Candy entrepreneur Rick Ross at his Galerie au Chocolat store in New York City in 1986.
Sometimes it would start over a business dinner, while Rick Ross was surrounded by merchandisers and retail executives. The questions would become invasive, uninvited, off-topic – from people he barely knew. Weren’t they all supposed to be talking about candy?
“They’d keep asking about my sexual orientation, and I’d keep avoiding the questions, and still they’d keep asking me, and I’d say, ‘Why do you care about my personal life?’” says Ross, the founder and CEO of Hebron, Ky.-based Galerie, which for more than 30 years has supplied wholesale candy and gift sets to retailers large and small across the U.S. “You’re thinking, ‘What does this have anything to do with business? Why do you care?’ And they wouldn’t let it go.”
Not long after, Ross’ business with that retailer might suffer. An order reduced. A contract lost.
They had realized he was gay and backed away.
“You can’t prove it,” he admits.
But he knew that was the reason. He knew.
It happened a handful of times from the ’80s into the early 2000s – not so long ago, really – and it’s precisely why Ross was so committed to dodging those questions. For more than two decades as he evolved his homegrown candy business, he remained closeted – fearful that his homosexuality would be used to hurt him and the employees whose jobs depended on his company’s success.
He feels safer now. The world isn’t perfect, but it’s better. And as he reflects during Pride Month, Ross – now a prominent member of greater Cincinnati’s LGBTQIA+ business community – is quick to note that some companies have been anything but antagonists. Among them: Walgreens, whose efforts to build a more diverse supplier network are entering new territory when it comes to setting goals, educating employees and helping companies to get a foot in the door – not just in the U.S. but across Walgreens Boots Alliance.
“My sexual orientation has never been an issue with Walgreens,” Ross says. “My personal life, my history, didn’t matter with them.
“In the Chicago area, where Walgreens is based, it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares? But when you’re in some other parts of the country, it could be a different story.”
Ross weighs jelly beans for customers at the Jelly Bean Factory, his first store at a Cincinnati mall in the early 1980s.
The whiz kid
Ross’ story began in one such place: western Ohio in the late 1970s. His mom ran a gift shop in Dayton that had begun carrying a new candy brand, Jelly Belly – different from ordinary jelly beans with wild flavors like pizza and root beer, and usually only available in department stores. Fifteen-year-old Ross, “a little entrepreneur who was always trying to sell and buy stuff,” began pre-bagging and selling the jelly beans at weekend festivals, as well as the Ohio State Fair, where he collected the business cards of every retailer he met. Finding himself with extra inventory after the fair, he called those retailers up. Soon he was providing 30-pound cases of beans to 20 different gift shops in southwestern Ohio – and selling out regularly. He was quickly made an official Jelly Belly distributor.
Barely into college, he was asked to open the Jelly Bean Factory, a small shop inside a Cincinnati mall. Ross, whose dad was a dentist, now had his own candy store.
And then came The Gipper.
“Next thing we know, Ronald Reagan gets elected,” Ross says. “And I’m selling Jelly Bellys. And he loves Jelly Bellys. The whole country knew. So my store did $90,000 in business in like six months – and back in the early ’80s, a 144-square-foot store just didn’t do those kinds of numbers. I had a line outside every day for 20 minutes once Reagan won. I was just crushing it.”
He found himself doing national radio interviews and appearing in articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Times. Still just 20, he then got a loan and opened Galerie au Chocolat – the forebearer to Galerie – at the downtown Westin in Cincinnati, selling candies and fancy chocolates and creating the country’s first jelly bean dispensing “wall” with 72 flavors. He dropped out of college and focused on adding stores around the country: New York’s Madison Avenue. Palm Beach. San Francisco. Columbus. Pittsburgh. Phoenix.
“We were successful, I believe, because I owned 18 stores and used to go with my team from store to store making Easter baskets, Valentine’s boxes, Christmas gift sets and interacting with our customers,” says Ross. “We learned what they loved, how they bought candy, what colors they bought, what flavors they bought. We developed a sense for what the consumer wants.”
And yet, pleasing customers – as important and instinctive as it became for Ross – wasn’t the main thing driving him.
“I had the motivator,” he says. “I was gay and in the closet. You had this sense that if you didn’t provide an environment for yourself that would take care of you, you’d always live your life in fear. And I have tons of friends, many at big companies, who did live in fear. I have friends who were fired – high-level people with big salaries – because they were gay or lesbian. People say, ‘What motivated you? Why were you so aggressive?’ And it’s because I wanted to build my own life in society and not be reliant on somebody else.”
Living behind a mask
Ross calls it “the marketing campaign” – the lengths he and other LGBTQIA+ business people would go to in those days to hide their sexuality. These efforts picked up in 1988 when, after some business challenges, Ross decided to rethink his retail plans, phase out his stores and focus on selling innovative candy products to department stores and other retailers under the shortened name Galerie.
Within certain circles, it wasn’t so bad.
“In department stores, there were a lot of gay leaders – gay presidents, gay merchandise managers, gay buyers – so we never really had a problem,” says Ross. “Everybody who was gay was in the closet, of course. But you just knew. And we would stick together and help each other.”
But outside of department stores, it was often drastically different.
“When you stepped over to grocery, mass retail, drugstores, there was far less diversity,” he says. “For a long time, it was white, straight male-dominated, period.
“Being a gay man, you never spoke of your sexuality. If someone brought it up, you denied it. You wouldn’t go to gay bars or celebrations, or if you did, you didn’t allow your picture to be taken. I almost got married twice to women. You made sure you were seen with women, had pictures of yourself with women, because if some clients knew you were gay, they’d just cancel your orders – boom.”
