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Work away

All work and no play never made Rick a dull boy. But he sure did love to work … .

At first he did it for money. That work was a bit on and off, in terms of 'love to work.' Baling hay in the summertime for a (imaginary) girlfriend's dad – loved it. Trying to keep up with the other guy – a brutish ox – loved every minute. Sweating so hard you couldn't see, covered with hay dust, bright summer sun bearing down during the hottest hours of the day – sheer joy. And the money was good – two dollars an hour cold hard cash (sorry LBJ – Rick forgot to file his taxes that year).

Painting every room in an old high school one summer, while his co-conspirators played poker all day long with one eye out the window watching for the boss – not quite so fulfilling. And they paid with a check.

Working in a Dairy Queen for 75 cents an hour (raised to 80 half way through the summer, for 'good work, Rick'). Well, it was air conditioned, and he did get one 'free' 'small treat' every day. Woof woof good boy good boy here's a little treat. Can you imagine how skilled he became at taking a small treat container and loading it up with the least amount of soft serve and the most amount of expensive toppings – hot fudge, pecans, chocolate bits … don't bite the hand that feeds you … but you can gnaw on it a bit.

Sweeping streets in Den Hague, Holland, for 140 Guilders a week – lived in 'cracked housing' and saved 100 of them. Just make sure you're in motion when the boss sneaks up behind you on his bicycle.

Room and board and clothing and laundry and medical care and whatever else you really 'needed' to live (cheap wine and bad cigarettes was about it) in exchange for six hours a day six days a week on a kibbutz – one of the best experiences of his life. He ended up in the pear orchard and, to this day, thinks he could adequately prune a pear tree, should push come to shove.

Two meals a day, plus tea and a floor with a roof over it to throw your blanket on – what more does a mere human need to sustain the body? Work, that's what, and there was plenty of it available. A print shop where all the pages of the book were folded by hand, then sewn together and trimmed and a cardboard cover glued on. How many books did you make today? Blissful … with a touch of the surreal thrown into the mix.

Haridwar, India, ashram, Guru Maharaj Ji 13 year old perfect master of the universe. Perhaps not perfectly perfect, but a good introduction to Hinduism and Sikhism and Buddhism and Jainism and Christianity as seen from without and Muslims; sects, cults, crowds, groups, mild hysteria, group chanting and way too sugary Indian sweets way too tempting for an Iowa boy, even if he had been on the road for two years and thought he was a man of the world.

Police officer? Him? A pancake has to be cooked on both sides to be considered done, doesn't it? Best friends of his life. No pretense of book learning, no lack of knowledge of how to make a police officer's pay buy a house and a car and furniture and a camper and just about every other slice of American pie that looked and sounded good, no fear, and no fear of fun. Without getting caught. As much as he regrets our current militarization of the police, Rick knows what it's like on that side of the badge. And knows why it is a brotherhood, and why it ain't gonna get fixed by whining about it. We hire them to protect us, then tell them they have to protect us from ourselves. That just does not work.

Carpenter's laborer – now that's work that does something real. You can see it happen. Everybody else can, too, but they can't see it happening. Up early and home late, hot or cold rain or shine. Physical labor – try running shingles up a ladder some day when your buddies are racing you. Skilled labor – Rick saw the difference years of experience makes, and also what raw talent (he didn't have it) can produce. Look at that wall – better put a shim on that fourth stud. Huh? Don't worry about it (you'd never get it right anyway).

Factory work – best pay of his life. Seven weeks, five jobs (Rick always liked to volunteer for stuff, never did learn it might be a good idea to find out exactly what that stuff was). Learning by doing. That last week was a glimpse of eternity. Watching the machines do their jobs (making artificial bacon bits). Waiting for them to miss a stroke and create a mess he could clean up. Watching the clock tick off seconds. Falling asleep on his feet. Hats off to the people who can do it, and do do it, and don't whine about it the way Rick still does. America works – it's a great feeling. It was built by all of us, it runs because of all of us, and we all can be very proud of all of us.

