In the 26 years since Richard Murphy Jr. became the fourth-generation head of his family’s Minneapolis warehousing business, he helped it grow from one to 14 warehouses and to more than 200 employees and 250 clients.
But in his life in Minneapolis’ Tangletown, he was “just dad” — the guy who loved restaurant lunches, extra lemons in his ice tea, playing piano at night and making Christmas slide shows of his trips to Dubai, Saudi Arabia and India. One year, the home slide projector broke, so he dragged the family to his office to ensure his kids learned the wonders of Tibet. He was the softball coach who always hand-drew maps so school parents could get to games.
But the rock ‘n’ roll loving Murphy, who died suddenly July 4 of a pulmonary embolism at 67, may best be remembered as a sustainability guru who plastered solar panels on his warehouses, planted acres of grasslands and then drove his kids again — and again — to see them.
“Dad, it looks like grass. Can’t you just mow it?” daughter Alexandra Murphy recalled thinking as a teen. Now 38, she realizes how ahead of his time he was. “He was always so proud of his green initiatives. And there were so many of them.”
Murphy grew up with four siblings on Summit Avenue in St. Paul, attended St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and later earned a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture and an MBA from the University of Minnesota. He then earned a masters in landscape architecture from Harvard.
He married his Minnesota bride Kay in 1977 after working in landscape architecture for a few years and designing sound barriers along I-694. He later taught at Syracuse University in New York. But with his first child born and a recession underway, Murphy returned to Minnesota in 1983 and joined the family’s now 115-year-old warehousing business.
It wasn’t easy. The family’s larger trucking businesses soon disbanded under the weight of a recession and deregulation. Going forward, Murphy, his father, sister Laurie and others hung their chances on the previously tiny warehousing and rigging business. With dozens of workers to support, Murphy ignored national firms looking to snap up small, regional players and instead helped turn Murphy’s Warehouse into a foreign trade zone to give it more status.
New customers signed on. All worked well — until the day a big shipment of Department 56 decorative “Christmas houses” arrived from China without the Made in China label. Murphy quickly put his wife, kids and their friends to work at home, opening boxes and sticking China labels on hundreds of the small ceramics.
“Every surface of our home was covered with these things,” said his ex-wife, Kay. “We’d finish one batch, he’d haul in more.” It took weeks, but the imports finally passed customs and were trucked to stores.
Despite business growing pains, Murphy never lost his love of green. He taught landscape architecture at the U for 25 years and wove sustainability into the family business.
Landscape architecture was “a big part of his heart. He really dedicated himself to the family business, but I know a part of him always missed the field he gave up,” Kay said.
At work, Murphy outfitted truck bays and warehouses with efficient LED lights, installed solar panels and created vast prairies and holding ponds at Murphy sites in Minneapolis, Fridley and Eagan. The elaborate rain gardens and retention basins he built in 2008 in Minneapolis now save $70,000 in annual city stormwater fees.
“It is 7.3 times more expensive to have manicured grass than a prairie,” he said in a 2014 interview at his Minneapolis office, which he decorated with Beatles and Rolling Stones memorabilia, platinum records and other rock music gems.
Murphy often warmed to new hires and clients with talk of his favorite bands and concerts. He remembered workers’ kids, personal details and made sure they knew “he cared,” said friend Rick Blasgen, president of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, a group that Richard chaired.
Murphy is survived by children Alexandra, Tenner, Libby and Madigan; granddaughter Frances; ex-wife Kay; and siblings Laurie, Patrick, Sharon and Maureen. Funeral services are at 10 a.m. Friday at Wayzata Community Church.