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Rob Richards poses with some of the items available at his storefront on Airport Way. Photo curtesy Jeremy Parker

FAIRBANKS - Rob Richards only expected to stay in Alaska for two years after he took a job offer in Anchorage in 1980, but 38 years later, Richards owns three successful businesses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Wasilla. Reached by phone at his second home near Phoenix, Arizona on Thursday, Richards discussed how his penchant for hard work and taking chances got him to where he is now.

Young and ambitious

Richards was in college and working at a Shakey’s in Renton, Washington, when the franchise offered him a two-year contract running one of their Anchorage locations. Since he was under 21 at the time, and the legal drinking age in Alaska was only 19, Richards jumped at the chance to start his management career a few years earlier than he could in Washington state. Richards decided he liked Alaska and the opportunities it offered and moved to Fairbanks in 1988 after purchasing two Shakey’s restaurants here.

A divorce prompted Richards to leave the restaurant business and take a job at K & L Distributors, where he worked for eight years before deciding to strike out on his own in 1996. He and his second wife, Karlene, a former pharmacy technician, moved to North Pole and purchased a company that trucked spring water from Talkeetna to Anchorage and bottled it for distribution. Richards and Karlene renamed the company Richards Distributing Inc., trucked the water to Fairbanks and started bottling it in 1-gallon jugs. They were soon selling Alaska Spring Water and hundreds of other brands in Cantwell, Nenana, Fairbanks, Delta Junction, Tok and other communities.

“I went from distributing booze to water,” Richards joked. “We added Jones Soda, Little Debbie snack cakes, Kettle Chips, gloves, toys, sunglasses — anything that people would buy as they went up and down the highway. Basically I’d load a truck up with a bunch of stuff and stop along the way and try to sell it to people.” 

Taking a chance on the unknown

In 1997, Richards got into the water testing and treatment business almost by accident while looking for bottling equipment for the bottled water side of his distributing business. He met Dan Duncan, the owner of Lyndsay Water Softening, and decided to buy the company and rename it Alaska EcoWater Systems. He spent six months learning from Duncan on the job, and then started taking water treatment courses on his own.

Richards said his main customers are homeowners who have problems with their water and need treatment systems. Sometimes the problem is contamination, and other times it’s the presence of minerals that can cause aesthetic or mechanical problems.

“Arsenic, bacteria and nitrates are known contaminants, and we find those throughout the area. Sometimes it could be somebody’s leach field that’s leaking, so if you’re downhill from a lot of septic fields you can get contamination,” Richards said. “Iron and calcium are minerals that can create issues, such as staining and deterioration to fixtures and appliances. Iron’s not a contaminant, but it sure can make your fixtures look like crap.”  

Richards branched into the hot tub business in 2001.

“Basically, I was trying to buy a hot tub for my family and we had trouble finding somebody to supply us one. I went to Arctic Spas and asked if they’d sell me one wholesale and they said no, but if you become a dealer we’ll give you a credit back. So they sent the hot tub to us and it had a plaque on it that said we were a dealer. So that’s how we got into the hot tub business,” Richards said with a chuckle.

After opening Arctic Home Living in Fairbanks, Richards then opened a store in Anchorage in 2003 and another in Wasilla in 2009. Richards said the hot tub business was a natural fit with his existing business.

“We understood diagnosing things and working on things from the water treatment side,” Richards said. “Nobody builds a hot tub for Fairbanks, Alaska, so we get good hot tubs and do major installation upgrades before we take them to field. We do infrared testing, complete additional insulation to prevent freezing and do additional installation and inspections. It increase the initial costs but reduces overall costs.”

New opportunities

Richards acquired his third business, Renewable Energy Systems, in 2014. Again, the process was almost accidental.

“I was looking at building in Anchorage to move our Arctic Home Living store to, and ended up buying the guy’s business instead,” Richards said dryly, noting that he did end up buying the building also. “We got some great employees with it, hired some very good renewable industry guys in Fairbanks and opened a store here, too.”

The business sells and installs on-grid and off-grid systems such as solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, generators and other items to homeowners and commercial customers. Richards is enthusiastic about the business, noting that renewable energy is “growing at a phenomenal rate” and is, in the long run, a good return on investment for the buyer. 

Richards moved all three businesses into their current location on Airport Road in 2004. Alaska EcoWater Systems shares space with Arctic Home Living on the second floor, while Renewable Energy Systems is located downstairs. 

Solid success

Richards said he’s been fortunate that his businesses have grown steadily throughout the years.

“There are always lean years with growth because you’re reinvesting as you get bigger, but we’ve never had a down year, and we’ve always had an increase in sales,” Richards said.

Richards is now partnered with Jeremy Lane, a former employee who started working for Richards when he was 19. Richards’ wife runs the administrative side of the business, and Lane’s wife works on that side also. The Richards’ three children, Desiree, Faustina and Jonathan, worked in the businesses when they were teenagers but are grown now and have pursued their own careers in the Lower 48. 

Richards and Karlene spend November through March bouncing back and forth between Fairbanks and their home in Arizona, with visits to their kids and grandkids on the West Coast. Richards said they have great employees and eight key managers throughout the state, but he and Karlene still choose to work 40-hour weeks and stay involved in their businesses on a daily basis, whether remotely or on-site.

When asked whether he and Karlene plan to eventually move to Arizona full-time, Richards said that will never happen.

“I did my 38 years at 40 below, but North Pole is our home and always will be,” Richards said. 

Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMcrime.