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Business obituaries: From modest roots, they did great things

A child of immigrants who shared his wealth with his city, the son of a baker, a shoeshine boy who became a billionaire, a loans clerk who rose to lead a bank – these are among February’s obituaries from the world of business.
Albert Boscov was the chairman of Boscov’s Department Stores, which was founded by his father. Christopher Dolan / The Citizens’ Voice via AP Photo
Albert Boscov was the chairman of Boscov’s Department Stores, which was founded by his father. Christopher Dolan / The Citizens’ Voice via AP Photo

A child of immigrants who shared his wealth with his city, the son of a baker, a shoeshine boy who became a billionaire, a loans clerk who rose to lead a bank – these are among February’s obituaries from the world of business.

Mike Ilitch

Mike Ilitch, who turned a pizza parlour into a fortune and then spent much of it to sustain his beloved Detroit, died on February 10. He was 87.

The founder of the Little Caesars restaurant chain invested in Detroit at a time when most everyone else was staying away.

Ilitch, the son of Macedonian immigrants, was born on July 20, 1929. He played baseball at Detroit’s Cooley High School and was signed by his hometown Tigers – the team he would later own – after his four-year stint in the US Marines. He spent three years in the team’s farm system before a knee injury ended his playing career.

He found his niche in business. It started in the late 1950s when Ilitch and his wife, Marian, opened their first Little Caesars in a strip mall in a working-class suburb. In those days pizza was still somewhat exotic. Their business plan involved a streamlined menu and low prices. One strategy was “stuffing a family for less than US$10”, according to a New York Times story in 1992. “When they walk out of the store, I want them to get a hernia,” the newspaper quoted Ilitch as saying.

The couple started selling franchises in the early 1960s. Mike Ilitch handled the menu and marketing while Marian managed the finances. In 1979, he started a two-for-one deal called Pizza! Pizza! and created a conveyor oven to quickly bake takeout pies so customers wouldn’t have to wait or call ahead. Sales mushroomed.

It was his subsequent turn as a white knight for Detroit that made “Mr I” a local legend. He bought the Detroit Red Wings ice hockey team in 1982 for $8 million when they were lousy. He spent freely and they went on to win Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008.

In 1992 he paid $85m for baseball’s Detroit Tigers. They made the World Series twice, losing both times, as Ilitch signed big cheques to snag top talent.

The Ilitches also spent $12m to renovate the down-at-heel Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit. Then Ilitch moved the Little Caesars headquarters from the suburbs into an office building next to the theatre. He even built a new stadium for the Tigers across the road.

Other gestures of his were smaller in scale. After the civil rights hero Rosa Parks was robbed in her home, he paid for her rent in a better part of town.

“Mike Ilitch is totally committed to Detroit,” said Damon Keith, a local judge. “He brought the Little Caesars corporate offices here. He saved the Fox Theatre. He built Comerica Park, and he kept the hockey and baseball teams thriving here when times were tough. But of all the incredible things he has done for the city, people should know what he did for Rosa Parks.”

Lorenzo Servitje

The Mexican bakery magnate Lorenzo Servitje died on February 3. He was 98.

Servitje was one of the six founders of Grupo Bimbo. Together they built the world’s biggest bakery, an international snack and baked-goods empire that acquired brands including Wonder Bread, Entenmann’s, Freihofer’s and Stroehmann.

Servitje was born in Mexico City in 1918, the son of a Spanish immigrant who started a bakery called El Molino.

He was studying accountancy at university when his father died in 1936. The son inherited the bakery and began trying to figure out how to modernise it.

After the Second World War, he launched Grupo Bimbo in 1945 with his partners. They started out with 38 employees and 10 delivery vehicles.

Using equipment imported from the US, Bimbo shifted the Mexican diet away from traditional foods and towards US fare such as white bread, doughnuts and hot dog buns.

Bimbo now operates in 22 countries, with 100 brands and it recorded more than $10.7 billion in sales in 2015.

Starting with bread, the company branched into snacks, tortillas and other bakery products. The company is known for its mascot, a small white bear. Its name, Bimbo, is meant as an amalgam of Bambi and bingo.

Bimbo expanded strongly into the United States, purchasing Mrs. Baird’s Bakeries in Texas in 1998. Bimbo Bakeries USA also acquired the western US baking business of George Weston, adding brands such as Oroweat, Entenmann’s, Thomas’ and Boboli.

In 2009, Grupo Bimbo purchased the remaining US fresh-baked goods business of George Weston, acquiring brands including Arnold, Brownberry, Freihofer’s and Stroehmann.

Servitje was known for his reflections on the ethical role of Mexico’s business community.

Edson de Godoy Bueno

He started out as a shoeshine boy and became a billionaire. Edson de Godoy Bueno, the head of a Brazilian healthcare empire, died on February 14 at age 73.

