The Family Business: Bernie Ridder, In Retrospect

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By: Tony Ridder

Editor’s Note: Bernard H. Ridder Jr., an architect of the present Knight Ridder chain, died in October 2002 of complications from a stroke. Ridder began as an ad salesman in Aberdeen, S.D., before rising to publisher of the Ridder papers in Duluth and St. Paul, Minn. He was CEO of Ridder Publications when the company went public, and orchestrated the merger with Knight Newspapers in 1974. When he passed away, E&P asked his son, Tony Ridder–then and now CEO of Knight Ridder–to write the following tribute. It seemed appropriate to republish it, given the events of this past week and the apparent passing of much of the Ridder legacy to McClatchy.

***

Two months before my father, Bernie Ridder, died Oct. 10 of complications from a stroke, he was still asking questions about the business. Santana Row, a large-scale and not-yet-completed housing and shopping complex in San Jose, Calif., had inexplicably caught fire, causing $70-million to $90-million worth of damage. “What was the impact on the community?” Dad asked me, despite his being very ill. “What about the advertisers? The paper?”

It was so typical. Dad’s insatiable curiosity about the newspaper’s performance, the communities in which he worked ? and, indeed, the whole world around him ? was well-known to anyone close to him over a career that spanned most of his 85 years.

As a boy in Duluth, Minn., where he was the publisher, I remember his involvement with the Rotary, the Food Bank, the Community Chest. Later, in St. Paul, he successfully sought a Hilton Hotel for the downtown area of that city and the Vikings football franchise for the Twin Cities. Years later, when he was no longer directly associated with the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, he would return there and ask the ad directors: “How is our business? How are our advertisers doing?” He would ask the editors: “What are the local stories?”

Although I might not have known it at the time, these were my first lessons in the newspaper business: to be totally engaged in both the business and editorial operations as well as in the affairs of the community that the newspaper served.

The truth is: Dad did not encourage me to go into the business. In fact, I had to ask him if I could go into what was, by then, a widely dispersed family concern. Starting with two special-interest newspapers in New York, Ridder Publications had grown to include newspapers in the Midwest and, with Dad’s heavy influence, in Colorado and California as well. Dad’s response, ultimately, was: “I will let you go into the business, but you are going to have to earn your way. And if you’re not performing up to my expectations, I won’t let you stay.”

In running the company, Bernie Ridder was a no-nonsense guy whose focus was on hard work and achievement. His oft-stated goal, in any situation, was to do what he called “the right thing.” He had an uncanny ability to size up people, prizing integrity above all. More than once, I saw him ask a question when he knew the answer, simply to ascertain the response. In any exchange, he came to the point quickly, and he did not like long meetings. Unlike at least one of his children, however, he was a patient man.

Editorial was hands-off if you were on the business side of the operations ? and pleadings from prominent people to keep something out of the paper weren’t going to change that. In a day when sports franchises would routinely pay for writers to travel with the team, he was one of the first to change the practice and pick up the tab.

Dad liked to reward good people, even beyond their expectations. In a sympathy note I received last week from John McMillion, a former publisher in Duluth, I was reminded that Dad named him to the post just two months after hiring him, apparently much to John’s surprise. “You didn’t know you were making a two-base hit?” Dad had said at the time, and John never forgot the comment.

Contrary to popular perception, Dad did not grow up wealthy. Complications in his own parents’ past mandated reasonably short rations during the 1920s and ’30s ? an experience that stamped him for life with frugality. The price of any given house, car, meal, or bottle of wine could make him blanch, right until the end.

Along with the fiscal restraint was a profound sense of decorum, the right way, the polite way, to act ? at all times. “Could I have another glass of iced tea?” one of us might say at a family dinner, even within the past year. “Could I please have another glass of iced tea?” Dad would interject.

In college, Dad played in the finals of the U.S. intercollegiate competition in squash. He was a scratch golfer, and he continued to play golf the rest of his life. Maybe it was his competitive drive, but almost certainly it was his sense of stewardship that led him, in the early 1970s, to seek a partner for Ridder Publications, by then a substantial collection of newspapers. Knight Ridder Newspapers was the outcome of the search.

In later years, I think it’s fair to say, Dad became something of a “softie” ? less intense, and politically more liberal than the man we had known growing up. But he still read voraciously, and his wisdom was valued more than ever. When he resigned from Knight Ridder’s board of directors nine years ago because, as he said, “76 was old enough,” Jim Batten, then the company’s chairman and CEO, asked how he would manage as well without Bernie’s counsel.

I know, now, exactly how Jim felt.

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