E. Ritter & Company

E. Ritter & Company, founded in 1886 in Marked Tree, Ark., encompasses two business divisions. Ritter Agribusiness owns farmland and operates in farm management and specialty crops (raising fruits and flowers for sale to groceries). Ritter Communications provides communications products and data services in Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.

There are 72 family members and three family branches. About 50 family members, located in 15 states, are owners of the company. Members of the fourth and fifth generations serve on E. Ritter & Company’s board. Only one family member works in the company, a G4 who is nearing retirement. E. Ritter & Company has about 285 employees.

In the 2000s, under the leadership of Dan Hatzenbuehler — a married-in fourth-generation family member who was then chairman and CEO — Ritter began to reshape its corporate and family governance. The board needed more industry expertise, and the fifth generation needed to build a stronger connection to the family and the company.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Family Business honored 30 outstanding family businesses:

A. Duda & Sons Inc.

The Agnew Family Enterprise

The Biltmore Company

Bush Brothers & Company

The Clemens Family Corporation

Crescent Electric Supply Co. 

Day & Zimmermann

Dot Foods Inc.

The Duchossois Group

Elkay Manufacturing Company 

Flanagan Foodservice Inc.

Herschend Enterprises

Hussey Seating Company

IDEAL Industries Inc.

Kiolbassa Provision Company

Laird Norton Company

Lloyd Companies

Lundberg Family Farms

Lyles Family Enterprise

MacLean-Fogg Company

Mannington Mills Inc.

Menasha Corporation

Midmark Corporation

Port Blakely

Sheetz Inc.

Vermeer Corporation

Vertex Inc.

W.S. Darley & Co.

Wittwer Hospitality/Boulevard Home

In 2008 a committee of family members, with the help of a consultant, developed a family charter that established the Ritter Family Council. The family engaged in a collaborative process to define the council’s mission and values.

In 2009, shareholders unanimously agreed to shift to a majority-independent board. The board expanded from eight to nine members, five of whom must be independent directors.

A succession plan led by the board culminated in the hiring of the company’s first non-family CEO, Chip Dickinson, to succeed Hatzen­buehler, effective Jan. 1, 2013. One month later, the company adopted a written policy on board member qualifications and the procedure for nominating directors. The policy includes a board evaluation process. It also outlines the role of the family council in nominating family director candidates.

When Hatzenbuehler retired from the chairman’s post in 2015, the company created the positions of lead independent director and lead family director. The lead family director presents a board meeting summary at family council meetings and a family council report at board meetings. Fourth-generation member Ronda Ritter Ray currently holds this position.

The family council consists of three branch representatives (elected by the individual branches), four at-large members (elected by the family shareholders) and up to two additional non-voting members.

The family council has created the position of director of family engagement, a paid, part-time post. Fifth-generation member Katy Wilder Schaaf, who serves in this role, helps plan social and family events and develop educational activities for the family. She also writes a biannual family newsletter.

The company has funded “Next Generation Summits” to bring the fifth generation together for educational sessions, team building and fun. At their second summit, the G5s created a next-generation mission and vision statement, which was presented to the family at the annual family meeting. An all-family summit was held in 2016 to discuss diversification of the business and to develop a family strategic plan and budget. Another summit was held in July 2019.

The family conducts written surveys to obtain feedback from quieter family members. The family council uses this feedback to help them shape strategic planning. The council proactively reaches out to dissenters and invites them to serve on committees.

Recently, the family has been working on ways to educate its sixth generation. The family council formed a Next Generation Committee, which creates and mails biannual “Ritter packages.” The packages contain age-appropriate gifts for children that focus on the family history, along with a letter to parents elaborating on the history lesson. The committee also sends gift packages to newlywed couples as a way of officially welcoming the family’s married-ins.

The Ritter family is currently undergoing a governance transition. The family council leadership and family board leadership are focusing on shifting family culture to adopt an ownership mindset, and new governance structures are being created to support this process. At the board level, the company is moving to a portfolio board format. At the family level, family leaders are working to establish an owners council and creating new family leadership positions.

Article categories: 
September/October 2019

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