Indian Hill News

Richard T. Farmer

Richard T. Farmer was a business leader and philanthropist. His life story is literally one of going from rags to riches. His company grew through acquisitions and start-ups, transforming the family business into a public company that reported a $1.1 billion profit on sales of $7.1 billion at the end of the most recent fiscal year. The company ranked No. 410 on the most recent Fortune 500 list.

Despite being a hard-charging businessman, his manner was without pretense. “He was low-key, more interested in learning about you than talking about himself,” a remembrance posted on Miami University’s Farmer School of Business webpage noted. “He seemed just like a ‘regular guy.’ “

When Farmer joined Acme Uniform and Linen Co. in 1957, the family-owned industrial rag business in Kennedy Heights employed 12 people.

Over the next five decades, Farmer demonstrated how his precise focus on a deceptively simple formula for growth transformed the small local company into a national powerhouse.

Today, Cintas is now not only the nation’s largest uniform rental company but a business-to-business juggernaut, supplying more than a million customers with floor care, restroom supplies, first aid and safety products, fire extinguishers and testing, and safety and compliance training.

“Everyone at Cintas is deeply saddened by the passing of Dick Farmer, our founder and chairman emeritus,” the company said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “The story of Dick’s life is very much intertwined with the history of our company. His legacy and the culture of honesty, integrity, and professionalism that he instilled at Cintas continues today and into the future.”

Farmer joined his family’s industrial laundry in 1957 after he graduated from Miami in 1956. By 1967, the company’s annual revenue grew from $180,000 to $1.6 million.

Two innovations spurred by Farmer kicked the company’s growth into a new gear.

In 1966, the company was working with three other companies to develop a cotton/polyester blend that revolutionized the uniform rental industry.

In 1968, Farmer created Satellite Corp. to provide central distribution and smaller uniform plants in every metropolitan area in the United States. Satellite had an aggressive program of acquisitions that led to 40- to 50-percent annual growth rates in the 1970s. By 1970, Satellite Corp. was a proven success, and Farmer merged it with the family business.

In 1983, new company with new name

In 1983, the merged business took the name Cintas and its shares were listed on the Nasdaq Stock MarketThe company hired an ad agency to deliver a new name “to take the company into the future,” according to Cintas’ website. But the agency didn’t deliver, so Farmer, company controller Bob Kohlhepp (who rose through the ranks to ultimately become the company’s president and then chairman) and marketing partner Nick Curtis came up with Cintas while doodling on a napkin.

The company’s growth led Cintas to a new headquarters in Blue Ash in 1974. The company moved its headquarters to a 28-acre campus in Mason in 1991.

Farmer served as CEO through 1995 and as board chairman through 2010. He served on the company’s board until 2018. He was twice named CEO of the Year by Financial World magazine.

“My father has been the heart and soul of Cintas for many years,” said Farmer’s son, Scott D. Farmer, when the father stepped down from the board; the son remains the company’s executive chairman. “His vision and commitment have helped the company thrive and positioned it for even greater success in the future.”

During World War II, Farmer’s grandfather would pick up the young boy and his sister at school and drive them to work.

“I had handled dirty rags all of my life,” he said in an interview when he was named to the Greater Cincinnati Business Hall of Fame in 1996.  “I didn’t want anything to do with that.”

While attending Miami University in Oxford, Richard Farmer continued washing, folding and counting towels for his father, Hershell. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 1956, Farmer married and decided to strike out on his own and leave the family business.

As the only son, however, Farmer agreed to rejoin the family business, but he had a vision of aggressive growth. He heard about the growing uniform supply industry and wanted in. The only problem was his father’s aversion to borrowing money.

The two argued about the idea until one afternoon, his father said, “Dick, this thing just isn’t working out,” Farmer said, recalling the 1957 afternoon in his father’s office. As the 23-year-old man braced himself for the worst – being asked to leave the business – his father instead asked him to take over. “He handed me those keys and said, ‘You run this place,’ ” Farmer said.

“I worked seven days a week until I dropped,” he said, adding that his vision of having a Cintas rental operation in every U.S. city kept him going.

“Corporate culture is the single most important distinguishing factor between greatness and mediocrity. It is the major reason Cintas is different from competitors and other companies. It is our ultimate competitive advantage,” Farmer once said.

Accolades through his lifetime

In 2010, Farmer received a key to the city of Mason because “his leadership and contributions are a tremendous asset to our community,” said then-mayor Don Prince. “We made a good decision when we decided to move our headquarters here,” Farmer said when he accepted the key. “We look forward to continuing to be a good corporate citizen for years to come.”

In 2010, Farmer also was honored by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber as a Great Living Cincinnatian.

In 1998, Cintas and the Farmer Family Foundation forged a partnership with Matthew 25: Ministries to make a difference in the lives of the poorest of the poor worldwide with donations of fabric, finished clothing, first aid products and anti-bacterial soaps and other items to fight disease.

Perhaps no institution has benefitted more from the philanthropy of Richard Farmer than Miami University.

“Dick Farmer’s guidance, insight, support and generosity toward Miami University throughout the years has been immeasurable,” Miami University President Gregory Crawford said in a statement. “His contributions to the Farmer School of Business and to Miami University have afforded generations of students as well as faculty and staff members a lifetime of personal and career success. We will dearly miss him.”

“As a former chair of Miami’s Board of Trustees, Dick was a role model for those of us who would follow in his footsteps,” said David Budig, chair of Miami’s trustees. “His generosity, kind heart, and deep commitment to Miami have left an indelible mark on this university. He truly was a remarkable person who will be greatly missed.”

In 1992, the Farmers provided the cornerstone gift to the School of Business. In 2005, the Farmer Family Foundation was the lead donor for the construction of the Farmer School of Business building and faculty support. The $40 million commitment in 2016 at the time was the largest of any single foundation or individual in the university’s 207-year history.

When the leadership of the school tried to thank and honor him for the 2016 gift, he put up his hand, shook his head and stopped the speaker, saying, “It is a privilege to enable you as educators to shape the minds of future leaders,” according to the post on the Farmer school website.

When asked what led to the 2016 gift, Farmer replied, “I’ll never forget when we decided to give this money.  ‘Alright, I said, look.  Miami’s business school is going to graduate about 900 kids a year. Over the next 40 years, there are going to be some outstanding, successful businessmen and women. There are going be some great politicians. Might even have a president or two. We’re going to have people creating whole new industries and new companies. Isn’t that exciting?’  And my children all said, ‘Boy, that really is. I never thought about it that way, dad.’ Being able to touch the lives of that many people, it’s a big deal.  It’s where we went to school. We have such wonderful memories here, Joyce and I and then our kids.”

Both Farmer and his wife, Joyce, served Miami University and the Farmer School of Business in volunteer leadership roles and advisory boards. Joyce Barnes Farmer earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Miami in 1957.

He also was the recipient of a Doctor of Laws degree from Miami.

The Farmers’ alma mater is a major beneficiary of the family’s foundation, but not the only one. The foundation has made gifts to more than 200 nonprofits, according to Miami University officials.

The Kenwood-based foundation had assets with a fair market value of $654 million according to its 2019 tax form, the most recent available. It gave out $27.4 million that year, including $1 million to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, $1 million to the Ronald McDonald House adjacent to Cincinnati Children’s, $1 million to Christ Hospital, $2 million to the Cleveland Clinic and $2.3 million to the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

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