by Kristi Ruggles
In the early years of Ritchie Industries, owner C.D. Wilson built most of the manufacturing equipment. Among stories about Wilson that have circulated long past his lifetime is one in which he took a transmission from a Model T Ford and turned it into a lathe. This was during a routine Saturday visit to the plant to repair and maintain equipment.
As the company marks its 100th anniversary, it sustains Wilson’s spirit of innovation. Today, that spirit manifests itself in a company culture born of ownership—literally.
C.D. sold the business to son Cliff Wilson, and when Cliff Wilson sold it, employees bought it, and it became an ESOP (employee stock ownership program). This assured the company remained in Conrad, Iowa, a community of 900 people.
“This company has put food on the table for a lot of families in this community,” said Carla Skramovsky, who joined the company in 1975 and climbed the ranks. Today she serves as corporate treasurer and purchasing manager.
In turn, the employees of Ritchie Industries have taken great pride in producing livestock waterers that are sold around the world.
“Statistically, less than one half of one percent of companies thrive well enough to last 100 years,” CEO and President Robert Amundson said in recent comments to employees celebrating the milestone. “The success of our 100-year story is rooted in the simple but essential core values of our employees: always doing the right thing, having passion for the brand, innovating at every turn, showing humble confidence, and always walking the talk. These values describe a part of each and every one of you.”
Amundson has been CEO since January 2019. The business he leads began in a town about 75 miles south of where it is today when the Great Depression was eight years into the future.
Thomas Ritchie founded the company in 1921 in Oskaloosa, Iowa. He filed his first patent that same year. Ritchie sold it to Wilson in the 1940s, and Wilson moved it north to Conrad. The facility has grown to 140,000 square feet. It takes up a “big chunk of real estate right in the middle of town,” Amundson said. The blacksmith shop where Wilson worked still anchors a corner of the facility and today serves as warehouse space.
Ritchie Industries has from the beginning produced waterers. In the 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s, about 80 percent of its business was the hog market. When hog farming transitioned to confinement and nipples, it created a seismic shift in market demand. As business waned in that sector, Ritchie pivoted and began to manufacture waterers for dairy, beef, equine, and other livestock.
In 2004, Wilson sold the business to his son. The elder Wilson had focused on building a great product. The younger Wilson focused on sales. The combination set the business on a trajectory of success.
Amundson joined the company as a design engineer in 2006, when it was phasing out its steel waterers and replacing them with plastic units. He had most recently worked at a vinyl siding company and was central to the work at Ritchie of designing the molds for production of plastic waterers.
Today, the company produces more than 45 types and styles of waterers.
“If there is an animal out there who needs a waterer,” Amundson said, “we probably make it.”
Twenty percent of its product sales go beyond U.S. borders. In the U.S., its busiest market is the Midwest.
“Our focus right now is the Southwest, with what is going on down there with the drought,” Amundson said. “As we expand there, it will fill out our footprint in the U.S. Next, we plan to move into South America.”
Ritchie Industries is not immune to the labor and supply chain challenges affecting the farm equipment industry, but they are faring well. The business makes its own tools and molds and buys virtually all its supplies from other Iowa businesses.
“We have some electronic parts that we had to go outside of Iowa to buy,” Amundson said, “but if it is not made in Iowa, we get it from elsewhere in the United States.”
A bigger challenge, the CEO says, is people.
The company has been “running on overtime” since a month-long furlough in the early days of the pandemic. It has built its workforce by 20 percent this year, which translates to about a dozen employees, but it could put more people to work today.
Conrad is a mere 48 miles from Waterloo, Iowa, where Deere operates a manufacturing plant. “We have to compete with them for people,” Amundson said, “and we are glad to do it.”
There are no Ritchies or Wilsons still associated with the business. (Son Cliff Wilson died in late 2018.) Amundson, however, believes that the principles upon which the early owners built the business are what continues to propel it forward.
As part of its century celebration, Ritchie Industries defined the five core values that Amundson articulated in his remarks to employees.
“What is behind these values is character and quality,” Amundson said. “They are the basis for outstanding customer service, process improvement, creative problem-solving, and an unwavering commitment to quality.”
Skramovsky agrees. When she started at Ritchie Industries in 1975, she did not intend to be there 46 years later.
“The product is as good as the people who put their hearts and souls into building it,” she said, “and the people here, in management and on the shop floor, take great pride in what we build and care about putting out a quality product.”
Ritchie Industries is a new member company. Amundson and Jeff Miller, sales and marketing manager, will be in Oklahoma City for the Marketing & Distribution Convention. Of the resources available to them through membership, Amundson said they are most eager to connect with other members.
“Jeff identified this organization as a great fit for us,” Amundson said. “I think we have a lot we can learn from other members and hopefully a few things we can contribute, as well.”