Retired executive in Sarasota ran $1 billion paper company

jsalman@bradenton.comMay 7, 2012 

This is one in a continuing series of interviews with former executives who have retired in the Manatee-Sarasota area.

By JOSH SALMAN

jsalman@bradenton.com

SARASOTA -- Dick Radt's 55-year career in the paper industry earned him the nickname the "Turnaround Manager."

Now retired in Sarasota, the 80-year-old business executive led five paper manufacturers from the red to the black, growing the largest of them from $68 million in annual revenues in the late 1970s to a $1 billion company with 3,000 employees in seven states at the time of his retirement.

And it wasn't just note pads and printer sheets.

Under his watch, Radt's companies produced several paper-based products, from microwave popcorn bags to the formica commonly used in furniture.

Radt now helps other entrepreneurs start their business through the local SCORE chapter, where he's been volunteering since 2007. He also still serves as director of emeritus for Wausau Paper, essentially acting as an adviser to the board of directors -- without a formal vote.

Q: How did you get involved in the paper business?

A: I grew up in Chicago -- interrupted several years by the Korean War. I graduated from (the University of) Illinois in 1956 and went to work in sales for Remington Rand for two years. I got into the paper industry where I also started in sales and worked my way up to national sales manager. My first command was for Valentine Paper Co. in Louisiana, where we made paper out of leftover sugar cane. It was a pilot program, and it was pretty successful.

I found out that I became the turnaround manager in the paper industry.

Q: What do you mean by the term 'turnaround manager'?

A: When I started with Valentine, they weren't doing very well, and with a team of people, I made them profitable and sold the company. Then I went to a paper company in Michigan, which was purchased by Philip Morris in the loss position. We turned it into a profit-making company. It did so well, and I was responsible for that, so Philip Morris made me the head of their paper group. Then I got to Wausau Paper and it was the same thing.

One of the things people have called me is a visionary. I can see things before other people can. That's what I do, and it's based on experience. I'm a turnaround guy.

Q: How has the paper industry changed over your career?

A: The paper industry is in the doldrums. When I grew up, people always had paper. We made carbon copies, put them in our files and everybody wanted a copy of everything. Then came computers. People said the industry would immediately suffer, and it didn't because the old guys like me still wanted a copy. Then the younger generation came along that grew up around computers and said, "I don't need a copy, it's already on the machine." This has cut 50 to 60 percent out of the industry.

Q: What are some of the ways you were able to turn these companies around?

A: Every situation was different, and the best thing I can do is give you an example. When you went to the dentist years ago, they had all of those tools like hooks and small mirrors wrapped in paper to keep them sterilized -- called surgical wrap. Then one of my employees came up with the idea of "What if we could steam them in the wrap?" The answer led to microwaveable popcorn bags, which kept the grease in and let the steam out. That's what business is all about: finding better ways to do things.

The biggest profit now is in tissues and toilet paper. It sounds horrible, but toilet paper is recession proof. You're always going to eat and go to the bathroom.

Q: What made you decide to retire in Sarasota?

A: We've lived in Sarasota for almost eight years now. It was basically the weather, sand and all of the other things that bring people to Florida. We did inductive reasoning. We went to Boca Grande, looked at the East Coast, and went up and down for a few years to see what we liked best. That's when we found Sarasota, and we loved it. We still do.

Q: When you're not volunteering with SCORE or still helping with the paper company, what do you do in your free time?

A: I have seven grandchildren, so that always makes life interesting. I also have five sons, so we have a big family and a lot of family activities. We live on the water, so I also do a lot of those type of things ... I also foster golden retrievers -- dogs that have been abandoned or abused -- until a permanent home can be found for them.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

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