Heavy Turbulence From Airliner May Have Been Cause of Jet Crash : Victim: In-N-Out president was builder of company, philanthropist, GOP political activist. Associates praise his abilities and character.
He hated trends. He fell behind the times. He broke most of the traditional business rules. Yet he created one of the largest family-owned restaurant chains in America.
The story of how Richard A. Snyder built the In-N-Out Burger Co. from his father’s meager start into a competitor with the fast-food giants is one of those rare inspirational tales about a man who did it his way.
He could have gone public with the company and made millions more--bankers were constantly urging him to. He could have gone with the flow and changed his 1950s burgers-and-fries menu into the 1990s amalgam of healthy and ethnic cuisine.
But Snyder, who took over the company at age 24 when his father died, was a true believer in the hamburger as an American icon. And he was confident that he knew best what his customers wanted: a fat pancake of fresh beef piled on the best home-cooked buns, hand-shredded lettuce, topped with all the extras and wrapped in a waxy paper pocket. No Styrofoam.
“We could have gone public and made tons of money,” Snyder said in a 1990 interview. “But what happens to quality then? What happens to all of our associates? In the long term, we’d rather grow the way we’ve been growing.”
Snyder, 41, and four others were killed Wednesday evening when their chartered jet crashed in Santa Ana. The company president and two other executives from In-N-Out were returning from a trip to Fresno, where they opened a new restaurant and scouted potential locations for others.
Snyder operated 93 restaurants, mainly in Southern California. It was a far cry from the 16 he started with when his father died of cancer in 1976.
Snyder will always be known for his success with a unique hamburger enterprise. But as a businessman, friends say, he will also be remembered as an iconoclast because to him, there were many things more important than the bottom line.
Snyder was known throughout California as a philanthropist, a prominent born-again Christian and a passionate conservative Republican supporter.
Last year he passed out blankets at a homeless shelter and several times organized fund-raisers to aid victims of child abuse.
“He had a great love for this country,” said Bruce Herschensohn, a former Republican U.S. Senate candidate and a close friend of Snyder. “I really mean he had passion. This guy would get tears in his eyes when he talked about the United States.”
Herschensohn, who was speech writer in the Nixon White House, said Snyder played a big role in his decision to enter the 1986 race against then-U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston. Since then, Snyder had been a prominent contributor and activist for Republican conservatives and their causes.
He hosted events for former President Ronald Reagan and ex-Vice President Dan Quayle. Last week he entertained a group of conservative Sacramento lawmakers in his sky box at a Los Angeles Rams football game. And earlier this year he co-chaired the campaign for Proposition 174, the school voucher initiative.
“I think he’s one of those rare individuals who got into politics by his sheer desire to change things,” said Ken Khachigian, a Republican political consultant in San Clemente. “He had no self-interest involved. . . . He was just an extremely genuine individual who had a permanent smile on his face.”
Snyder’s politics and his religious beliefs overlapped on the issue of values. He was concerned that the nation had lost its spiritual footing and that some of its social ills, such as crime and poverty, were the result.
Snyder believed God was responsible for the success of his business and that religion was the path to a better world. Sometimes he was not bashful about saying so. At Christmas in 1991, In-N-Out Burgers aired a radio commercial that inspired and offended Southern Californians.
“If you want a new life, then why not ask for God’s gift this Christmas?” it said. “His gift to you is His son, Jesus. Ask Jesus to come and live in your heart today. Choose life by choosing Jesus. In-N-Out Burger wishes you a full and abundant life forever.”
As a business venture, the ad was virtually unprecedented. As a personal outreach, it brought Snyder plenty of flak from throughout the region.
“He took a lot of guff for that, but I admire him to the hilt,” said Carl N. Karcher, whose Carl’s Jr. hamburger chain is one of Snyder’s chief rivals. “Rich’s first love was Jesus Christ.”
Snyder focused on children in his crusade to improve society. They became his philanthropic passion. He contributed thousands of dollars to centers for abused children and to the Make-A-Wish Foundation for terminally ill children. For years, he has also regularly organized fund-raisers at his restaurants.
Snyder, who lived in a $3.5-million waterfront home in Newport Beach, told friends he had always wanted to have children of his own someday. But his interest in children was somewhat ironic since he spent most of his adult life as one of Southern California’s most eligible bachelors.
