Legacy: R.F. Taplett, 1921-2008
R.F. "Rawley" Taplett walked so fast -- through orchards, factories, airports -- that during his six decades as a serial entrepreneur, his business associates were literally left panting as they struggled to catch up. First to get off a flight to Hong Kong in the late 1980s, Taplett, then in his late 60s, bolted toward customs. After processing him, a customs officer glanced up and saw a face that looked remarkably like that of the last guy through. He asked the out-of-breath man, "You brother?"
"No," came the winded reply from Dean Taplett, 34 years younger than his father. "Son."
"So sorry," the officer said.
"Rawley only finished second in life once," Dean Taplett said in August at his father's funeral -- "to his twin brother being born." R.F. Taplett died on the operating table July 29, waiting for a stronger pacemaker to be installed, a surgery he hoped would put him back in the fast lane. He was 87.
Taplett returned from World War II to Wenatchee, Washington, and bought a nine-acre apple orchard. Rather than sell to a local co-op, he was soon trucking his apples up and down the West Coast to get a better price. Then to the Midwest. Eventually he assembled 1,200 acres of orchards, and R.F. Taplett Fruit & Cold Storage Company was among the first to sell U.S. apples to Asia.
Investment deals came his way, but he was rarely just an investor. A group attempting to develop a nuclear waste dump site in South Carolina approached Taplett in 1969. He invested, bought a larger share, and learned the business as company president. He added a second toxic chemical disposal site in Oregon and then sold the company to Waste Management (NYSE:WMI) in the early 1980s. Initial investors got a 70-to-1 return.
Rawley Taplett had but a high school diploma -- and he stuck around four years only so he could keep playing baseball -- yet he fearlessly waded into technology. (A math whiz, he was twice state checkers champion.) He and others took control of AirSensors, a maker of fuel injection systems, in the 1980s and then steered it into alternative energy equipment. A spinoff, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies, develops hydrogen and fuel cell equipment for General Motors (NYSE:GM).
"Rawley was my mentor," says Quantum's chairman, Dale Rasmussen. "And he was first down the hallway."
Ron Duncan, a onetime plumber who invented an easy-to-install household valve, sent an associate to see Taplett for funding. "It took him all of 10 minutes to make up his mind," Duncan recalls. "Rawley, I think, put in half a million dollars."
Taplett could be hard to work for. "Rawley was a carrot-and-stick guy -- heavy on the stick," Dean Taplett says. Dad had to learn to stay away from the orchards and packing house after Dean took over the apple business. "What he didn't see couldn't disgust him," Dean says. "He'd have fired the crew four or five times a year."
The orchards are nearly all sold off now for real estate development. And Dean Taplett is finishing up several deals his father had in the works at the time of his death. "That's the downside," Dean says, "of thinking you're going to live forever."