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The bloom is on; she came late to the family firm, but Mary Ann Ritter Arnold hasn't been held back one bit.



It's 7:30 on a Monday morning and Mary Ann Ritter Arnold already is in her third floor office at E. Ritter Telephone Co. in Marked Tree. Actually she's been there and gone. She dropped an oversized bag and some other papers on her desk and walked down the hall to confer with some of her lieutenants. At least twice she is interrupted by phone calls.

At 7:55, before she has had the opportunity to sit down at her desk, Arnold tells the receptionist that she is going to Lepanto and that she will be returning in a few minutes.

Arnold is the president of E. Ritter & Co., a synergistic mix of businesses that has evolved from a single grocery store opened by her grandfather Ernest in 1886. She has to get an early start to accommodate a hectic schedule.

In the first two months of 1989, she's already been to Washington, D.C., Nashville, Dallas, Houston and Hawaii for various meetings. That's in addition to frequent jaunts to Memphis and Little Rock.

"There just aren't enough hours in the day," she is fond of saying. "This job will take every minute I give it."

She takes the elevator down to the basement where she climbs into her red and cream-colored Bronco equipped with a cellular phone and two short wave radios, one for the farm and one for the telephone company. Arnold is on her way to deliver a rice kit to a home economics teacher in Lepanto, 10 miles away. Although it seems a rather mundane task for a director of the National Rice Council, and certainly for one so busy as Arnold, she believes one-on-one contact is important.

Arnold, a diminutive five feet tall, keeps busy by overseeing a family business that includes 21,000 acres of farmland, ranking it as one of Arkansas' largest landholders; a telephone company, with 3,880 lines the 16the largest in the state out of 30 companies; a retail lumber company; a farm equipment dealership; a seed company; a gin; a bulk oil distributorship; and most of the commercial property in downtown Marked Tree.

Arnold's cousin, Louis Newsom, had run the company from 1971 until his death in 1976, having succeeded her brother Louis Ritter Jr., who had been killed in an auto accident. It was at this point Arnold, who had been serving as a director, decided she wanted to take command of the family-owned business. It was important, she believed, that she step forward at the time because an outsider was attempting to become the first non-family member to hold the president's office.

"I was family. I thought as long as someone in the family was capable of running the business then they should," she reflects, sitting at a table in her office after her return from Lepanto.

The Ritter board wasn't sure being family was a good enough reason. Directors wanted someone with business experience, someone who was tough.

Married to a doctor -- Sidney Arnold, a gynecologist-obstetrician now semi-retired -- Arnold had never run a business. A graduate of Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., where she earned a degree in home economics, Arnold had spent most of her married life raising their two sons, Ritter and Paul, and their daughter Melissa. Ritter serves as VP and farm manager with the company.

Over a two-month period she fielded dozens of questions. What would you do in this situation? In that situation? How do you feel about this? The questions came from all sides.

The board must have been convinced that behind her gentle smile and sparkling eyes there was a shrewd, strong-willed executive just waiting for the chance to prove herself. Women's lib had arrived in Marked Tree in the person of Mary Ann Arnold.

She has not disappointed anyone.

Walter Howell, a board member and Memphis banker, was not on the board when Arnold was elected president, but "has been most impressed with the progress of the company under Mary Ann's leadership." Chiefly, he praises her skills at carrying out the board's long-range plans.

Louis Goad, retired president of the $23.4 million (assets) Marked Tree Bank, where Arnold is a stockholder and director, gives her high marks,

"She's done a good job," says Goad. "I've always observed, that as a rule, the third generation of a family usually blows the estate. In this particular case it is not so. She has added much more to the estate."

All the companies are closely-held family concerns and, thus, Arnold isn't forthcoming on matters of revenues and profits. However, she does say that since becoming president company assets have increased significantly and profits have doubled.

"She's a lot like her dad, but much more progressive than he was. She is the most progressive of the whole clan," adds Goad. "She started a lot of improvements in fixing up the town. She has made an effort to continue the good growth of Marked Tree."

Progressive is the adjective others use when talking about Arnold and is perhaps the most descriptive of her personality and business style.

Wayne Nichols, VP of sales for Ritter, has served under four presidents at the company. He echoes Goad's sentiments.

"I think one of her big strengths is that she really has a desire to see the company grow and prosper, but she doesn't leave out the community," he explains.

In fact, it was the interest of the community that initially concerned Arnold when she became president. With many of downtown's buildings showing visible signs of wear and tear, to say nothing of the deteriorating infrastructure, Arnold believed the buildings would have to be razed if improvements weren't made. Yet doing that would mean tearing down much of Marked Tree, and the board okayed her renovation project. Slowly, but surely, during a span of about 10 years, the downtown has gone from drab to dapper.

"We tried to give each place of business its own personality," Arnold says of the work. "We wanted to give each business its own face. We had gone to other towns where the renovation had all been done the same way, and you couldn't tell one business from another. We didn't want that in Marked Tree."

Arnold won't reveal the cost of the repairs and facelift, but she concedes that it ran into the "middle six figures."

