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E. Ritter & Company is one of the most successful and long-lasting family-owned businesses in the state. Headquartered in Marked Tree (Poinsett County), the privately held corporation is the parent company of Ritter Communications and Ritter Agribusiness.
Though incorporated in 1906, the business was actually founded in 1889 by Ernest Herman Ritter Jr. The original business entity was a general merchandise store located in what was then a semi-permanent sawmill community. As opportunity arose, Ritter moved into other ventures, such as road and bridge building; timber cutting and milling; fish and game shipping; and the ice business.
Interested in technology, Ritter installed a small electrical plant to run his ice business. He then hooked the rest of the company businesses, as well as his home, into the plant’s electricity. The demand for electricity from the rest of the town’s residents spurred the decision to build a larger electrical plant. On behalf of the company, his wife, Anna Hirschman Ritter, petitioned the town council (of which he was an alderman) for the franchise to provide power to the rest of the town. At around the same time, he installed a small switchboard for telephone service and also petitioned for that franchise.
In 1906, Ritter, with the assistance of several of his closest business associates, incorporated E. Ritter & Company. With the growth of the utility companies, Ritter sold off the mercantile store and began buying up cutover land to farm. He eventually accumulated several thousand acres in a five-county region of northeastern Arkansas, growing cotton. Before he could establish a plantation empire, Ritter died of pernicious anemia, exacerbated by malaria, which was a common malady in the Delta region.
Ernest Ritter was succeeded as the president of the company by his oldest son, twenty-seven-year-old Louis V. Ritter Sr., in 1921. His first year was marked by the arrival of the boll weevil, army worm, and cotton boll worm in northeastern Arkansas, bringing on nearly two decades of a difficult business climate. L. V. Ritter Sr. succeeded in moving the company through the agricultural depression of the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s, not only intact but thriving.
In 1947, E. Ritter & Company joined with two Memphis, Tennessee, investors, H. Price Curd and William L. Taylor, to purchase the large Chapman & Dewey Land Company, which had until then been Marked Tree’s largest employer. The Chapman & Dewey businesses were rebranded as St. Francis Valley Farms and, although separate entities, operated as one. The expansion signaled a change in the business operations, as the Memphis owners were used to a more professional business climate and E. Ritter & Company had operated fairly loosely without corporate minutes or any real records.
In 1953, L. V. Ritter Sr. was appointed to serve on the Federal Farm Credit Board by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his frequent absences from Marked Tree allowed his son, Louis V. Ritter Jr., to begin learning how to lead the business into a world of quickly evolving technology. The two worked to buy out the Memphis partners and, by the end of 1960, had purchased all of the stock of St. Francis Valley Farms.
L. V. Ritter Sr. died of cancer in May 1965 and was succeeded by his son as president. The younger Ritter began a period of intense transformation, but his death in a car accident in 1971 at the age of forty-nine brought about new leadership. His cousin, Louis Newsom, the oldest of Ernest Ritter’s grandchildren, assumed the presidency in 1971; he died from cancer in 1976. By this time, there were no longer any male members of the third generation of the family to take over leadership, and it was rare at this time in Arkansas for women to hold upper-level management positions.
When a non-family member seemed destined to take command, one of the three granddaughters of company founder Ernest Ritter—Mary Ann Ritter Arnold—stepped forward and asked to lead the company. Although the family and the board of directors were apprehensive, Arnold was selected to take the presidency in 1976 and held that job until 1992. She served during a time of great change in the agricultural side of the business and also worked to keep Marked Tree a vital community during a time in which many small rural towns were dying.
In 1989, the company moved into the cellular telephone business. By 1992, the business had changed to such as extent that it was necessary to change the business structure. Mary Ann Arnold was promoted to chairman of the board and her son, Ernest Ritter Arnold, became president. He shepherded the company through a restructuring as well, as agribusiness was changing rapidly; numerous subsidiary businesses were sold or closed during this period.
By the end of 2000, a new business structure was again necessary. Ernest Ritter Arnold, always a farmer at heart, stepped down as president of E. Ritter & Company (now branded as ERC) to head Ritter Agribusiness. Louis V. Ritter Jr.’s son-in-law, Daniel B. Hatzenbuehler, was selected as chairman of the board and chief executive officer (CEO) of ERC. Hatzenbuehler led ERC into the twenty-first century and worked to bring the fourth and fifth generation of Ritters, most of whom lived outside Arkansas, into the business through the formation of the Ritter Family Council, as he anticipated a time in the near future when there would be no family member to take control of the company.
In November 2011, Charles “Chip” Dickerson (who was not a member of the family) assumed the presidency of ERC. He was named CEO on January 1, 2013, when Hatzenbuehler retired. The main headquarters of ERC remain in Marked Tree.
For additional information:Ampezzan, Bobby. “Ernest Ritter Arnold.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 19, 2015, pp. 1D, 8D.
Bohnett, Charlotte. “Ritter Family Puts Marked Tree on the Map in More Ways Than One.” Telco Americana, October 16, 2014. http://telcoamericana.org/ritter-family-puts-marked-tree-on-the-map-in-more-ways-than-one/ (accessed December 21, 2016).
Grisham, Cindy. E. Ritter & Company: Honoring the Past, Preparing for the Future. Marked Tree, AR: E. Ritter & Company, 2015.
Hosticka, Alexis. “Mary Ann Ritter Arnold: Business and Community Leader.” Arkansas Business, August 24, 2015.
Provost, Richard. “The Bloom Is On: She Came Late to the Family Firm, but Mary Ann Ritter Arnold Hasn’t Been Held Back One Bit.” Arkansas Business, April 10, 1989.
Whayne, Jeannie. A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-century Arkansas. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996.
Cindy Grisham Benton, Arkansas
Last Updated 12/29/2016
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