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When a global food products company like Rich Products with $3.3 billion in sales decides to create a “family room” at its corporate headquarters, expect something big.

The result is just that. Employees sit in brightly colored chairs in the renovated, spacious atrium, to meet, eat or sometimes a little of both. A 40-foot-tall fireplace, built with 20,000 bricks reclaimed from a Chicago warehouse, dominates the middle of the room. Photos of employees past and present cover a three-story wall at the back.

The makeover is part of the first phase of an $18.5 million modernization project by Rich, creating a “customer innovation center” to suit the people who work at its Niagara Street complex, the Rich employees who travel here from around the world for meetings and customers who come to visit. The investment also reinforces Rich’s headquarters and research and development presence in Buffalo.

William G. Gisel Jr., Rich’s chief executive officer, said the new look is a “physical metaphor” for the company’s vision, as a family-owned business that competes in more than 100 countries and operates nine R&D centers, including Buffalo’s.

“We know that we can’t just be a parochial, casual, relaxed, corner-store type business,” Gisel said. “We’ve got to compete on the world stage. The biggest multinational food companies in the world are competing with us, so we need to have that capability for world-class execution.”

The atrium is probably the space at the Rich complex most familiar to people who don’t work at the company or visit as customers. Since the late 1980s, it has hosted myriad business meetings, weddings and political rallies, and continues to, but with an entirely new look.

The atrium, originally named Rich Renaissance Niagara but commonly called as “the Atrium,” was known for its replica of Niagara Falls, plants and gazebo. “It was nice to look at, but it wasn’t conducive to people,” Gisel said. “The noise levels in here from the waterfall, the acoustics and the traffic patterns really discouraged people from spending time in the atrium.”

So the company removed the old features – and donated many of them – in favor of an updated gathering space, rebranded as the Atrium @Rich’s. Lights hanging from the ceiling resemble dollops of Rich’s topping, powered by LEDs that can change color.

“We want it to be warm and colorful and inviting, and not to look institutional and not to look like a typical office space, to promote the kind of casual interactions and networking that we think is really important in any good organization,” Gisel said.

A space like the new atrium, he said, gives people a chance to “recharge” and meet up with people they might not ordinarily come across.

Lots of research went into the new-look space. Howard Rich, vice president of corporate relations, visited about 20 places to gather ideas, including Pixar’s headquarters, museums, hotels, and BMW in Munich, Germany. The company sought to create the feel of a college campus, rather than an office complex, to bring employees together, he said.

The customer innovation center includes a customer lounge that overlooks the Niagara River, a training room for employees and a conference room equipped with video conference capability to talk to employees at Rich’s eight other R&D centers. “It’s something we didn’t have the ability to do before,” said Dwight Gram, vice president of corporate communications.

Rich created a “product presentation area,” equipped with tables and a counter for guests and video screens to offer a close-up view of employees preparing food. When customers leave, Rich gives them a thumb drive with pertinent details of the presentation to share with their colleagues.

Attached to the product presentation area are kitchens designed to resemble those typically found in a supermarket bakery and a restaurant.

“They can really envision how our products will operate, look and feel in their kitchen environment,” Gram said.

Rich now employs 692 people at its Niagara Street complex and plans to fill another 23 jobs there this year, Gisel said. Rich has about 10,000 employees worldwide, including about 1,300 at Rich’s various operations in Western New York.

Howard Rich said the newly completed phase of work – which also includes a new dining area and fitness center – represents about $13.5 million of the total $18.5 million project. The company plans to start the other $5 million phase, involving its research and development space, in 2015, he said.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com