Carl Ring was, shall we say, unenthusiastic about the family business. His father, Bob Ring, had founded the consumer packaging company in 1968 making tin cans for the food industry, but Carl had no interest in participating.
“I had no fantasy of working for him,” he says. “I thought it would be sort of miserable working for him.”
Carl admired his father, but realized that he was out of the ordinary. “People that can take nothing and create something from it are a breed I don’t quite understand,” he says. “But he started about four other companies in the early ’60s before he started Ring in ’68. And Ring was the one that finally just took off and was successful.”
In 1980, Carl got a call from his father. The young man had gotten his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech in 1978 and was happy to be working for DuPont. But his father had health issues, wanted to expand into plastics, and said he needed his son to come.
“When I showed up,” Carl says, “I was given a toolbox and made night shift mechanic, and then a day shift mechanic, and then after a year I became an engineer, designing and building machines. And then the plant manager walked out one day and I was told ‘OK, you’re now the new plant manager.’”
He demurred, to no avail. He’d go on to vice president of engineering, then vice president of operations, and eventually was made president. “I objected but it was given to me anyway.”
Knowing what he knew — and what he didn’t know — Carl surrounded himself with the right people in finance, sales, and operations. “I will forever be grateful to that group of executives who helped and even opened my eyes to some things that I needed to see,” he says.
Carl would take the company from one factory when he joined, to 18 manufacturing locations, employing more than 700 people in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Not bad considering that his father had once told him that most businesses that made it into the second generation failed anyway.
In 2017, it was announced that Dell Inc. founder Michael Dell’s MSD Partners would acquire Ring Container from Carl Ring and his family.
Inside Memphis Business: What would be your advice to a young entrepreneur?
Carl Ring: Creating a service or a product is only the first step. Many people seem to feel it’s the first and final. The more important step to me is the second step, which is creating a vision around that product or service that your people can rally behind — a vision they can believe in, a vision they can get excited about, a vision that brings enthusiasm to it, and commitment. That is what lights the match to me.
IMB: What is it about Memphis that seems to encourage entrepreneurialism?
CR: We are large enough to have some of the most world-renowned entrepreneurs right here within our city limits. They’re people that you read about in the Wall Street Journal and yet we are small enough that many of us actually know those people. It’s easy for that to become contagious when you eat dinner with them and you meet them and you shake their hand and you hear what they have to say.
IMB: What mistake did you make that you learned the most from?
CR: As a mechanical engineer, I was taught that the solution to every problem is a more perfect machine. I was told when I was hired to design and build that perfect machine, and if only I did that, everything else would take care of itself. Everything else did not take care of itself. It was only after trying to lead people who were not excited about what they were doing, and not excited about where they were, it was only then that I became aware that it really did not feel right. So we started really paying attention to what their needs and wants were. They wanted to be part of it and excited about it, to make decisions for themselves and for their departments and their processes. Once we started giving them that kind of support and trust, then it felt better. People wanted to join us instead of leaving us.
IMB: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
CR: It’s good to know when to ignore the numbers and ignore the bean counters and just do what needs to be done — what you know is right, what you know has to happen even if the numbers don’t support you then. We’ve done that multiple times over the years where we designed machines, built plants, took on customers, spent great deals of money doing things on paper that was really no return for. The question was usually not what is the return going to be for this investment; the question was usually, in 10 years from now, are we going to be happy we spent that money?