O.A. Newton & Son in Bridgeville turns 100
BRIDGEVILLE, – Rob Rider runs one business that turned 100 this year and another that turned one.
Starting companies is in Rider’s DNA – literally. His grandfather Warren Newton started so many companies it takes two hands to count them. It all started with O.A. Newton & Son in 1916.
Warren was the “son” in the company name, just returned to his father’s farm with a business degree and an agriculture degree in hand. He looked around the Delmarva Peninsula at the budding chicken industry and began thinking about how to grow a better chicken.
He developed a feed that led to greater egg production. (“He was a pioneer – along with all the others on the peninsula,” Rider said.)
Warren’s father, state Senator Oliver Newton, was already raising 5,000 chickens. One thing led to another. Warren’s feed-milling business led to a chicken-breeding business, although it’s hard to tell which came first.
Now, it’s segued to agriculture, irrigation and materials handling, mostly plastics.
A hundred years later, “and son” is ” and great-grandson,” and O.A. Newton does between $6 million and $10 million in revenue a year, depending on their projects.
During the booming ’90s when Newton was building conveying systems for companies that make plastic pipe and siding and decking, that annual revenue was closer to $16 million, but Rider said business has slowed with the economy. “After the housing bubble burst, our customers didn’t go away, but they stopped expanding, so we had to look at replacement parts businesses and service businesses,” he said.
Newton sells $2 million to $3 million seven-story-high compounding machines to mix ingredients for PVC products, but it segues to parts and repairs whenever a customer has a conveyance conundrum.
When a railroad engineer backed a train into one of Rubbermaid’s offloading pipe systems at its manufacturing hub, Newton had everything back up and running in a couple weeks.
“We try to respond as quickly as possible,” Rider said. “We’ve been changing our products so we can stock parts of them so we can put things together more quickly. Everything basically is standard, but there is a little bit of customization that goes into each one.”
“What we’ve learned is we have to constantly be changing, because businesses live and die,” said Rider, who started a fitness business with his wife Susan last year. “Look at Kodak and IBM. IBM is constantly trying to reinvent.”
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That philosophy is a hand-me-down from his grandfather, who built everything from a millwright operation to fix his farm equipment to a materials handling business to get his feed to other farmers.
After Warren Newton’s daughter Jane married Bob Rider, he talked his son-in-law into coming to Bridgeville to join the firm in the ’50s and the businesses kept coming – the agricultural chemicals business, the farm insurance company, the oil delivery operation, and Newton Homes, seller of prefab homes. Then there was the pre-engineered metal building business and the turf and landscape irrigation business and Newton Leasing and Finance Co.
Don’t forget the household appliance business that ran from the 1960s to 1989. (“We sold International Harvester tractors, and, back in the 1960s, they had a great idea that, if you sold tractors to the husband, you should sell appliances to the wife,” Rider said. “It didn’t last long. The problem is a tractor salesman isn’t necessarily a good appliance salesman.”)
For 100 years, whenever they could, the Newtons formed partnerships with people who had what they needed or needed what they had.
To move the feed they milled in the ’50s, Newton started making conveyor belts. They bought feed mixing equipment from another company. By the ’60s they formed a partnership with the mixer maker. The Newtons built the material handling elements. Their partner built the mixing equipment.
They sell their products by partnering with companies that have bigger sales forces than they do.
They work with a company that sells extruders for PVC compounds. Extruders are no good unless you can get material to them. When the extruder company has a lead and there’s no material handling in place, Newton works with them. The other company makes the sale.
“We’re able do a lot of work without a lot of people because of cooperation. Because we’re so small, we have had to come up with strategic alliances,” Rider said.
They sold O.A. Newton’s original live chicken business to Armour Swift in 1969, just as the industry was turning to vertical integration that would see a single company take the chicken from coop to cut parts.
Ten years ago, Rider invited local entrepreneur Marty Miller to move his Miller Metal Fabrication into their space and provide some parts they used to make for their business. “We went through the thought process of do our customers really care if the person they pay for the part is actually making it or do they just care that it works,” Rider said.
The Newtons have been nonstop innovators.
Two years ago, Rob Rider and his wife Susan turned a parts counter into O.A. Newton Farm and Ranch Store, a specialty hardware store for everything farmers need if they don’t want to drive to Seaford or Harrington – essential parts, horse fans, bug sprays, mosquito bracelets, unique birdhouses, even John Deere toys for the youngest farmers. They dedicated one aisle to the parts their partner Miller Metal Fabrication needs most often.
“You can’t stay the same. You have to constantly look for change and not get comfortable,” Rider said. “It’s never easy but you take risks knowing not everything you do is going to be a success. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive in this business.”
In 100 years, O.A. Newton & Son moved from a company trying to make a better chicken to a company that moves a material that didn’t exist in 1916.
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