From Timber to Technology, Ritter's Founder Cleared Path to Entrepreneurship

In 1886, Ernest Ritter moved to Marked Tree (Poinsett County) and started a mercantile business.

It was the classic picture of a late 19th century country store: wooden floors, glass display cases, rows and rows of canned goods.

But Ritter didn’t stop there.

“He started quickly expanding into a bunch of other businesses,” said Dan Hatzenbuehler, chairman of E. Ritter’s board and a relative by marriage of Ernest Ritter. “He homesteaded 160 acres north of here; he got that as a land grant from the government. He lived there long enough to get a title to it. He cleared the land — back then this was all basically swampland — for timber.”

In 1906, he started E. Ritter Telephone Co. He started acquiring both farmland and residential developments. He owned the town’s electric and water companies and most of the commercial buildings downtown. He built a commercial ice plant so fish could be iced and barged down the St. Francis River.

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“So he was a real entrepreneur,” Hatzenbuehler said. “A classic entrepreneur. If there was a way to make money, there was a way for him to do it.”

In the 1910s, Ernest Ritter decided to move his family to Memphis so they could have full educations, but he didn’t leave the business behind.

“One of the seminal events in the company’s history was in 1947 when the company acquired a substantial portion of what had been the Chapman & Dewey operations in Marked Tree, which included car dealerships, car distributors, bulk fuel, a farm equipment company, an International Harvester dealership and about 9,000 acres of farmland,” Hatzenbuehler said. “It really catapulted it into offering an even broader range of services, particularly on the ag side.”

Since 1947, the company has shaved off components and added others. The car dealerships were sold in the 1960s, for example. E. Ritter became an Internet service provider in the 1990s and picked up cable TV in 2005.

The company has about 300 employees, but the numbers shift with acquisitions and divestitures. Revenue is about $200 million yearly, Hatzenbuehler said.

“We are interested in continuing the growth of our company both through making acquisitions that are advantageous to us, and we’re also interested in expanding our wholesale transportation division within communications,” said CEO Chip Dickinson. “From the agricultural side, we would be interested acquiring additional land, additional capacity. Really just, as opportunities present themselves, we’d like to take advantage of them, much like Ernest Ritter did.”