'A hard-working guy who loved people': Mainers remember department store founder R.H. Reny

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BATH — Robert H. Reny left a unique, 60-year business legacy when he died July 24 in Damariscotta at the age of 83.

Reny was an enduring symbol of his chain of Renys department stores. He was affable and charismatic; quick with a smile, handshake or a roar of a laugh; had an untiring work ethic, and a gregariousness that endeared him as a friend to customers, employees and dignitaries alike.

His immediate family included his wife, Carolyn, and sons John, Bob and Mike, plus seven grandchildren. But “R.H.,” as he was widely known, spread a feeling of kinship among the people who worked in his stores and offices.

“That’s what R.H. always wanted, was a family-oriented feel,” Joan McKenney of Phippsburg said Monday. “He always felt that when you worked for him, you were part of his family, and he wanted you to reflect that.”

McKenney, who ended her 30 years at the Bath Renys last year as its manager, recalled her former boss as “a very, very good man” who was fair to work for.

“He knew his stuff,” she said. “He knew what people wanted.”

There were the clothing labels such as Carhartt, Columbia and Woolrich. But occasionally Reny might have an offbeat idea, McKenney said, such as buying up huge pants, jewelry, or many pieces in a line of suits that his business acumen told him was a worthwhile investment at the time. And he’d turn out to be right.

“It was always something a little quirky that just kind of brought people in, out of their curiosity,” McKenney said. “He knew what he was doing.”

She added that when Reny was at her store, “everyone was all excited to see him. He made everyone feel welcome. … We’re gonna miss him.”

Reny grew up in Biddeford, entered the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school and was immediately sent to Dartmouth College, where he finished a four-year program in just half that time. He then headed toward Europe with the Navy, but World War II ended by the time he reached Greenland.

Reny worked at R.H. White’s in Boston when he returned to the U.S., then moved to Damariscotta, where he was employed at Senter’s department store. In October 1949 he opened his own store across the street, beginning a chain that now includes 14 stores from Wells to Ellsworth and from Bridgton to Dexter.

John and Bob Reny, who now run the company, started working at their father’s business at the respective ages of 5 and 7.

“My father made us work,” John Reny said Monday. “There’s nothing wrong with that, because it taught us how to work.”

He returned to the company in the mid-1970s after college with the idea of filling in for a couple of weeks at the Bath store after it had lost its manager. That fortnight became a career, with John Reny serving as manager there for about eight years before moving to a different position in the company.

Recalling the lessons he learned from his father, John Reny said, “I think he’s brought a certain amount of conservatism to both Bob and I. Financially … don’t try to be the biggest guy on the block, but you can be the best. And work hard, and do what you do well.”

The success that R.H. Reny achieved in later years did not come easily. During the business’s first winter, in 1949-1950, Reny sold merchandise door to door out of the back of his car in order to keep his store open. It was perhaps his charm as much as his ingenuity that helped Renys survive, since during that winter he made many friends who soon became new customers.

Reny was “one of the last pure old-fashioned retailing entrepreneurs,” said Jim McGregor, who worked closely with Reny in the Maine Merchants Association and is now director of government affairs for that group and formerly its executive director. “He started on a shoestring and created a chain that I think everybody in the state of Maine is proud of.”

Reny was member and president of the association, which honored him as Retailer of the Year in 1981. He was also a co-organizer of Damariscotta Bank & Trust, a board member and former chairman of the Maine Chamber of Commerce & Industry, and a member of the Small Business Administration National Advisory Council, as well as of the Central Maine Power Co. board of directors. Reny was also a Paul Harris fellow in Rotary.

“In many ways (Reny) was the heart and soul of the Maine Merchants Association, and also of retailing in general,” McGregor said.

He noted that Reny was one of the few business owners in Maine who truly appreciated the essential link between businesses and the State House.

“A lot of businesspeople preach that, but don’t take the time to practice it,” McGregor said. “A lot of them can always find an excuse for not going to Augusta to a hearing, or to see somebody, but Bob always knew that and appreciated that connection. And he spent an enormous amount of time talking to legislators and governors and agencies on matters that were important.”

Reny’s connections were made clear particularly when Gov. John Baldacci called the company’s main office in Newcastle on Friday to express his condolences.

“I remember my early days serving in the state Legislature, Bob worked the halls of the State House on behalf of Maine businesses,” Baldacci said in a prepared statement the day of Renys’ death. “He always had a ready smile and an easy laugh, even when we disagreed. Bob worked well with Democrats and Republicans, and always put economic development for Maine first.”

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that “Bob truly lived the American dream and he influenced the lives of so many. He was a mentor to young businesspeople who often turned to him for advice and he will be greatly missed.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and her husband, former Gov. John McKernan, called Reny “a dear friend to us since our days in the state Legislature. Bob was a true entrepreneur and visionary business owner whose pioneering spirit turned a unique business idea into a staple of communities throughout Maine. His sense of humor and compassionate nature were as legendary as his commitment to our state.”

McGregor said he considers Reny “the last of a breed in many ways. I think he adhered to old-time philosophies of retailing – that it was customer service, and give the customer what they want – and he could certainly be a textbook for retailing.”

John Reny summed up his father’s legacy simply.

“He just was a hard-working guy who loved people,” he said. “And that worked out pretty well for him.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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reny1.jpgRobert H. Reny, who founded the Renys chain of department stores in 1949, died July 24 at the age of 83.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.