Finding My Way Home

The president of a fourth-generation compass maker learns that a family business is much more than a group of employees making products
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“In the midst of this big family, we still have to run a successful business.”
— Jonathan Sherman

“In the midst of this big family, we still have to run a successful business.” — Jonathan Sherman

I’m the fourth generation running our family-owned business, Ritchie Navigation. Even though I grew up in the business, I never really felt that “when I get older, I’m going to work at Ritchie.” That is, until one day it felt like the only place I wanted to be.

Ritchie Navigation has made compasses since 1850. Our roots go back to physicist Edward S. Ritchie, who made the first marine compasses. In 1910, my great-grandfather Louis A. Sherman founded the Marine Compass Co. In 1951, he purchased ES Ritchie, consolidating operations and keeping the Ritchie name. My grandfather Ted Sherman and his three brothers eventually took the helm, then my father, Paul Sherman. We remain privately held, now offer more than 100 compass models, from kayak to superyacht use, and sell in more than 50 countries.

I grew up like many family business kids — sweeping floors and working in the warehouse. There were many people at Ritchie I thought I was related to. Uncle Ozzie, it turns out, wasn’t actually my uncle but a lifelong friend of my father’s and grandfather’s. I had many such aunts and uncles at Ritchie, along with blood relatives. We all were just the Ritchie Family. I also had a slew of younger folks to hang out with. Parking lot whiffle ball, after-work poker games, sporting events — it was heaven for a kid.

Even with all this, by age 22 I decided I didn’t want to be in the family business. My father was president, and my brother Jeff, seven years older, ran production. They were grown up and knew what they were doing. They were made for Ritchie. I felt like a kid with no idea what to do. I got a finance degree and moved away.

In 1997 my brother Jeff passed away at age 31. My hero and best friend was gone. If I was directionless before that day, I don’t have a word to describe how I felt in the days after. Months went by, and the inevitable happened: I told myself Ritchie needed me. But now I know the truth. I needed Ritchie just as much, if not more.

I returned in 1998. Those first years were difficult. We were the grieving family of a grieving company. I was not Jeff. But I had the Ritchie Family, who offered a wealth of experience. I shared an office with a World War II veteran. Our head machinist also served in WWII, in the Navy. My first boss was a Vietnam vet, a sergeant. Our general manager was a Marine Corps company commander. These people knew how to get things done, and they taught me.

Our vice president of sales had been in the marine industry since 1972; he received the Mel Barr Award for his service. My father had run Ritchie since the late ’60s. I traveled and learned from many sales reps who crossed way over the line from employee to friend. They have been my teachers. It has been an embarrassment of riches.

Ritchie was the world’s first marine compass manufacturer.  The Sherman family acquired it in 1951.

Ritchie was the world’s first marine compass manufacturer. The Sherman family acquired it in 1951.

Twenty-one years later, here I am. The pros of being involved in a multigenerational family business are the people. The friendships and the bonds, battling and laughing together. Going through the good times with people close to you and counting on them to help you get through the tough times, not just in the endeavor of making compasses but living life. Like any family, we’ve gone through both joyous and tragic times together.

I wouldn’t change a thing. I don’t get phone calls from a parent company executive who wants the latest numbers so they can end up in a stockholder report. We’re free and only accountable to ourselves. When you call Ritchie, Mary answers the phone; she’s been with us for 34 years. In our service department, you will talk to somebody who knows more about compasses than almost everyone in the world. If they’re busy, my phone rings, and I’ll take care of you. And since I don’t like entering orders, most likely I’ll send you what you need for free.

As it is with most things in life, the cons of a family-owned business are closely related to the pros. In the midst of this big family, we have to run a successful company. Competitors make products in places where labor is a lot cheaper. Some are owned by parent companies to which Ritchie’s total sales wouldn’t be a decimal point. Not having a parent company is liberating but also leaves us without a net. We aren’t on the government bailout list. If we fail, we all go down. And, truth be told, no one person is bigger than the organization.

During the Great Recession our sales dropped 50 percent. We had to adapt quickly, so pay cuts and job restructuring affected every person. I had to lay off people I’d known for 20 years into a market that was shrinking by 350,000 jobs a month. At times, I had to forget friendships and family and act shrewdly; it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve had to learn.

I know my experiences aren’t unique; you don’t have to be a family-run business to have a close group. I’ve realized I’m lucky for a host of reasons. I love my job and I love trying to live up to the expectations set by those who came before me. Before being asked to write this column, I didn’t know how to answer the question: What are the plusses and minuses of running a family business?

Here it is in a nutshell: Ritchie is much more than four generations of Shermans; it’s the hundreds of people over more than 100 years who’ve built this company and put the “family” in “family business.” There’s a piece of everyone in every corner of the building and in every product we make. 

Jonathan Sherman is president of Ritchie Navigation.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.

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