Enter InCord’s front doors and you’re greeted by a bright, multicolored, mural-like painting celebrating netting, a smiling receptionist ready to assist, and a life-size statue of Elvis mid-song and wearing a long scarf of rainbow netting. If you are lucky, you might come across InCord’s own bard and Director of Business Development-Environmental Division, Danny Shanahan, reciting an original poem to another employee on a break:
My friends, this planet is but a bead
On the rosary of God.
You can see Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and Mars
Slipping through her blue fingers.
In the vault of the heart
Someone is singing a divine name.
Don’t worry if you can’t hear it.
Some galaxy or universe
Taking shape in the great dark
At this very moment
Is repeating it for you.
Welcome to North America’s largest custom safety netting manufacturer for over two decades—and a Top Workplace in Connecticut for the last eight years! The spark of creativity is everywhere. On the factory floor, the clicking of sewing machines mixes with salsa, rock, or hip-hop. Workers look confident as they weave and knot rope, measure and cut mesh, and sew vast swaths of net.
Laughter erupts frequently and is especially contagious near the work station of wisecracking material handler Christopher “Diesel” Rowland, one of InCord’s longest-serving employees (since 1996), who displays above his desk a collection of baseball caps plus a leprechaun green bowler and a crown. In a conference room with large windows overlooking the massive main factory, employees circle a long table and enjoy space, time, and quiet to each create vision boards in a workshop.
Employing a staff of over 100 people, the Colchester, Connecticut company provides outstanding benefits including profit sharing bonuses twice a year and excellent health insurance. As a result, InCord enjoys notable employee longevity, which translates to having and maintaining knowledgeable, committed teams of experts who provide in-house design, installation, and exceptional customer service.
“We protect your world” is the original motto of InCord, established 24 years ago by an intrepid group of skilled professionals in the netting business. The company’s founders joined forces with a common goal—to create a dynamic, customer-friendly corporation that produces the highest-quality, most competitively priced netting products while being an exemplary employer, and providing a positive, productive workplace.
“We’re saving a life a day somewhere,” says Bill Greeley, Quality Assurance and Compliance Manager. InCord meets, exceeds, and is a safety standards leader. We serve a variety of markets including construction, industry, sports, amusement parks, theatres, and environmental restoration, providing netting for nearly half of all Fortune 500 companies.
It all began in 1995, when Bob and Mary Martin started selling netting products made by Merle Kingham’s International Cordage of Phoenix, Arizona. Mary Martin recalls, “Merle had a thriving business. Bob approached him—Merle was a friend and former coworker from Sinco, the largest netting fabricator at that time—with an ‘If I can sell it, will you make it, ship it, and hold the paper until I get paid’ proposal.”
The Martins rented two upstairs rooms in an old colonial house in the village of Tylerville in Haddam, Connecticut. They furnished that first office with a couple of desks, phones, and computers then brought rugs, art, lamps, and a couple of chairs from their own home.
At the very same time only a few towns away, salesmen Ed Ritz and Brian Stevenson, who both worked at Sinco where Bob had worked, heard that he had a source for netting. They wanted to talk. Ritz says, “Sinco was owned by a venture capitalist and driven by its bottom line versus its people and culture. Management was not interested in netting, just making money. It got so bad I decided to leave and start my own company. I was full of bravado! Brian asked about my plans and I told him. We conspired to leave because the atmosphere was so toxic.”
Both men felt insecure in their jobs for good reason—management fired employees regularly in reaction to any drop in profits. Ed remembers, “I was 47 and had kids in college but it seemed less risky to be on my own than stay there and wait for the shoe to drop. Brian said, ‘If you go, I go.’ And he did. In February 1995, we left on the same day.”
Ed Ritz had a background in engineering, economics, business, and homebuilding. In addition, his father had been an electrical engineer, woodworker, concrete finisher and plumber, all of which he taught Ed. Since the age of thirteen, he’d “always worked” and “loved to work.” “Bob and others saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see,” Ritz says. But Brian Stevenson leaving Sinco with him—having that kind of faith in him—further inspired Ritz.
In May 1995, with Merle in Arizona and Bob and Ed in Connecticut, the three founded the business as a partnership and named it International Cordage East, doing business as InCord. For all intents and purposes, Mary Martin, whom Ritz describes as “impeccable,” was an equal partner and key player, and would become Chief Financial Officer. Brain Stevenson handled industrial sales from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. Ritz says of Stevenson, “he became our number one salesman.”
“Bob and I may very well have enjoyed a nice, comfortable living, humming along with Merle,” says Mary. “However, with both Ed and Brian on board, we grew exponentially.”
“It all began with an old, corded, push-button desk phone,” Ritz recalls. “Bob and I were just two guys sitting in an office with a phone and a computer. Internet was dialup, of course! And a fax machine. Everything was faxed!”
“We all worked in the same room and heard each other’s conversations!” Mary says. “Soon, we were stressing Merle’s ability to supply us. It was Ed who first imagined that we could begin to fabricate some of our own orders. It started with his vision and ingenuity.”
“I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t,” Ritz says. “Merle called one day and said you better start your own factory. I ran with it as soon as he said it.” And so it fell on Ed “to build a factory from literally nothing.”
Mary says, “In the beginning of 1996, we rented a small space in East Haddam, bought a couple of used sewing machines, and coaxed several women out of retirement to sew for us.”
During that first year in Tylerville, Robin Ritz—one of Ed’s two daughters, a full-time university student already working a couple of jobs—had begun working for the young company. Mary Martin says, “When we took that leap of faith, Robin was excited for us, generous with her time, and instrumental in helping us to organize ourselves and get the space in the East Haddam Industrial Park set up.”
