I’m turning everything over to you,” Bob says lightheartedly to his wife, who is ordering a chardonnay. Mindy is the lead producer of the pair, though both are involved in making decisions on investing, casting and the myriad other details of running a show. Both are Tony voters, too. On this evening, their college-aged granddaughter will be joining them to head to a show they have to evaluate as part of their Tony duties.

“Every Broadway show is like a startup business,” Mindy said. “And it doesn’t become a big business unless it becomes a hit.”

Mindy likens Broadway to big-league baseball. “You’re with the best,” she said, scrolling through her phone to find a photo of Gloria Estefan from a late '80s Bisons concert. She showed this same photo to Estefan when they began working together on the musical.

As with minor league baseball, a show has to work its way up the system, from smaller, regional theaters to Broadway. She’s currently shepherding the Jimmy Buffett musical “Escape to Margaritaville” through the development process. It opened this spring at La Jolla Playhouse outside San Diego, and heads to Houston, New Orleans and Chicago before hitting Broadway in spring 2018.

Even when a show hits that big-league level, the prospects are daunting. Last year, for example, the Riches opened “Tuck Everlasting” but closed it after several weeks due to low ticket sales. But then there are winners. One of them is “On Your Feet!” which opened on Broadway in November 2015 and is embarking on a national tour this fall. (That includes a Sept. 22-30 engagement at Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo.)

Broadway “is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Mindy said. “For me, I like challenges.”

* * *

Bob Rich walks through the Cleveland Clinic with CEO and President Dr. Delos "Toby" Cosgrove in Cleveland on June 27, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

In 1989, Bob Rich was in a waiting room at the Cleveland Clinic. His mother was undergoing a difficult and rare heart surgery, one that only the Cleveland Clinic would do.

From the waiting room, Bob called his former Williams College fraternity brother, Dr. Toby Cosgrove, who was then a cardiac surgeon at the Clinic. The two reconnected over coffee while Mrs. Rich underwent what ultimately was a successful, life-saving surgery.

They stayed in touch. Cosgrove moved up the ranks to cardiac chief and ultimately CEO. Cosgrove recruited Rich to get more involved in the clinic. Rich joined the board 2002, led a successful capital campaign, exceeding the $1.25 billion goal, and eventually became chair of the clinic. (Mindy serves on the board as well.)

Today, Bob Rich spends several days a month at the Cleveland Clinic, which was ranked the No. 2 hospital in the United States by U.S. News & World Report. Rich is leading a search to replace Cosgrove, who has decided to step out of his CEO role.

Their work together is serious. (And our Cleveland Clinic visit was the only time I saw Rich wear a suit.) Cosgrove is leading, and Rich overseeing, a massive, cutting-edge hospital system that employs every doctor on year-to-year salaried contracts and guarantees same-day appointments to patients.

Cosgrove commanded that the clinic call every employee – even the janitors – a “caregiver.” (His reasoning: Every employee affects the patient’s experience.) It’s a nice soundbite but a dramatic shift in the medical industry, and Rich is part of it.

He knows the obvious question: Why isn’t he doing this for a Buffalo hospital? He addresses the point even before it’s asked.

“I feel good about this, that I’m not turning my back on the Buffalo hospitals, but rather we’re helping give just that much more quality health care to people from our area,” Rich said, noting that Cleveland Clinic doctors have collaborated with Buffalo hospitals.

“It’s been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done,” Rich said. “It’s been like a calling.”

Bob Rich meets some summer interns in the halls of the Cleveland Clinic. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Cosgrove said Rich as been a "tremendous" business asset, but “he certainly has not been the medical expertise.” Cosgrove cast a sly smile and recounted a story about Rich donning a doctor’s coat and walking in on a patient.

“He almost caused one guy a heart attack when he walked in in a white coat one day,” Cosgrove said, with Rich laughing at his side. Cosgrove didn’t say who the patient was, but it was clearly a friend.

The Cleveland Clinic connection has been a personal one for Rich. Three of his own family members have had life-saving operations there, and he refers friends, business associates and Rich Products employees to the clinic.

One of those was Larry Quinn, who dealt with serious cardiac issues in the fall of 2010. Quinn was in a room at the clinic for 10 days, and Rich sat with him every day, setting up a laptop on a table and turning Quinn’s hospital room into a makeshift office.

“He was a really good friend – every day, he was there,” Quinn said, also noting, “After a few days I wanted to kick him out because he kept making jokes, and when your chest is cut open, it really hurts if you sneeze or laugh. I just kept saying, ‘STOP! This hurts!' ”

Levity aside, Rich calls his work with the clinic “a blessing. We’re saving lives here.”

* * *

Bob Rich records the audio version of his novel "Looking Through Water" in New York City in May 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Today, you’re likely to find Bob Rich on Broadway, in Cleveland, on a boat, or writing his next book on a yellow legal pad at home in Florida. He’s not nearly as present in Buffalo anymore, but people close to him give a caveat. “Dad does so many different things,” said Ted Rich, one of Bob’s sons and a vice president with the company. “But he’s still very much grounded in our business.”

