From deep within the 22 million acres of forest in the Pacific Northwest emerges the unique story of a Tacoma based waterproof paper manufacturer.
If you live in Tacoma, you have some perspective on how massive the Port of Tacoma operation is. If you are not from the Pacific Northwest (PNW) it likely isn’t something that is on the forefront of your awareness. What both groups may be surprised to know is that this city of just over 190,000 people is home to the “Pacific Gateway” for trade between Asia and the United States.
Washington State is renowned for its vast natural resources, and the PNW hosts over 22 million acres of forest with timber playing a key role in commerce for the region. Against the backdrop of the end of World War I, and the excitement of Tacoma’s growth potential, arose many opportunities related to the timber industry. Not coincidentally, within this paradigm emerges the focal point of our story, one Mr. Jerry L. Darling and his secret sauce for waterproofing paper.
An Opportunity in Every Challenge: RITR 1.0
If you were a timber surveyor in the early 1900’s and needed to keep notes of your observations, what would you use? There were no cell phones or iPads and if it rained your notes would be destroyed or distorted. While this may not be a problem that many readers can identify with, in the Pacific Northwest, where timber at that time was thriving and rain is abundant, writing in the rain presented a real obstacle that could affect your livelihood. As the product has evolved, so has the market, as it turns out many professions require documentation while working in adverse conditions. Rite in the Rain professionals include land surveyors, engineers, first responders, skilled trades people and military personnel.
Jerry Darling is a native of Raymond, Washington, born in Willapa Harbor. He was known as an outdoors man who had many interests. Early in his career, Jerry worked in his fathers milk and soda bottling and oyster shucking business. Jerry heard about the challenges timber professionals had with keeping notes while in the woods from Alec Polson of the Polson Lumber Company. Entrepreneurs see an opportunity in every challenge and the secret sauce began stirring in Jerry’s brain after that conversation.
According to his long time partner, Lloyd Silver, “Jerry was a feisty guy, about the size of Jack LaLanne, and almost as fanatic about his fitness.” For those who don’t know, Jack was one of the early fitness celebrities and bodybuilders, hosting his own show from 1953 to 1985. Jerry was also, “A very proficient sailor, skippering (sic) for many years on his cousin Rad Pratsch’s ‘Flying Cloud’, and scoring major points in many regattas in the thirties and forties.”
To give the reader an idea of the impact of lumber to the area, “In 1907, Tacoma's 135 lumber handlers stowed 202,559,628 board feet, a record that has never been equaled. Throughout the globe Tacoma became known as The Lumber Capital of the World.” Lumber and the rise of the Port of Tacoma created a positive economic impact for local jobs, the growth of the region and the import/export capacity of the nation.
In the early 1900’s, the leading innovation for timber notes was called a Tally Board which was nothing more than the smooth side of a wooden roofing shingle that was painted. Jerry’s first entrepreneurial venture was conceived in 1916 and he connected with a local printer, Harry Buffington. The two worked together to develop a “painted piece of paper” that could oust the cumbersome Tally Board. They worked at developing a waterproofing formula for dipping paper and had launched the first version of Rite in the Rain (RITR).
The Sauce Sours: Swindled
Like many young men in that time period, Jerry departed to join the effort of World War I. Unfortunately we were not able to acquire much information about Mr. Darling's service but when he returned from war there was an issue with the business. The details are murky but Jerry returns to find that, “The business had fallen into the hands of stock swindlers,” and Buffington was nowhere to be found. Darling had to start over but he also found the demand for his innovation had risen in the region with the rise of the Port of Tacoma.
On March 25th of 1921, a steamship, the Edmore, arrived at the newly constructed Pier 1 in the Port of Tacoma. This arrival marked Tacoma’s official entry in the commercial shipping market. Fifty members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) reportedly, “Loaded 600,000 board feet of lumber in record-setting time.” In just 24 hours 25 carloads of lumber were freighted and the proud team sent the Edmore off on its journey to Yokohama, Japan.
With the relaunch of the business, the JL Darling Corporation’s early partners were Jerry’s wife, Mary, and young son, Peter, all doing their part to stir the sauce to build the family venture. Their production line started as a bicycle driven chain inside their home in Brown’s Point. A brand distinctive of Rite in the Rain emerged as a means of necessity rather than forethought. When the paper came off of the line, the coating gathered at the bottom corner which was subsequently trimmed. By the 1930’s, the Darlings decide to open a shop across the street from their house in Commencement Bay. The new location allowed them to construct longer chains to drive the coating of pre-printed sheets that they were still acquiring from other printers. The secret sauce is slowly gaining steam and Rite in the Rain is becoming a viable business.
Stirring the Sauce: Rite in the Rain 2.0
Bill Sny, a local machine shop operator, was recruited in the 1950’s to design and build a Continuous Web Coating Machine to replace the hand dipping process. Upon completion, The Darling Corporation now has the only machine of it’s kind and was the sole company making “waterproof writing paper.” The secret sauce has allowed them to grow to three employees and to offset their reliance on outside printers, Jerry purchased a Multilith offset printing press and a used paper cutter from Weyerhaeuser's print shop.
