How Rich Products keeps its focus on innovation

Rich Products executives take pride in the company’s reputation for innovation. They weren’t about to let up on those plans during the pandemic.

“We would feel that that would be an enormous mistake, to stop investing in R&D and innovation,” said Richard Ferranti, Rich Products’ CEO. “You need to stay true, even when times are tough, to the things and the activities and the capabilities that you know are going to be essential for success over the long haul. Clearly, innovation is core to that.”

The food products company no longer has manufacturing in Buffalo. But its headquarters are its its focal point for innovation, home to research and development operations, a test kitchen and corporate leadership.

A few years ago, Rich Products poured $18.5 million into a customer innovation center on Niagara Street, including the test kitchen for demonstrating new products in the Rich portfolio and showcasing them to customers. That investment illustrated the shift of the company’s Buffalo operations toward management and R&D roles. 

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But Rich Products executives said it’s essential that the company keep embracing changes. The pandemic only accelerated some of those shifts.

Rich Products adjusted some of the ways it operated during the pandemic, but was undeterred in areas like new product development, even if some of that work had to go virtual, Ferranti said.

The drive to innovate is showing up in other ways at the 77-year-old, family-owned business:

• Rich Products is investing in digital technology across the business, to keep pace with customer expectations and transform the way it operates.

• The company is unveiling to its employees – whom the company calls associates – $4.5 million worth of renovations to office space at the headquarters. The idea is to make it appealing for employees to come into the office and collaborate, instead of working in the same, old cubicles. About 700 of Rich Products’ local employees have jobs connected to the headquarters.

• Rich Products just hosted its first in-person global leadership meeting in three years, underscoring the Niagara Street offices’ status as the company’s center of gravity. About 80 leaders attended the four-day summit, with several others participating virtually.

The company generates $4.5 billion in annual sales and is still aiming to reach $6 billion in sales in 2025. The Niagara Street offices oversee decisions affecting 12,500 employees spread around the world, including at 48 manufacturing facilities.

“We’re in a good place related to the vision, the goals and the financial targets we’ve set out,” Ferranti said.

Working through the pandemic

Rich Products isn’t immune to the supply chain challenges afflicting so many businesses.

But Jeff Kim, president and chief operating officer of global markets, said the company over the years has laid the kind of groundwork that helps overcome challenging times.

“The supply chain challenges you hear about, of course they are real,” he said. “But for us, we’ve been pretty well invested in many of our businesses by having local organizations. Therefore, our ability to react and really cater to the customers’ requirements has been stellar during the pandemic.

“We do have an extensive network of manufacturing facilities around the world that supports the local market or that local region,” Kim said. “The ability to take the needs of the customers and be able to provide the right products, at the right time, at the right place has been pretty stellar.”

At the same time, Rich Products can draw upon resources from its headquarters to support those local markets when needed, whether in procurement, R&D or equipment expertise, Ferranti said.

A little honesty with customers also goes a long way, when it comes to any issues with service or product availability, Ferranti said. “You just have to communicate that and really work closely with them. A lot of organizations apparently weren’t fully following up on that.”

During an interview and a robust speech to the company’s global leaders, Ferranti kept returning to theme of transforming the business, and the urgency to do so. Technology investment figures heavily in those plans, in everything from how the manufacturing plants track their efficiency, to keeping customers in the loop, to Rich Products’ internal operations.

All of that behind-the-scenes digitization, he said, flows down to the way Rich Products performs. “Customers and consumers expect an almost Amazon-like experience,” Ferranti said.

Ferranti said when it comes to running a big business like Rich Products, it’s a balancing act.

“You need to make sure you’re delivering on the here and now, and at the same time, making the type of core investments that are required for the mid- and longer term, the next five to six to seven years.”

Not your average office space

Rich Products hasn’t required its people to come back into the office to do their jobs. The company likes the productivity its employees have shown while working remotely, and doesn’t want to lose that momentum.

At the same time, Rich Products officials see benefits to employees getting together in person, like for tackling a big project together.

“After about three years of being away, it’s like anything else, you’re into a new routine now,” said Dwight Gram, a Rich Products spokesperson. “And how do we get people to break that routine?”

One answer: create the kind of office space where people want to work.

Rich Products just finished renovating half of its second floor of one of its buildings. The new look reflects the world of hybrid work.

In one area, rows of cubicles have given way to bright, open settings, with colorful meeting rooms and all kinds of unassigned places to sit and work.

“Whatever needs you have in your meeting, should be met in some space across this floor,” said Jason Fronckowiak, service line program manager. And with the new layout, there’s actually more seats for employees to use than before.

The company is encouraging employees who have assigned desks elsewhere in the headquarters to come down and use the new space, as well.

“If you come into the office, one of the main reasons to come in is to bump into and interact and collaborate with others,” Gram said. “You can’t do that if you’re still sitting in your individual desk all day.”

Flexibility remains the watchword for where Rich Products’ people do their jobs. Like other companies, Rich is vying for workers who have more options than ever to work remotely. In order to stay competitive for those workers, the company has to provide options for workers who have grown to like the way they work or risk losing them to employers who will.

Rich Products is aiming for a “best of both worlds” approach that keeps productivity flowing while encouraging face-to-face connections.

“We’re letting the managers work with their individual teams to determine, what is the best way that I want to manage this?” Ferranti said. “Some managers may say, ‘Hey, for these kinds of events and activities, I want to meet face-to-face.’ Other managers may have other decisions.”

Later this year, the company will take stock of how things are working. Over the next few months, the company will gather feedback from its employees and analyze how well the refurbished space is being used.

Ferranti said companies of all sizes are learning as they go: “I don’t think there’s a big, grand strategy that any organization can put in place when it comes to how are you going to work in this new environment.”

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