For a business that has constantly reinvented itself over its 104 years in business, O.A. Newton & Son CEO Rob Rider doesn’t even pause when asked about his company’s elevator speech.
“We’re in two businesses – irrigation and farm and ranch products for a local customer base (Delmarva) and engineered material-handling systems on a national and international level,” says the fourth-generation leader (his grandfather Warren Newton was the “& Sons”).
Where many other Delaware businesses have struggled to survive during the pandemic, Rider says his company has been challenged to keep up as its building-product clients experience record sales and look to expand. For Rider, COVID 19 has been a business accelerant that has helped him grow revenues and move from 30 employees to nearly 40.
“Because we’re involved in both manufacturing and agriculture, we have been considered essential from the start, so we never laid anyone off,” he says. “At the beginning, we were getting ready to start a pretty large [composite decking] project and [the client] wouldn’t let us on site for a month. But that turned out to be a blessing because we were a bit behind schedule, and it allowed us to catch up and get the project back on schedule.”
Big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s saw a jump in business as homebound Delawareans decided to start or move forward with projects. As a result, demand for PVC pipe and fencing, vinyl siding, and wood composite decking stayed very strong.
At the same time, O.A. Newton continued to expand a longtime relationship with Miller Metal Fabrication, which leases space from Rider’s company.
“We decided 14 years ago that we didn’t need our employees doing the sheet metal fabrication for our products,” Rider says. “Miller Metal has developed a lot of advanced manufacturing to make our products better at a lower cost.”
For example, a few years ago, O.A. Newton identified a bottleneck in its production process involving a “spray and bake” painting process called powder coating that Miller Metal has been able to resolve. But Rider says client demand for the service has led them to offer the service to others from Harrington as an additional business.
“It’s not innovative and it’s not a new product,” Rider says. “You need to pay attention to what customers are asking for and then meeting the demand. It might only involve six or eight customers but there’s huge volume and we’ll be able to meet the demand together. You have to be ready to adapt.”
That discussion swung around to a question about O.A. Newton’s legacy after more than a century in Sussex County. The company got its start developing a feed for chickens that led to greater egg production, which led to feed-milling and chicken-breeding businesses. Beyond that, there is a dizzying list of businesses that Rob’s father Bob and then Rob himself started in response to customer needs and opportunities that they saw.
The commitment to innovation and being nimble led O.A. Newton to begin building conveyor belts to move the feed they milled in the 1950s. That led to the creation of conveying systems for companies that make plastic pipe and siding and decking and then to offering replacement parts and service when the recession slowed new construction. The company sold the poultry business was sold in 1969, and a parts counter became the O.A. Newton Farm and Ranch Store, essentially a specialty hardware store that recognized the changing demographics in Sussex and Kent counties from fewer large farms to more farmettes and hobby farms.
“As you can imagine, with our market being building products, the recession decimated our customers,” Rider says. “We had to really retrench and rebuild our business. When the housing bubble burst, it forced out a lot of inefficient manufacturing and we’ve seen steady growth since.”
The desire to stay nimble has led O.A. Newton to form partnerships with companies that have what they need, need what they have, or offer the scale to help them sell their products.
Since the start of the pandemic, O.A. Newton & Sons’ record growth includes going from 30 to nearly 40. Through it all, Rider has remained an unabashed Delaware supporter.
“Delaware has always been an easy place to do business,” he says. “Labor is easy to deal with and it’s easy to get answers. I can’t say that it’s always wonderful from a regulatory standpoint – that’s one of the things we need to work on — but it’s better than most. We’d never consider moving because of the experience we’ve had here.”
O.A. Newton recently shut down branch locations that served retail customers in New Jersey and New York for about 10 years because the “headache of doing business in those states wasn’t worth it. They weren’t terrible experiences, but in both cases, we just decided it wasn’t the right fit for us.”
Rider says he talks to people all the time who are considering renting space in his buildings or buying real estate to build themselves.
“I tell them we have a great workforce and the process to get located here from beginning to end is as easy and convenient as you’re going to get,” he says, adding that he completely supports the efforts of Bob Perkins and the Delaware Business Roundtable’s Ready in Six initiative to accelerate the permitting process.
Before ending the interview, Rider elaborated on his answer about the company’s legacy.
“I would hope that people are saying we’re keeping up with the times and exceeding their expectations, maintaining our relevance in today’s world,” says Rider. “Legacy to me really means reputation and one of the things that is more important than anything is being fair to our customers, our employees, and our community – pretty much in that order.”
“If we are not equally caring for all three of those stakeholders, then we’re not going to continue to exist. When we make decisions, we think about the impact tomorrow and 10 years from now.”