E. Ritter of Marked Tree Evolves Through 5 Generations of Agriculture, Communications

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Jul. 8, 2013 12:00 am  

A scale model of Ernest Ritter’s original general store stands in the E. Ritter & Co. headquarters in Marked Tree (Poinsett County). (Photo by Luke Jones)

“Our most recent foray in communications is a wholesale transport division which goes over our fiber network,” Hatzenbuehler said. “It provides capacity for other carriers. For example, we’ve built out fiber for Verizon to cell towers to enable 4G communications. That fiber also connects to our network, and we’re selling that capacity over our fiber network to other wholesale communications providers.”

Family Shareholders

While Dickinson is overseeing the company’s operations, Hatzenbuehler is now working with the Ritter family. Only two family members are among about 300 employees on the payroll: Hatzenbuehler and Ritter Arnold. The rest of the family are shareholders.

“When the family was small, back in the third generation, it was small enough that it could get around the proverbial kitchen table,” Hatzenbuehler said. “Starting with the fourth generation, my wife’s generation, we started having kids, and now some of those kids have kids, and you’ve lost that ability to really communicate effectively through a large group of shareholders.”

The company has about 45 family owners dispersed all over the country from Boston to San Diego to Florida to Denver, Hatzenbuehler said.

“It’s that geographical dispersion plus the generational dispersion that creates a lot of the really interesting issues to a family business,” he said. “Since 2009 we have been focusing an awful lot of time and energy on doing some governance things to really enhance the family ownership and enhance the desire of the family members to remain in the family business for another five generations.”

Hatzenbuehler said 2009 was when the company’s board was restructured from being mostly family members to being mostly independent directors. At the same time, the company created the unofficial “Ritter Family Council,” with seven members whose job is to keep the family informed and educated about the company’s activities.

For example, the council performed a survey of family owners to gauge their feelings on what family values should be reflected in company governance. In 2011 the council released a “First Owners’ Plan” which detailed those values and contained a familial mission and vision statement.

“They help plan the annual shareholders’ meeting and are also very helpful in communicating with the independent directors,” Hatzenbuehler said.

The family is also partly in charge of the company’s philanthropic activities. Both employees and family members make up the Ritter Family Endowment Committee.

“They get together four times a year to decide what types of charities and things to support in our operating areas that meet these family values and enable the Ritter family to give to the communities where we operate,” Dickinson said.

“They are very important to our town and our community,” said Sandee Teague, president of the Marked Tree Chamber of Commerce, speaking of the company in general. “They’re very much a backbone in Marked Tree. The family gives back to the town and our community, and we appreciate that very much.

“If something was needed in this town and county, we got it. Through jobs opportunities and leadership, they give back. And they believe in Marked Tree.”



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