Sprucing up also meant tearing down in Marked Tree. There were several substandard houses, some with outhouses, owned by the company that were an embarrassment to everyone concerned. The order was to tear them down as soon as the tenants moved out. At least a dozen eyesores were demolished, admits Arnold.

Another particularly embarrassing problem Arnold had to deal with was a significant decline in telephone service. Covering an area that includes the eastern part of Poinsett County and a portion of western Mississippi County, the telephone company had long been a source of great pride to the Ritter family. Founded just after the turn of the century, the phone company had made great strides during the period in which her brother Louis Jr. had worked for the company.

Known for his brilliant mind, Louis Jr. led the company into high-tech in the 1960s installing direct dialing equipment even before Ma Bell. That in turn led to the construction of the building that now serves as Ritter's headquarters and houses the phone company.

"I had certain standards for the telephone company and the company as a whole," says Arnold, sipping from her coffee cup. "The telephone service was lousy, though. No, don't say that. Say it was below standard. I would get phone call after phone call from people getting poor service.

"When the boys started dating, they would go to parties at Lepanto and the kids would ask them questions. They would say: "Why can't we have better telephone service?"

"The boys would come back and say: "Mother, can't you do something about it?'"

Arnold began checking into the problem and found an inattentive manager. She made herself heard loud and clear: Improve service. She kept making the demands for so long that eventually the manager quit. With a new manager, service began to improve.

In 1979 Arnold began displaying the business savvy her associates praise today. Recognizing that rice production was moving eastward in Arkansas (heretofore most of the production had been west of Crowley's Ridge), Arnold sold the board on building a rice dryer and a 500,000-bushel elevator to store the grain. If her hunch proved wrong, it would cost the company millions and leave her with little or no credibility.

It was, of course, a good decision because rice production did move eastward, and as a result of Arnold's foresight the company is a major depository today of not only rice, but other grains and seeds as well.

The company can store more than three million bushels of grain and seed. In 1982, the company purchased the old West Memphis Cotton Oil Meal plant in Crittenden County, formerly owned by the James Brothers of Corning.

"That was a timely acquisition," remarks Arnold, moving over to her desk to answer a call. "We bought it basically for extra storage [capacity is 900,000 bushels]. It paid for itself in a couple of years."

Again, it was impeccable timing. That year, 1982, was a bumper year for soybean farmers and with a huge crop being harvested storage space was at a premium.

A few years ago, when Osceola Products, on whose board Arnold sits, ran short of space for its cottonseed, Arnold leased storage to the oil meal firm. Currently, Pillsbury leases the storage for cottonseed.

Whether by chance or design, Arnold's purchase of the plant will take on another financial dimension as time goes by. Located on a 13-acre site on West Memphis' busiest thoroughfare and less than a half-mile from the junction of Interstates 55 and 40, the property no doubt will be developed for retail purposes some day, thus enhancing its value many times over the purchase price.

In the meantime, E. Ritter & Co. is reaping still another dividend from the property. In cleaning up the property over the past seven years, many of the old buildings have been dismantled. But instead of selling the material for scrap, Arnold is recycling it.

A couple of years ago Arnold saw another opportunity to clean up. The company already owned a bulk fuel operation in Marked Tree, and she jumped at the chance to buy another, this one serving a more prosperous Crittenden County to the south. Along with all the fuel customers came a whopping off-the-road tire business and a dilapidated gas station in Marion. The tire business holds great promise for the company because it was already well-established. The gas station needed work.

Last summer Arnold spent several thousand dollars to bring the station up to standards. (Being a tightly held family firm she doesn't like to give specific figures.)

Despite a prime location -- on the service road adjacent to I-55 -- the station had done well to sell 500 gallons of fuel a week before Ritter came in. Since then the volume has risen steadily, and it's now on the way to pumping 100,000 gallons a month.

All in all the acquisition appears to be one that will reward Arnold and the company for years to come.

One part of the company's operation that she wasn't pleased with a few years ago was the farming operation. From year to year, it was difficult to determine if the company could earn between $10 and $50 per acre in crops on the land, much of it farmed under lease arrangements with local farmers.

Arnold wanted a steadier stream of earnings from the land. So, she decided, to "insure" those profits.

"You don't have any control over prices, of course, but you can do something about production, so we decided to start putting down some wells," she explains. "We put the wells down, and the farmers put on the power equipment and the center pivots. If they leave they can take their equipment with them, but the well is always there.

"In the last few years we've put down about 60 wells. We're also leveling more land every year getting it ready for irrigation."

Part of the farming operation includes 500 acres of pecan trees. Started by her father many years ago, the groves produce between 250,000 and 300,000 pounds of pecans annually which the company sells both retail and wholesale. A few years ago Arnold had another 100 acres of trees set out, and they will be bearing fruit in a few more years.

Critics of E. Ritter & Co. have over the years claimed that the company put too much emphasis on its own growth to the detriment of the community. Because of its extensive holdings, say critics, Marked Tree only grows when E. Ritter & Co. says so.

Arnold is keenly aware of this perception, and she says wants to change all of that.

"I love Marked Tree," she says. "And I think competition is good."

