A family business legacy

Sep. 24—Maybe there's not a lot of glamour in watching paint dry. But there's definitely something remarkable about building and growing a local business through four generations — all under the single umbrella of stewardship of the original family who founded it.

For Cullman's O.F. Richter and Sons, those generations add up to 75 years, a milestone anniversary the longtime local institution recently commemorated at a customer appreciation reception earlier this spring. By Cullman's relatively young post-Civil War standards, it's a long time: For perspective, it's half as long as the city, founded in 1873, has even been around in the first place.

Members of the extended Richter family still operate the store to this day. They're under no illusion about the scope of the role that a paint store plays in the grand scheme of things ("We sell paint. That's the story," co-owner Johnny Richter deadpans) — but they're being rather modest about the generations-spanning work ethic, as well as the commitment to community, that has kept O.F. Richter and Sons alive and thriving through 75 years.

Founded in the homecoming wake of WWII, the store started out in 1947, just a short mule's trot away from its second (and current) location on First Street SE. Founder O.F. (Otto Frank) was one of five Richter brothers — four of whom had served in the war.

More Richters would be born in the years to follow, and keeping the labyrinthine family ties straight these days takes a little bit of back-and-forth fact-checking, even among some of today's descendants. The important thing to note, though, is that O.F. was the first member of the extended German family to be native-born in Cullman, and that he had six children — Evelyn, Arthur, Frank, Hubert, Clarence, and Roy — who themselves, along with their children, would alternately pitch in, over the years, to keep the business going and growing.

When the Richter brothers returned to their hometown after WWII, "nobody had jobs," explains Maria Richter Schultz, O.F.'s granddaughter. "So grandpa applied for a government loan to build the first store up on Second Avenue. O.F. built the store — he'd already been painting houses since his teens or early 20s — and that's where all of them worked. That was the beginning of O.F. Richter and Sons."

The store stayed put at its Second Avenue location until 1972, when a growth spurt led the family to relocate to what's since been its permanent First Street home. Thankfully, the family didn't have to build a new shop from scratch: It simply repurposed its new digs, the former home of the Cullman Bowling Center, to handle both the retail and the service sides of paint and flooring sales and installation.

"There was a cotton gin, built in the 1950s I think, on this block," recalls Johnny. "This area down here [at the store site] was where everybody brought their mules when they came to gin cotton. People knew it as the place where everybody parked their wagons."

These days, the store no longer sends out paint crews; it keeps its staff plenty busy with handling the day-to-day business of running a retail store. But in earlier times, O.F. and family straddled both the retail and the contracting side of all things paint-related, and then — just as now — keeping things fully staffed was an ongoing challenge.

"Every Monday morning, Hubert — O.F.'s son — would go and get people out of jail so they could come back to work," recalls Johnny with a smile. "A lot of them were veterans, and some of them tended to handle what they'd seen and been through by drinking. There are probably other ways that we address PTSD and things like that these days, but that's kind of what was available for a lot of veterans back then. They might've been drunk, but they weren't doing anything too bad, not usually. They needed the work — and we needed them to work."

"Plus," adds Tim Richter, Johnny's brother, "he'd do that for non-drunks too. It was kind of how the community held together. Have a problem? Need to work? Hubert would get you out of jail."

Though the family-owned aspect of the business seems secure as O.F. Richter and Sons looks toward its 100-year anniversary in the not-too-distant future, fewer Richters handle things at the store today, says Johnny, reflecting on a present-day sign of changing times.

"Most of our generation of family doesn't work here," he explains. "They did when they were teenagers...and then they realized there are easier ways to make a living — and more profitable ones."

"We used to have that fifth generation [working here], but they've mostly moved on," adds Tim.

By Johnny's estimate, "at least 15 families' worth" of Richters, either by birth or marriage, have contributed in some form or fashion to O.F. Richter and Sons' operations over the years — not to mention all the outside staff who've come and gone as well. Still, even with more outside employees and fewer Richters at the 22-person helm of the store's everyday business, there's an unspoken work ethic; one preserved through the generations, that keeps everything on schedule.

"It'd be good to note that we open up real early," says Tim. "We've got somebody here at 6:30 every day — 6:30 a.m., 'until.'"

That's Tim's way of saying the store makes a point of catering to early risers; crews and DIY-ers who need to get a move on before the day gets long. But it's probably as good a sign as any that O.F. Richter bequeathed a little of that first-generation elbow grease to the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who've inherited and sustained his home-grown family business; one that's earned household-name recognition to any Cullman local who's pondering their next fresh coat of paint.