Making matters worse, Ross found that gay associates were less likely to stick their necks out for each other outside the department store world, fearing they’d be suspected themselves.
He sat through some uncomfortable meals.
“There were buyers who would make awful comments about homosexuals and other minorities,” he says. “You’d sit there and want to punch them, but you’d just keep your mouth shut. My No. 1 responsibility was the job security of the employees of my company. Do you take care of your employees, or do you stand your ground?”
Ross at a groundbreaking ceremony for Galerie's facilities in Hebron, Ky., in 2002.
Today, he says, he’d stand his ground, even with more than 1,200 employees, plus thousands of other industry workers who depend on Galerie. It’s possible to still run into trouble today with certain buyers and more conservative companies, but being LGBTQIA+ isn’t nearly as taboo.
Ross has been out, give or take, for the last 18 years of his professional life. That includes taking on a prominent role as a founding member of the Greater Cincinnati Federal Club, which raises significant funding for the Human Rights Campaign, and becoming the first openly gay businessman in the Tocqueville Society, a group of philanthropic leaders who support the United Way. Serving on other local boards in Cincinnati, and as a member of the National Confectionary Sales Association’s Candy Hall of Fame, he knows his reputation speaks for itself.
“I just made a decision,” he says. “I’m 59 years old this year, and I don’t care anymore. If you don’t want to do business with me because I’m gay, and you don’t like who I am, then that’s really your problem.”
Yet there’s still that undercurrent of caution – an echo of the past.
“I’ve been a little more outspoken,” he clarifies, “but not so outspoken that I jeopardize the future of those I’m responsible for.”
No worries at Walgreens
Emily Gordon arrived at Walgreens in 2016. Almost immediately, she met Rick Ross.
“Coming into the candy world, it’s a whole different industry,” says Gordon, now a senior category manager over seasonal candy. “Rick helped me when I was getting on my feet and learning the category. He and his team have always been there to answer my questions about seasons and the intricacies around gifting and novelty. It was never just that I was the buyer and he was the vendor.”
The roots of that relationship go back about eight years before Gordon, when her boss, divisional merchandise manager Brian Rinker, met Ross at a candy trade show in Germany.
Rinker had a problem: Walgreens wasn’t faring so well with candy gift sets, unlike Boots in the UK, which was then years away from joining Walgreens as part of WBA. Ross, already a Walgreens supplier, knew Boots well, and he knew gift sets even better. Galerie specializes in keepsake collectibles and toys filled with candy. For years, some of Ross’ hottest sellers had been “tackle box” totes packed with candy samples – beloved by customers who would use the boxes later to store jewelry.
Rinker had the right candy man.
“He said, ‘Hey, let’s partner together on gift sets and give it one last go,’” Rinker remembers. “If it wasn’t a success, Walgreens would walk away from the category. We had one shot at fixing it. And so I worked very closely with Rick on a program where we tweaked some of Galerie’s products for the Walgreens customer. He showed me things to look for across all gift sets, not just Galerie’s – things to watch out for, what’s important. And that’s really when my relationship with him solidified.”
Gift sets not only lived on at Walgreens but thrived. Galerie itself went from supplying one or two candy items per season at Walgreens to as many as 17 today, depending on the season, in addition to the everyday Finders Keepers line.
“Here’s a company who had my back,” says Ross. “Brian had the courage to trust me based on my reputation. He was a good partner, and he gave me a chance. And that is what really opened the door for us at Walgreens.”
Doors continue to open
At Walgreens headquarters, Shaun Jones, director for supplier diversity, has spent the last year laying a foundation for expanding the company’s roster of “diverse” suppliers so that it more closely mirrors the diversity of Walgreens customers and patients. (A business is considered diverse if it’s more than 50 percent owned by women or minorities, including veterans, people with disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQIA+.)
Jones’ background is in procurement – buying products and negotiating contracts with suppliers, as Rinker and Gordon do – and his strategy here is two-fold: First, he wants Walgreens to take the lead in guiding up-and-coming diverse suppliers about things like contract management, business plans and product pitches – knowledge that can improve their chances of working with major retailers. Walgreens teamed up recently with the Women’s Business Development Center in Chicago to lead an eight-week program for this purpose.
The other part of the plan, Jones says, is to give Walgreens merchants new tools they can use to locate diverse suppliers – and to educate everyone at Walgreens on why it’s good for business. For example, it’s a common myth that diverse suppliers are small or aren’t competitive. And their inclusion means customers who identify with those groups are represented in a store’s products, leading to potential economic impact in those communities.
“All diverse suppliers are an opportunity for us, but this group in particular is definitely an opportunity to do better,” he says.
That includes internationally. Over the next two years, Jones’ plan is for Walgreens to establish goals for how much it spends with diverse suppliers. At the same time, other WBA businesses around the globe would be educated about supplier diversity through an ambassador program. Eventually, all of WBA would adopt the same target numbers.
Ross, caught between his years of industry expertise and his personal history, is happy to see Walgreens continuing down the right path, even as he acknowledges Jones’ work is a delicate dance.
“It’s a balancing act,” Ross says. “If I’m a buyer, I don’t want to be told I have to buy from a diverse company just because I have to make a quota. But if you don’t mandate it, in many places it’ll never happen. There needs to be good behavior from both sides.”
He concedes this is a touchy subject for him. But unlike 30 years ago, he isn’t deflecting any questions.
“Nobody should be entitled to anything,” he says. “You have to earn it. But everyone should have the opportunity to earn it.”