Roger Trapp: A challenge can also be an opportunity

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The Independent Online

Continued talk of an economic downturn would appear to make this an odd time to talk about opportunities for growing businesses.

Continued talk of an economic downturn would appear to make this an odd time to talk about opportunities for growing businesses. And yet there are countless tales of businesses started in challenging economic conditions that have gone on to great success. The Carphone Warehouse, which opened its doors in the late 1980s and experienced rapid growth in the recession of the early 1990s, is just one notable example.

Indeed, many entrepreneurs reckon that the disciplines forced on them by the economic background mean that they form much more robust businesses that are then in a fantastic position to expand when good times return.

Above all, it is important to remember that a good idea is a good idea in just about any circumstances. And entrepreneurs know that if they linger over an idea without acting on it there is a good chance that somebody more decisive will have, if not the same thought, then one that is sufficiently close to make theirs of much less value.

A reminder of this principle came earlier this month, when the aptly named Robert Rich visited London as part of the 60th anniversary celebrations for Rich Products Corporation, the company he founded at the end of the Second World War. Now in his nineties, Rich was already in business then, as owner of a milk operation called Wilber Farms Dairy. But he got his big chance while serving as the War Food Administrator in Michigan. He heard about research into the use of soybeans to create innovative food products, and after further investigations into how soya beans could be used in making non-dairy toppings, launched Rich's Whip Topping.

This was not only the foundation of his company, but it also paved the way for frozen desserts, such as gateaux and cheesecakes. And - to this day - the company has continued to harness technology to bring scores of innovations to the frozen-foods market. (Some of these products might not be to everybody's taste, but Rich is proud that the technology his company has developed has helped restaurants and other professional caterers to reduce waste by enabling them to keep cakes and similar foods frozen and still use them immediately.)

Rich recalls with a twinkle in his eye, that the early days featured a fair bit of nifty footwork on the part of himself and his colleagues as they battled with regulators concerned about the fate of the dairy industry.

This is, of course, a situation that is not entirely unfamiliar to innovators. Nor is the fact that one of the company's key products - Bettercreme - came about by accident. It might seem lucky that the breakthrough in the search for an ingredient that would enable cream products to be frozen without losing their consistency happened in that way, but, of course, years of hard work had taken the company to the point where it got its "lucky break".

In fact, when asked the secret of the company's success, Rich says: "We've got 77 people in the Research and Development department". Not that that alone is enough. Each year 250 to 300 new products are launched and their performance is monitored closely. "At the end of the year we get the slow movers out and keep the winners, and we keep repeating the process," he adds.

Another key factor that will gain approval from many entrepreneurs is that the company remains a privately owned family business. "We've never sold one share of stock," explains Rich. One son is president of the company and some of the next generation have started to become involved. But the whole family is kept up to date with developments at meetings held twice a year. "We tell them how the business is going and we tell them about people who've got money by selling the company and what's happened to them. We don't make it sound that favourable."

Seriously, though, not having outside interests to satisfy means that the company can reinvest much of its profits in growth. A strategy that means that it now distributes more than 2,300 products in more than 85 countries, including China and the UK, giving it worldwide sales of $2bn (£1.1bn).

Though much of the earnings are ploughed back into the business, Rich himself does not appear to do that badly by the policy. He is wealthy enough to own baseball teams and - in the American way - to be a significant public benefactor.

But, above all, despite his advancing years, he remains focused on the company, remaining chairman and in this anniversary year making the effort to visit operations around the world. "People ask me when I'm going to retire," he says. "I say, 'Read my obituary and I will have died the day before'."