He was married last year for the first time to a 29-year-old administrative assistant at a friend’s leasing company in Newport Beach.
Their wedding in Maui also bore the stamp of Snyder’s generosity and fun-loving attitude. He paid the air fare for all of the guests and, as one friend remembers, the wedding ceremony erupted into a wild 1950s doo-wop dance just as the bride and groom locked arms.
“He was funnier than hell,” said Jeff Morris, the friend who introduced Snyder to his wife, Christina. “He had a delightful sense of humor and never took himself too seriously. A real regular guy with a fabulous business empire.”
Morris said he spoke with Snyder’s mother, Esther, on Thursday. “She told me that Rich called her every single day,” he said. “Now how many sons do you know that call their mother every day?”
Morris said he also learned just Thursday that Snyder was the source of a large anonymous donation he received recently when his home was destroyed in the Laguna Beach fire. “It wasn’t like we were looking for donations, but that was the kind of guy Rich was,” Morris said. “He was a very, very caring, compassionate human being.”
Snyder never attended college. What he learned about the hamburger business was passed down from his father, Harry, who started the company in Baldwin Park in 1948.
Maybe that’s why he broke so many of the rules he would have been taught at a business school. In-N-Out burgers are more expensive than those of competitors, and the company pays its employees substantially more. Snyder once told a reporter that’s because he wanted the best 16-year-olds he could find in his restaurants.
“I knew his dad and mom real well,” said Karcher. “Rich and his mom carried through on what his dad believed in. A lot of people in this business are envious of what they’ve done.”
Employees at In-N-Out say that rewarding loyalty and good work is a hallmark of corporate life at the burger chain. Workers are taught by an elite team of traveling experts about how to talk to customers and how to flip hamburgers. But they are also encouraged to think independently.
The October wildfire in Laguna Beach offers a good example of the independent thinking. When the blaze broke out, one junior executive in his 20s decided on his own to send the company’s food truck to the city, where hundreds of firefighters lined up for free hamburgers. When Snyder learned about it later, he congratulated the employee for showing good initiative.
Snyder stressed the company’s informality by referring to his employees as “associates.”
“Now, a lot of people say they have associates, but he really meant it,” said Richard Terra, vice president of Shamrock Meat in Los Angeles, which supplies ground beef to the In-N-Out Burger chain. “I can’t remember how many times Rich took his managers and their (spouses) to Hawaii on vacation.
“Rich put in a great team to run the company,” Terra said. “But what they’ll miss is his spirit.”
Esther Snyder, the company’s matriarch, still works in the accounting department in Baldwin Park. She also serves as secretary-treasurer.
Snyder’s brother, Guy, has worked at the company as a vice president.
The Baldwin Park-based company is in the process of moving its headquarters to a newly renovated building in Irvine. The move was supposed to have been completed by October, but the renovation dragged on and the company now intends to move early next year.
As a youthful corporate leader, Snyder had been a member of the Young Presidents Organization, a worldwide group for company heads under age 40.
“The main thing about Rich is that he grew a business through personal leadership with a lot of people who felt very much part of the company,” said Harold Bennett, the head of the group.
Times staff writer Mark Platte contributed to this story.
National Transportation Safety Board officials say a chartered jet may have flown into the wake of a Boeing 757 as it approached John Wayne Airport. This may have contributed to the plane’s fatal crash Wednesday, NTSB officials said.
1. Chartered Westwind 1124A, flying two miles behind 757, dips 200 feet below glide path
2. One minute away from airport, Westwind, at 1,100 feet, loses control
3. Westwind plunges at 45-degree angle, rolls over, nose dives four feet into ground at a field at Santa Ana Auto Mall
Typical Flight Path
Small plane follows at least two to three miles behind, at or above altitude of larger aircraft, to avoid turbulence
How Turbulence is Created
Air flowing over wingtips creates miniature, horizontal tornadoes
Air continues to rotate, then drops toward ground and dissipates
Duration of turbulence varies according to weather conditions, but generally is gone by the time the plane has progressed three miles
Not to scale
Source: Don Llorente, supervisory air safety investigator, NTSB; Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE and JEFFREY A. PERLMAN / Los Angeles Times