3 Questions for…Retiring Richline Group CEO Dennis Ulrich

In May, Dennis Ulrich, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway–owned ­Richline Group, announced he would be retiring and would hand the reins over to Richline president Dave Meleski. Here, Ulrich talks with JCK about how he first got in touch with—and what he’s learned from—Berkshire chairman and CEO Warren Buffett. 

How was your business, Bel-Oro International, acquired by Warren Buffett?
In 2007, I had decided to sell my business, and I was talking to ­different private equity firms. I ­talked to [Ben Bridge CEO] Ed Bridge and he said, “I’m willing to introduce you [to Buffett].”

Probably a week later I was ­speaking to Buffett on the phone, and he asked me three things: “What have you done with your business? Where can you take the business? And how much do you want for the business?” I said, “Can I have a little time to get back to you?” He said, “Sure. I have all the time in the world.”

So a few months later I had written up a four-page document, and I sent it to him on a Friday. On Monday, he called me and we spoke maybe 20 minutes on the phone. He said, “Your company is really too small for us. Maybe if you could find another company your size.” So I called up Dave Meleski at Aurafin, which was probably our largest competitor.

Honora pearl pendant
Noir linear black diamond and freshwater pearl pendant from Honora ($275), a Richline brand

Did you always plan to acquire more companies?
Both our companies were primarily gold companies. We were doing about $400 million in business combined. The jewelry business was very fragmented. A lot of small businesses, some of them good companies, were looking for exit plans. So that was our strategy from the beginning. I think over the years we did 23 ­acquisitions. Most of them worked, but they didn’t all work. But from all of them we learned something and got talented people.

Is there any one key morsel of knowledge that Buffett has taught you that you want to share with us?
Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want your family to see on the front page of the newspapers. It’s running a business with integrity and respect for all your stakeholders. That is something that our industry needs to work on. But it’s something I’m proud of with Richline.