In 1997, InCord joined forces with the Huck Group, the top safety netting manufacturer in the European Union. As their only North American affiliate, InCord now had access to the largest and finest netting in the industry, providing a strong competitive edge in the North American markets.
When Robin left for a semester abroad, InCord hired Tess Jette as Production Manager and she soon became Operations Manager (and later Chief Operating Officer), collaborating with Ed Ritz to establish the ten thousand square foot warehouse and factory.
“That is when the magic started,” Mary Martin recalls.
“I remember when we got the first bale of netting,” says Ritz. “Creating a factory—that was a big step in every way. We did it together—and that changed my life. And with Tess, I saw first-hand, every day, a better way of collaborating: you must talk together. There is no substitute. Tess was a hard worker and very dexterous. As we were both very hands-on, we traveled together, did installations, and were always talking through everything.”
Robin Ritz, now Creative Visionary and an Owner, says, “The founders had no models as they built their business, nor any specific management styles that they’d seen work.” The way in which Ed Ritz and Tess Jette worked together helped create a structure for their management style. Communication became an organic organizing principal for the young company.
Jette wrote a manifesto of an essay, “Pillars for the Workplace” (circa 1997), for the AutoGnomics Institute, a think tank that was researching how humans organize themselves. Based on a brainstorming session with Ed and input from the Martins and Robin, Tess’ essay proposes that a work environment “must be tended to, watched over, and cared for as a living entity.” She describes how the role of management is to serve—“to create a safe haven, a trusting environment” where employees can allow themselves to feel and express themselves honestly and without fear. When these conditions exist, “Something wonderful begins to happen.”
“Pillars for the Workplace” proposes that a manager’s ultimate goal is to create a learning environment. When a notable mistake or problem arises, Jette advises: “Always look at the system first, not the individual. Ask: Did we provide the right support? Were we completely clear?” The essay—still required reading for all new hires—suggests that management support workers by allowing them to help create and “own” a system that addresses the issue. “In turn, workers share in the responsibility to maintain [that system] and take pride in the overall results.” In this way, everyone feels respected and empowered.
These “pillars” live on as InCord’s core beliefs, posted in its offices and factory.
“We were and continue to be a living example of what the think tank had been researching and teaching for years,” says Ritz.
InCord continued to grow even during economic recession and in 2004 bought out Merle Kingham’s interest in the company. The greatest increase in hiring was seen in 2004 with continual organic growth since. After 10 years, InCord outgrew its East Haddam factory. In 2006, the company bought a 25,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art factory with additional warehousing in Colchester. “I did the buildout with only a small crew,” recalls Ritz.
In “Creative Management: Becoming a Place Workers Love,” an article on LinkedIn by Robin Ritz, she explains that the Martins and Ed Ritz “started InCord with the intention to create a different kind of company—an exemplary workplace from the perspective of employees, starting with themselves.” They had all experienced “workplaces infected with stress and uncertainty, driven by greed and corporate agendas,” she says. As a result, they wanted to “be the supplier we would want to do business with—be the employer for whom we would want to work.”
Of course, many or most businesses do not share the values that shaped InCord from its very beginnings, and among those who say they do, relatively few prioritize such values and even fewer succeed.
How did InCord’s founders each come to hold these values? Mary Martin says, “There was no template. No plan. We tried hard to do the right thing. That’s it. The ‘magic’ was simply the chance coming together of a handful of people who shared the same work ethic and value system. We were excited and energetic.”
Robin Ritz says, “Bob and Mary are just good people—they do what is right in every situation. It was a natural extension that they would conduct business in that same way—it’s how they are wired.”
Another clue lies in a painting by Norman Rockwell, who lived and painted in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where most of his models were regular townsfolk. In “A Great Moment,” commissioned for the February 1965 cover of Boy’s Life, a young Bob Martin stands tall in his Eagle Scout uniform with his parents. With pride, his mother leans over to pin the Eagle Scout medal for service, the highest award a Boy Scout achieves, onto his uniform, as his father and the Scout Master smile approvingly. Perhaps growing up with the awareness that his own face symbolized the Boy Scouts of America and a long list of values they espouse—such as being trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, and kind—shaped the man Bob Martin became.
Ed Ritz says his own father was a huge influence “in the way he lived and treated people and his expectations for his children. His only expectation was that we do what makes us happy. For example, he never said we had to go to medical school or something like that. And he never judged anyone.”
InCord’s founders were like that for which the company is named—having “several strands” woven together to create something strong and flexible. Fittingly, the word “cord” also refers to “a moral, spiritual, or emotional bond,” which the founders shared from the very beginning.
Today, the company is co-owned by Ed Ritz and his daughters, Meredith Ritz Shay and Robin Ritz. After college, Shay served as a project manager and steadily rose to become one of the nation’s youngest female CEOs for a manufacturer with over 100 employees. “Meredith embodies the ethos of InCord so profoundly it surprises me,” says Ed Ritz. “Her dedication to the family business, customers, and employees, it’s a tremendous responsibility and legacy.”
Mary Martin recalls how she and Bob spent many evenings in front of a fire swapping stories with coworker friends, stories from their earlier lives, and, of course, stories about the beginning of InCord. “Bob and I are proud of what we built with Ed and others. It is our legacy.”
Ed Ritz says, “If it inspires even one other company, it’s totally worth it all. We created a new template for our changing world.”
Special thanks to InCord’s Bill Greeley who contributed reporting.