That means in part that E. Ritter & Co., through its retail lumber business no longer builds every house in subdivisions that the company develops. And while the detractors point out these past problems, they are unaware, as perhaps most are in the community, of the company's extensive financial contributions to the town.

Lawrence Ashlock, the mayor of Marked Tree, and Charles Sims, the school superintendent, are quick to acknowledge that without Arnold's support, financial and otherwise, Marked Tree would be the worst for it.

Like Goad, Ashlock uses that term progressive in describing Arnold, pointing out that "she's done a lot for the town."

He says that Arnold and E. Ritter & Co. have contributed $50,000 toward the purchase of a new fire engine as well as $20,000 toward the construction of a new fire station. For good measure they tossed in another $5,000 for the city beautification program and additional funds to help start the newly founded Crimestoppers program.

In February, the company was one of four corporate sponsors that put on a drug awareness program for about 7,500 youngsters at Arkansas State University.

Sims, who had been a highly successful football coach at Marked Tree two decades ago, recalls that when he returned to the school in 1985 after a long absence he was overwhelmed at how unattractive the campus had become.

"I was shocked at the ugliness," he recalls. "There were shrubs out there that were 50 percent dead. Some were 100 percent dead. When Mary Ann saw a [landscape] drawing that had been done...she gave us a check for $2,500 to put in new shrubs, azaleas and ivy. That was the beginning of my association with Mary Ann."

But fortunately not his last.

When it became apparent that many picture frames, encasing old senior class photos, needed replacing, guess who stepped forward and paid a local framemaker to do the job? When classrooms needed new shades? Arnold also gave $20,500 toward a computer lab.

Arnold has done more than extend an open pocketbook. She worked diligently in an effort to get an additional school millage passed and on another occasion she worked to bring about a consolidation of Marked Tree and East Poinsett County schools. Although both efforts failed, Sims says it wasn't because of a lack of commitment on Arnold's part.

"She did more than her part. She's been a pleasure to watch," notes Sims. "If we had more like her, the school business would be a lot better off. I can't say enough about the support and help from Mary Ann since I've been here. She's extremely civic-minded."

When business deals and community projects aren't occupying her time, Arnold pores over many publications.

On her desk this day, along with a cotton boll bouquet sitting on one corner, are copies of Arkansas Business and Cotton International. On another table are still other periodicals. To her left, on a credenza, are brochures on the Agricultural Council of Arkansas and Agricenter International, both of which she has served as a director.

Also on the credenza are some brochures providing rice recipes. Arnold is always eager to distribute material like this because it affords her the opportunity to go one on one. That's why she felt it was important to deliver the rice kit to the teacher in Lepanto herself.

She has plugged buying U.S. products for so long that she says, "I've even got Sidney looking at labels."

Even though she serves on so many committees and boards -- she's also on the USDA Marketing Advisory Committee as a ginner representative, the St. Francis Levee Board and newly elected member to Poinsett County Quorum Court -- Arnold is easy-going and friendly. If a visitor to the Ritter offices didn't know better, she might be mistaken for one of the employees.

Called Mary Ann by everyone, even the 120 or so employees of the company, Arnold looks as though she would be more comfortable at home than in the board room. And in fact, she does enjoy some of the homey pleasures such as needlepoint, tending to the yard, cooking and square dancing. But more often than not she will take work home.

It is her work that gives her so much pleasure, and she thoroughly enjoys being with people.

During the Christmas holidays no one was more spirited than Arnold. She frequently wore pullovers to work that displayed her sentiments. One proclaimed "Merry Christmas" in big letter across the front while on the back the message was "Happy New Year." Another, which came equipped with a small battery pack and blinking lights, noted, "I'm Plugged into the Christmas Spirit."

That's the sort of relaxed atmosphere that apparently works so well for Arnold, who no longer goes to board meetings fearful of possible reprisals from doubting directors.

"Ninety-five percent of the time they go along with us," says Arnold, who will be 62 later this month.

That's a good indication that after all her years of hard work and travel, the board acknowledges the chance they gave Arnold to prove herself 13 years ago has paid off handsomely.

"I certainly have more confidence in myself," says Arnold, who gained some of that through a Dale Carnegie course. "I feel I'm more relaxed at board meetings now. And I can talk before a group of people now.

"You ask me what I bring to this job. I feel that I'm a very positive person. I try to sit and listen to new ideas, ideas that might work for us."

Continuing, she adds, "You've got to give good service. That's probably 75 percent of the business. We try to treat all our customers like we want to be treated."

Even though her husband's career is winding down, Arnold's appears still to be in bloom, and she says she wants to stay on "as long as the board will let me."

Meanwhile, son Ritter is watching and learning. A graduate of prestigious Rhodes College in Memphis, Ritter is a CPA, and he already has a sharp eye for numbers. Nothing could make Arnold happier, either, than for the board to pass the presidency to Ritter when she steps down.

"He certainly has the mental capacity for it," she says proudly.

If he has any of his mother's traits then he should make a dandy.
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Title Annotation:E. Ritter & Co.
Author:Provost, Richard
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:company profile
Date:Apr 10, 1989
Previous Article:Staley Electric; since 1951, the family firm has wired many a building, security system and cash register.
Next Article:The Lyon's share.

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