Uncle Ralph embodied the heart and soul of our company. While my grandfather inspired from the mountaintop, Uncle Ralph grounded himself on the earth, among the crowds, leading them in song, entertaining them with story, showering them with soap. He could instantly connect with people from all walks of life: everybody was a kindred spirit. And so when he talked about the company — our philosophy, our charitable giving — it was as if he was saying: We can all do this thing, now go out and serve. Make this world a better place.
Despite a difficult upbringing, raised in 14 different foster homes, my uncle bore no resentment. In fact, when he came into wealth later in life as vice-president of the most successful natural soap company in America, he felt no entitlement. He treated money like energy to be shared with people who were disadvantaged like he once was, to assist them in getting on the right side of opportunity.
Countless times I saw him give a $50 bill to a person he’d just met, like the dishwasher in a restaurant, because he had once worked as a dishwasher and knew it to be a tedious, thankless job. He got such joy out of giving, and would often say that if people knew how great it felt to give their money away, they wouldn’t wait until they died to do it.
Meeting with customers the Uncle Ralph way meant loading up his minivan with soap, picking a city, walking into every health store, and playing his guitar for whoever would listen. People would look at him like Who is this guy? But then his charm would take over — he’d ask if they knew the soaps, tell them it would tingle, especially “in the undercarriage.” He’d share stories about Dad, humanizing Dr. Bronner like nobody could — have everybody laughing, crying, embracing him by the end — then on he’d go to the next store.
Put Uncle Ralph on stage and he could engage an entire auditorium of people like he was talking to each one of them in his kitchen. And he was fearless. I swear he could be awakened out of a deep sleep to be interviewed by Oprah, and he would deliver without missing a beat.
Throughout it all Uncle Ralph would balk at the thought that he was doing any kind of “marketing” — that insinuated a devious subterfuge of, you know, selling product. Selling was completely superfluous to my uncle’s intentions, which were simply to show what a better world it would be if people would only give back for the greater good.
Though he is no longer with us, Uncle Ralph has left his mark on this company. No matter how large we get, we must engage on the human level. We must know our customers, not just our customer types. We must treat employees like family, and suppliers like trusted partners. I can never duplicate Uncle Ralph — no one can. But in my own way I try to follow in my uncle’s footsteps by connecting with everyone I meet, even when I’m not handing them an article or bottle of soap. Be with the crowds, not above them. Lead from within. Live modestly. Live fully.