Jon Dandes said Rich calls, texts or emails "virtually every day" to talk about the Bisons and the company's teams in Arkansas and West Virginia. Most of their conversations end with Rich asking, "So, what's going on in town?"

"He’s still very much grounded in Western New York and what goes on in Niagara Street," Dandes said. "People sometimes look at me cross-eyed and say, ‘No, that can’t be.' It is exactly, absolutely the truth.”

When Bob and Mindy spend time at Rich’s Niagara Street headquarters, they focus on big-picture governance issues. They also jet around the globe, visiting Rich’s offices and plants in South America, Europe and Asia/Pacific. Their philanthropy is largely tied to Rich Products as well. The Rich Family Foundation has donated $1 million to nearby West Side educational programming, as well as $250,000 to Cornell University for food safety research. The family foundation also recently gave $1 million to the Albright-Knox, and the Riches were honored last fall by state officials for founding the nonprofit Western New York United Against Drug & Alcohol Abuse 30 years ago.

Robert E. Rich speaks at a press conference for Western New York United Against Drug/Alcohol Abuse in 1987. (Buffalo News file photo)

According to several people interviewed for this story, those are only glimpses of the Rich family’s community and philanthropic efforts. The majority of the family’s giving is done quietly.

About 10 years ago, when former Rep. Jack Quinn was a Washington lobbyist, he found 10 pallets of Rich Products pies at a food pantry where he volunteered on Saturdays. When Quinn asked Rich how the pies ended up there, Rich said, “Because they asked.”

In 2003, then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed to speak at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, but had one request. Because he had an injured back, the chief justice required a private plane. Rich, who owned the Single-A Jamestown Jammers baseball team (which he since moved to West Virginia), provided a company jet.

“The last thing (he) wanted was any publicity.” said Greg Peterson, founder of the Jackson Center and an attorney who runs Phillips Lytle’s Jamestown office. “They just made it happen.”

Last year, Rich Products made financial donations to hurricane relief efforts in Georgia and South Carolina, where some of the company’s employees were affected, and also to a fire relief effort in Tennessee, where Rich’s has three plants but no employees affected.

Then there are the many people Rich has set up with Cleveland Clinic care. “The number of people that Bob has personally connected to the Cleveland Clinic over the last eight or 10 years, I can’t even guess how many that would be,” said Bill Gisel, Rich Products' CEO. “For a guy that is very kind of laid back and casual and easygoing, he’s this wonderfully compassionate, people-oriented person.”

While Gisel runs the day-to-day operations, much of Rich’s work with the company centers on preparing the next generations of his family to be what he calls “world-class shareholders” while – in a departure from his own experience – freeing them to pursue whatever career they want.

“My dad has been really great at saying that Rich’s is our passion, but it doesn’t have to be every single family member’s passion every day,” Ted Rich said. “He really encourages people to follow through what their passion is.”

Rich has four adult children, all of whom are Rich Products shareholders. (Three of the four work for the company as well.) Including spouses and grandchildren, Rich’s direct family has 17 members who are invited to twice-yearly shareholder retreats at a rural lodge in Pennsylvania. Those meetings may also include a niece and a few nephews who are shareholders. With the benefit of bad cellphone reception, they are able to “get away from the outside interruptions and just concentrate on our family and how we relate to each other.”

At those retreats, which have also taken place in Fort Erie, the older members of the family plan for the coming years. That includes an immediate succession plan: If Bob dies, Mindy takes over as chair. (Rich's brother and sister are no longer shareholders, nor do they work for the company.) Beyond that, Bob said, “all roles are open.”

The company is to remain owned by the family and based in Buffalo. Rich and his father agreed on that decades ago. (In fact, Rich’s assistants are instructed to send a form letter, without asking him, to every acquisition inquiry: “Dear ____. Thank you for your interest in our company. Rich Products is not for sale.”)

Bob Rich talks with some employees at Rich Products. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Family members who want to work for the company are beholden to guidelines: A recently written policy for summer jobs states that Rich family members have no rights and privileges beyond what anyone else has. The rules for full-time employment are more stringent: Family members can be employed by Rich’s, but only after they are finished with school – usually college – and must have worked at another place and gotten a promotion there. Only then can they come to Rich Products, and, said Bob, “Once they do, whomever their boss is will help determine how far they go.”

Family members are trained in the Rich’s corporate culture and in skills the family believes a shareholder needs to possess, such as presentation techniques and financial planning. They also discuss shareholder responsibility.

“There aren’t just 17 people at the table,” Rich said. “There are 10,000 families around the world depending on us for their living, and many more who are customers where our products drive their businesses.”

The Rich grandchildren range from infant to college-aged. The younger ones become familiar with the company’s products. Recently, for example, they had a cupcake decorating activity using Rich’s Whip Topping. The older grandchildren make plans for their futures, which can involve Rich Products, but there’s no expectation that they will.

“In my generation, I want happy, productive children and grandchildren,” he said. “I’m not going to measure them by how they sell chocolate éclairs.”

“Everybody is going to be judged equally for what they do leading thoughtful, happy, productive lives, and that doesn’t mean running Rich Products,” Rich said. “That could mean being an artist or it could mean being a teacher.”

Rich has become the book characters he loved. He’s made a novel life his reality.

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