Then – paydirt. Frontier Cooperative Herbs (FCH) now Frontier Natural Products was just a hobby. An all volunteer job for Rick and Colleen, who wanted to live on a commune but knew better than to think they could make money farming. The vision – a business big enough to support five or six families living communally. The reality – pretty hard to find those other four or five families.

The whole story is rather long and hopefully can be found elsewhere, today or some day. In brief …. well we'll see if that's possible.

Started in April 1976. Bruce Bock was there. So was Theresa Carbrey. Wholesale herbs and spices to Iowa food coops. August sales - $26.

One year later – August sales ~$1,200. Then a one week van tour to Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin. And one day in September … five coops in Madison decided, as a group, to start ordering from Frontier. So they placed $6,000 in orders (thank you Barb, from one of those coops, you were the sunshine that sprouted the seed). The race began. People were hired. Spices were purchased. Orders were filled. And the stack of new ones grew bigger and bigger and bigger. When FCH moved to a new facility in 1982 the stack was two feet high. It was a glorious time, with no time to enjoy it but they did anyway.

Volleyball games at lunch. Collective meals for lunch who's cooking today? Not Rick … he scorched two gallons of cheese soup last week … .Babies during lunch (screaming and laughing, not being born). Beer after work. Sometimes during work. Some people took smoke breaks in their cars … there were no bosses, no rules, no hierarchy, just lots of work and lots of friends and lots of amazement they placed a $10,000 order?? to keep the crew inspired and perspired.

Eventually it settled down, as the inevitable process of organization began to assert itself. Before that happened Rick retired from the boxing room and started sitting at his desk all day. Eventually that made him fat. Irritated the rest of the collective by buying his own stapler (still has it) and scissors (ditto) and ballpoint pens (doesn't) without receiving group approval. An exercise in leadership.

Frontier grew and grew and grew. Number 76 on Inc. Magazine's list of the 500 fastest growing companies in America. The original competition melted away, and the real competition became themselves. Could they build another building fast enough? Could the computer be upgraded to handle six more terminals? Could they hire a cook? A childcare manager? What to do about those car smokers?

At some point the board of directors, at the suggestion of the collective, called it quits on collectivism and appointed Rick CEO. The first CEO in the national new wave food coop movement (got that?). Rick sometimes had a knack for reading the handwriting on the wall, especially if it was written in plain English.

As Frontier grew the world became interested (20/20 hindsight – we all have it). Oh look they have on-site childcare. Oh look they don't wear suits. Oh look they have an indoor gymnasium and two outdoor Olympic sized volleyball courts with lights. Let's write a story. And as Frontier grew it became a little less Iowan – hiding from the world under cover of flannel shirts and you can sleep at my house I'll use the couch and we can build that ourselves.

Three years running on Working Mother's list of best workplaces in America for working women.

Small businessperson of the year in Iowa 1992. First national runner up. Shaking President G.W. Bush's hand in the rose garden I went to Andover, class of 1969 – I was there when Jeb was. Oh yea? You know he's in Florida now … Rick didn't.

There is a lot more Frontier history but to wrap it up in a nutshell twenty four years, 300 employees, and $40 million in sales was enough. His bank account was getting fatter, his children were all grown up, his expected time on earth was getting shorter, and his itch to do some big non-Frontier things was begging to get scratched.

So he resigned. OK, he was a bit surprised when the board actually accepted his resignation shouldn't they be begging me to stay on … but the transition was smooth and there has never been any looking back. Well perhaps not entirely smooth, the board had to hire a guy to lose $14 million in 18 months before they got rid of him, with a wee bit 'o Rick prodding, and put Tony Bedard in his place. Yea, that Tony. The one who has built Frontier into a $100 million company and still only has 300 employees. That's productivity. You should meet him – you'll like him. He'd make a good senator for Iowa.

It was a little bit more than a six family commune. It was a 300 family commune.

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