By this time the Darling Corporation is producing their Forest line, Engineer forms and bound books. It is during this time, between 1930 and 1950, that we believe Jerry moved the operation into Tacoma with the first known location being a multi-story space shared with Pioneer Printing at the intersection of South 12th and A Streets. Paper products have quite a history within the Pacific Northwest and Jerry was one character in the broader story. Sharing the same location, Jerry would have interacted with a prominent local business owner, Mrs. Phebe A. Howe. Phebe incorporated Pioneer Printing and Bindery Company in 1889 (coincidentally the same year that Washington became a state) with her three sons as stockholders. Mrs. Howe came to the Northwest by way of moving from New York to Walla Walla, Washington in 1877, where she started her career in printing and binding. In 1887 she moved her family to Tacoma and resumed her efforts in the printing business.
For context, and as a quick sidenote, Col. Willam Farrand Prosser, who was appointed by President Hayes as a special agent of the U.S. Department of the Interior for Oregon, Washington and Idaho writes of Pioneer Printing, “Their close attention to business and honorable methods have won for them a large and profitable patronage.” Prosser became a colonel during the Civil War, served in the House of Representatives in Tennessee, moved to the Northwest where he founded the Washington State Historical Society and founded the town of Prosser.
Lloyd Silver Dips His Toes in The Sauce
In 1958, a local Tacoma salesman named Lloyd Silver enters the story. Lloyd was a big personality and the story goes that he and Jerry had a mutual friend, Bill Gregory, who was also the Darling’s accountant. Bill knew that Darling’s company needed to enter a new phase of growth and at the age of 68 Jerry was thinking about retirement. Mr. Gregory thought that Lloyd would be a good fit to help develop the business.
Only good things happen when two business minds consume a few lunchtime martinis, right? Jerry offered Lloyd half of the company if he would come aboard and help bring Rite in the Rain into the black. Mr. Silver was named VP in January of 1958 and was President by December of that same year. Lloyd rolled his sleeves up and focused his efforts in expanding the brand. Within a year things were headed in the right direction and Mr. Darling honored his word. In a letter Lloyd composed to recount his recollection of “The Rite in the Rain Story”, he states, “The Darling’s and I hit it off from the beginning and it was a beautiful ‘marriage’ with never a cross-word exchanged or a difference of opinion in all the years of our association.”
As their production abilities increased so did the notoriety of their product within markets of need. Lloyd’s sales background kicked in and he attended the first trade show that the company had ever been a part of. He built the first water feature to showcase the waterproof properties of their Rite in the Rain product. This feature is similar to those on display at local hardware stores such as McClendon’s. Within five years the business had doubled and Lloyd became a 50% shareholder.
Lloyd put his artistic abilities to work as well, developing graphics for the initial marketing materials. He began revamping the logo for the company and is reported to have drawn or contributed to the duck logo that was utilized during the 50’s and 60’s. His scripting was instrumental as well and his handwriting served as the print for the logo. You could say the brand was on fire but unfortunately so was their volatile “special paint” which caused three warehouse fires in 1963. Growth and the fire issues led the company to move operations to Port of Tacoma road to a 6,000 square foot warehouse facility in the tide flats in April of 1965. Lloyd and Bill Sny modified their production time and again until a fire in 1968 destroyed their most efficient machine to date. Thankfully insurance proceeds covered the loss and they once again built the contraption from the ground up.
The Secret Sauce is Strong Partnerships
In the 70’s, Lloyd invited his sons, Scott and Todd Silver, to join him. The brothers had gone to business school and had started working towards their respective careers. When Lloyd called upon them, the young men saw the same opportunity that he had in 1958. The brothers learned the business and worked to elevate the company to the next level by implementing systems. Todd and Scott Silver ran the day-to-day and purchased their father’s half of Rite in the Rain in 1995. One year later, the brothers were able to purchase the remaining half of the company from Mary and Peter Darling.
To this day, Todd and Scott still get along and respect each other’s strengths in business. Scott is a numbers guy and worked as a bank examiner for a time after college. He gravitated towards the financial aspects of business including inventory and production. Todd oversaw the sales and marketing development of Rite in the Rain. Their skill sets were complementary and their relationship is intact after years of being in business together.
Speaking to their business relationship the brothers have said:
Rite in the Rain moved to their current Fife location just on the outskirts of Tacoma around 1996. Initially there were tenants at the current location but as the company grew they began to occupy these offices, especially as shipping and ecommerce took off in the general market. Rite in the Rain is an example of what a company can do when partners recognize each other's strengths and allow each other to operate for the good of moving the mission forward. Jerry recognized his need for Lloyd and empowered him to bring his business savvy to the company while rewarding his efforts with an investment share in the company. When Lloyd’s sons took over the business, the complementary strengths helped usher Rite in the Rain to new levels both internally as well as externally.
As the company grew the owners were smart about building at a sustainable pace with a goal to minimize their debt burden. Rite in the Rain owns their buildings, machinery and continues to operate from a stable position. Their growth hasn’t been without risk but their capital allowed them to fund their experiments into new markets such as the military outreach which has propelled their growth in the last decade. Even though they exist in a market space that isn’t attractive to most, they built the business to a level where they are on their second tier of investment ownership. Several employees have been with the company over a decade, pressman Jeff Slusher holds the current tenure title having been with RITR for 27 years.The company continues to explore new niche markets including extreme sports and unique businesses including diving where professionals can compose notes while underwater.
Made in the South Sound Timeline for Rite in the Rain
Jon Isaacson, The Intentional Restorer, is an 18 year veteran of the property restoration industry and a business coach through his organization The DYOJO.