Earlier this week, after a few days of catching bonefish in the high tides of the Bahamas, Bob Rich was sitting at a bar with friends.
They were celebrating.
Rich was writing.
“There’s Bob sitting with his iPad,” said his friend, Craig Reagor. “I don’t know what he was writing, but he was writing.”
Antisocial? Not at all. To the contrary, people who know the billionaire chairman of Rich Products Corp. call him a great storyteller, a guy who will sit on a fishing boat for hours, even days, spinning tales.
But for most of his life, Rich yearned to write. In the last 15 years – and especially in the past decade – he’s indulged in that passion. On Nov. 3, his fifth book, a novel called “Looking Through Water,” will be released. He’s already at work on the next project, a collection of short stories.
“He’s always working on something,” said Reagor, a retired businessman and now artist who drew the illustrations for Rich’s novel. “He’s always got some new ideas going on. From a creative point of view, it’s very much fun.”
When Rich turned over the day-to-day operations of Rich Products in 2006 to current CEO Bill Gisel, he could have easily kicked back to his home in Islamorada, a village of islands in the Florida Keys, and simply fished. Which he does; in fact, Rich is a member of the South Florida Fishing Hall of Fame.
But he also keeps a packed work schedule, flying around the world on behalf of Rich Products, which has more than $3 billion in revenue and 9,000-plus employees. He’s also chairman of the Cleveland Clinic, owns the Buffalo Bisons and two more minor league baseball teams in Arkansas and West Virginia, plus restaurants and a golf club, among other businesses.
Throughout his life, Rich has adopted projects – or better put, passions – and dived deeply into them. He’s adopted sports, from handball to polo to fishing, and pursued them with vigor. He’s bought into businesses and tried to build them into something bigger: His 1983 purchase of the Buffalo Bisons and the ensuing (and ultimately ill-fated) campaign to land a major league baseball franchise is an example of that.
When he passed the CEO position to Gisel in 2006, it gave Rich the chance to take a new deep dive, this time into writing. Or as he puts it, “Use the left side of my brain a little more.”
Rich had already published books, but his newfound flexibility allowed him to focus on writing.
“It became all-encompassing,” said Rich who, until now, has written mostly nonfiction. In his 2001 book “The Right Angle,” for example, he tells stories from a life spent in sports; and “The Fishing Club” (2006), he profiles angler friends including former President George H.W. Bush.
“Looking Through Water,” then, is a stark departure.
“I was always looking forward to doing a novel where I could throw off the confines of fact and really go to fiction,” he said.
Though the story of an intense and complex relationship between a father and his son is told through the lens of a fishing competition, and though the settings (New York City, the Adirondacks and the Florida Keys) are places familiar to Rich, he’s clear on this: The story is not autobiographical. Like any novelist, he draws from life experiences (Rich is a father and grandfather), and uses that to get to know his characters. In his writer’s mind, he could hear them talk.
“I’d put them in a situation and I’d write something, and all of sudden it was like the characters saying, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not how I would do that,’ ” he said. “So you back up and start again to get to the end point. For me, I get totally immersed in the process.”
Bob Rich writing looks like this: He sits at a desk, surrounded by yellow pads. (He appreciates the tradition of writing longhand: “I think there’s a history for that. There are a lot of the great ones who wrote with yellow pads,” he said. “I think Hemingway wrote a lot with pad and paper.”) He writes only with blue Pilot gel pens and buys them by the caseload; it’s become something of a joke between husband and wife. “We fight over those pens,” said his wife, Mindy Rich. “We steal each other’s pens all the time.”
Once he starts writing, Rich’s blue eyes focus intently on the yellow paper and he checks out of his surroundings. He’s happy when he’s writing. He feels good when he’s writing. “I know when he’s in the zone,” Mindy said. “There’s certainly a look of – he’s lost within himself, in a good way.”
She has to push to find the right words to describe her husband’s demeanor while writing. “It’s a nice energy,” she said. “There’s a lot of contentment and a look of determination.”
Then it’ll change. Bob will snap out of the zone, hand a yellow pad to Mindy, and share what he’s written so far. They’ll talk about it, he’ll think about it, and then he’ll dive back into his world of gel pens and yellow paper and character and stories. Because it’s time to create some more.