Robert E. Rich was the son of a successful dairyman who built the Rich Ice Cream Co. into the largest independent ice cream company in America. Starting at age 14, Rich worked for his dad on the Popsicle line and drove a delivery truck in the summers.
After college in 1935, Rich started his own dairy, but didn’t see cows as productive. He called them “this country’s most inefficient manufacturing plant.” As it turned out, motor tycoon Henry Ford felt the same way and had started experimenting with creating nondairy products out of soybeans.
Intrigued by those possibilities, Rich began developing a nondairy topping but ran into production problems, mainly that the topping wouldn’t whip.
Only when a batch accidentally froze did Rich stumble on a product that whipped up to more than triple its bulk. It cost less than cream, could be stored indefinitely and was less fattening.
It did not impress Rich’s dad. “If you’d just pay attention to the milk business, you’d become the biggest milk dealer in town,” he said.
Rich ignored his father and soldiered on. Sales took off. He converted the whipped topping market to 95% nondairy from 100% cream. He was sued, but won the argument in 41 states that his product was a substitute, not an imitation.
“Someday,” he declared, “you will have to go to the zoo to see a cow.” In 1990, Rich became one of the first four inductees into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame. Forbes put Rich’s net worth at $2.5 billion the year before he died.
Just in case of disaster, he’d hung onto his dairy. “But he also wanted to show his father what he could do,” says son Robert E. Rich Jr. “Let’s just say it has been a recurring theme in my family of wanting to show your parents you were successful.”
Lesson: A little chip on your shoulder is not a bad thing.
—Adapted from “The Nondairy Dairy Man,” Alex Witchel, The New York Times Magazine.