Some family businesses just don’t work. Fans of The Godfather trilogy, for example, may recall the brothers in the Corleone mob clan winding up as how-to guides for dysfunction. And it’s not like you couldn’t find a gazillion or so real-life cautionary tales, either. Every once in a while, though, someone gets it right. R&M Plastic Products Ltd. definitely qualifies. This Barrie, Ont.-based extruder and injection molder has gone your average second-generation company one better, with Dan Ritchie — grandson of founder Thomas Ritchie — now working alongside father and current owner Bob Ritchie, making for that rarest of all birds: a 100 per cent family-owned, third-generation plastics processing firm.
R&M was originally formed by Thomas Ritchie in 1966, in a little metal shack with one extruder and no business. Ritchie had been with a Toronto extrusion shop before deciding to throw his own hat in the plastics ring. The early years were no cakewalk — it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the company was able to move into a proper manufacturing facility in Brampton, Ont. — but Ritchie persevered. In 1974, his son Bob began working full-time for the company...and then left in 1979 to work for Toronto Plastics, managing the extrusion division and then taking over as sales manager. “I was very happy at Toronto Plastics, and had no intention of coming back to R&M,” Bob Ritchie said. “But I’d always wanted to own my own business, and when the opportunity arose in 1985, I jumped at the chance and became a significant partner at R&M.”
The younger Ritchie had learned a thing or two about business development at Toronto Plastics; he quickly added new equipment, modernized the plant, and went after new accounts. “In the late 1980s, we began extruding spoon straws, using machinery custom built in-house, and it’s an account we still have today,” Bob Ritchie said. “We also ventured into injection molding, in part because our customers were having problems getting injection molded parts that matched our extruded parts, but also because we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to give our customers a complete turnkey product. It’s proven a good decision, but at the time no one at the company had any injection molding knowledge, so all of the employees required training.”
A backdrop to the company’s steady trajectory in the 1990s was the growing involvement of Bob’s son Dan. The family joke about his crib having been an empty Gaylord box is a bit of a stretch, but not by much. “I spent a lot of time at the R&M plant as a kid, worked there on evenings, weekends and during summers while in high school, and worked full-time in the early 2000s,” Dan said. “I trained as a toolmaker, and then left R&M in 2006 to work in the engineering department of a service company.” Maybe you can guess what happened next — once again a Ritchie son returned to the family fold amid a shift in the control of the business. “I officially rejoined R&M in 2010,” Dan said. “When I returned, Bob and his wife Linda purchased the remaining shares, and the company was once again 100 per cent family-owned.” Maybe that ought to be 400 per cent, given that the top four members of R&M’s senior management team are either Ritchie men — Bob and Dan — or their spouses; Linda is in charge of company finance, and Dan’s wife Trina heads the administrative department.
HOLDING THE COURSE
There may be some new blood at R&M, but some things haven’t changed much — and in case you’re wondering, that’s a good thing. “Currently, extrusion accounts for about 80 per cent of our business — that number has fluctuated slightly over the decades, but extrusion remains our principal occupation,” Bob Ritchie said. “And despite our ability to reinvent ourselves, there are some product lines that we’ve had from almost the very beginning up to the present.” Case in point: guy wire guards used by the hydro and telecommunications industries to mark and protect guy wires from weather, vandalism, and animals. “R&M first began extruding guy guards back in the late 1960s, and we’ve worked hard over the years to get the resin blend just right and to take stresses out of the part,” Bob Ritchie said. “The result is a very high standard of product that we sell from Alaska down to the Caribbean.”
R&M has 11 extruders and five injection molding machines — a total that Bob and Dan say suits their business philosophy, which also hasn’t changed much in some respects. “We’re comfortable with our screw sizes and clamping forces,” Bob Ritchie said. “Our extruders are 2.5 inches and our molding machines range from 90 tons to 250 tons, and these match our needs perfectly. We could make new investments — get into larger screw sizes, for example — but we don’t have the product range to justify the expense or the business risk.” Think that sounds methodical? You’re right. “We try not to have too many eggs in one basket, so in addition to guy guards and straws, we make parts for many different industries, including swimming pools and spas, display and advertising, home improvements, windows and doors, toys, and health care and medical,” Dan Ritchie said. “We always try to play to our strengths — we manufacture high-end, specialized drink straws, as well as commodity straws.”
OLD SCHOOL MEETS NEW COOL
This isn’t to say that nothing has changed since Dan and Trina signed on. “Dan and Trina are progressive and Linda and I are from the old school, and the combination can give us the best of both worlds,” Bob Ritchie said. “Dan is the driving force, for example, behind our website development: We’re launching four websites this year, one for each major market we service, including guy guards and drinking straws. For the drinking straw website, Dan is including a feature that allows the customer to design their own straw, complete with color, length, and other data — R&M can then deliver them a quote based on that model. It’s a new tool for us.”
Another recent change is more tangible. In 2011, after more than 30 years in Brampton, R&M moved north to Barrie. And the new 35,000-square-foot digs are just fine. “Our lease in Brampton was up, and we decided to move into a facility that better suited our current needs,” Dan Ritchie said. “Barrie has the infrastructure, and is hungry for manufacturing, having lost a number of plastics processing shops during the recession. The city officials and economic development agencies we worked with made the transition easier. Also, the employees that we hired in Barrie have added great value to the company — we have a current workforce of 30 employees, and they’re all talented, hard working, dedicated, and also bring some fun into the workplace.”
There’s no word yet on whether a fourth generation of Ritchie is waiting in the wings — which might be just as well, since Bob isn’t planning on going anywhere. “I’m 63, and have no interest in retiring,” Bob Ritchie said. “When it’s done right, working with family gives you a great feeling — and I think we’re doing it right.”
Words never uttered by anyone in the Corleone family, guaranteed.