Bueno sold fruit from door-to-door as a boy in Sao Paulo state, then shined shoes. According to an obituary in the Rio newspaper O Globo, he was inspired to do more by his hometown’s only doctor. Bueno combined his subsequent medical studies with an entrepreneurial streak. Even before graduating as a surgeon, he owned the clinic in which he worked. He went on to start a three-hospital network with other young doctors. In 1978 he and his partners, including his then-wife Dulce Pugliese, founded Amil International Medical Care, which became the basis of his fortune.

Bueno ended up becoming Amil’s sole shareholder and selling it to US-based UnitedHealth for $4.9bn in 2010.

In an interview with in 2013 he explained what drove him. “We entrepreneurs have something in our blood that makes us different. Entrepreneurs have one thing in common: the crazy passion to transform. We fall in love with our own desires and we can work for more than 20 hours per day.”

This comes at a cost to one’s personal life. “I give my beloved one a credit card,” he said, “but I cannot afford to give her much of my time.”

Mildred Dresselhaus

Mildred Dresselhaus, the engineering professor whose work laid a foundation for the nanotechnology industry, died on February 20. She was 86.

She was a child of immigrants and grew up poor in New York, but she excelled at school. Her high school yearbook said: “Mildred equals brains plus fun. In math and science, she’s second to none.” At Hunter College in Manhattan she took a physics class. Its teacher, Rosalyn Yalow, who would go on to share the 1977 Nobel Prize in medicine, became an early mentor.

Dresselhaus later studied at the University of Chicago, where the great physicist Enrico Fermi was a second mentor. On their morning walks, he taught her to have a broad knowledge of science.

She joined the faculty of the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology at a time when everyone was rushing to study semiconductors. Instead she decided to focus on an element that others viewed as dull: carbon. Her work proved fruitful. She became known as the Queen of Carbon and had the idea that carbon atoms could be stretched into a super-thin, super-strong tube. The nanotube turned out to have many commercial applications, such as microelectronics, solar cells and loudspeakers.

An obituary in the IEEE Spectrum, a journal for engineers, said that Dresselhaus’s 1963 paper on graphite (the form of carbon found in a pencil) was “a foundational work in the history of nanotechnology”.

Having benefited from mentors, Dresselhaus was in turn a mentor and a role model for young women in science.

In January, a General Electric television commercial imagined a world in which women like Dresselhaus were celebrities. In the ad little girls dress up like her and people stop her on the street for selfies.

Melanie Dressel

Melanie Dressel, who started as a loans clerk and became the leader of an important regional bank in north-west United States, died on February 19. She was 64.

In 17 years as the president and then chief executive of Columbia Banking System, based in Tacoma, Washington, she built the bank to the point where it had $9bn in assets and was able to engineer significant takeovers. An anecdote from one deal exemplifies Dressel’s charm. As recounted in the Tacoma News Tribune, she was on a weekend conference call about the purchase of Bank of Astoria when her oven timer dinged.

“Everyone on the conference call goes: ‘Melanie, what are you doing?’” her son Robert told the News Tribune.

She answered that she was making chocolate chip cookies to send to Robert, who was in university.

“She cared about every single person, the CFO at the bank down to the janitor,” her son said. “She wanted to make sure that everyone was happy, ahead of her own happiness.”

Dressel grew up in the Washington town of Colville, where her parents owned a jewellery shop. After university she was hired by the Tacoma branch of Bank of California as a commercial property loans clerk. As she moved up the ranks she switched among the region’s banks, joining Columbia as part of the team that founded it in 1993.

Dressel said that while the situation of women in finance had improved, there was still a long way to go. “Even today,” she told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2014, “when we’re on a roadshow visiting with investors, if you have a driver taking you from location to location, they think my male CFO is the CEO. It’s more like I’m there to carry his bags or something. It’s humorous to me.”

Albert Boscov

Albert Boscov, the chairman of a century-old department store chain, died on February 10. He was 87.

He was credited with driving the growth of the business established by his father in 1914 to sales in excess of $1bn.

Albert Boscov said on February 1 that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and that he wanted the current year to be “our best possible year”, and wished his co-workers good luck, saying “I love you all”.

An obituary in local newspapers said Boscov “first made a name for himself as an expert fly catcher in his father’s neighbourhood store … receiving a penny for every fly he caught, until his father realised he was being shown the same fly over and over”. He met his wife, Eunice, “in the Adirondacks pretending to be a children’s book writer (because clearly that’s whom every woman dreams of marrying)”, the obituary said.

After university, Boscov started his first business, U-Eat-Em, delivering hero sandwiches.

After Korean War service in the Navy, he returned and in 1962 opened the chain’s first full-service department store. “We like to give people a reason for coming to Boscov’s even when they don’t want to buy anything,” he once said. “They enjoy themselves and hopefully we make a friend.”

* Agenices and The National

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Published: March 2, 2017 04:00 AM

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