Robert J. Vlasic dies at 96; Made a fortune by making the pickles fun

Robert J. Vlasic, who by combining a keen business sense with an even keener sense of humor has turned his family business into the nation’s largest supplier of pickles, gherkins, sauerkraut and a host of other savory toppings, is died May 8 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. hey what 96

His son Bill, a former Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times, confirmed the death.

People have been pickling vegetables for thousands of years, and the preservation practice has long been popular in North America; George Washington is said to have collected 476 different types of pickles.

However, when Mr. Vlasic was growing up in Detroit, the son of a Croatian immigrant who ran a dairy distributor, Americans consumed only 1.8 pounds of pickles per capita per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. .

If that sounds like a lot, consider that when Mr. Vlasic sold his company, Vlasic Pickles, to the Campbell Soup Company in 1978, that number had more than quadrupled, to eight pounds per capita. Vlasic controlled about a quarter of the market, far surpassing his closest and much larger rival, HJ Heinz.

The company’s success was largely attributable to Mr. Vlasic’s managerial acumen. An engineer by training, he insisted that his managers keep their reports on one page, to better focus their attention on what mattered to him.

But he combined that tough boardroom demeanor with a relaxed, carefree approach to his products. He loved pickle jokes and eventually picked them up in a pamphlet, “Bob Vlasic’s 101 Pickle Jokes,” whose cover featured a gunslinger gherkin in a cowboy hat and this salty knee slap: “Who’s the Toughest Pickle of Dodge City? Marshal Dill. “

Vlasic Pickles entered the pantheon of American pop culture in 1974 with the debut of his mascot, the Vlasic stork. Unlikely to be covered in a bow tie, pince-nez glasses and a postman’s hat, he held a pickle like a cigar and wisely snapped in a voice borrowed from Groucho Marx.

“Now this is the tastiest pickle I’ve ever found!” went one of her slogans, uttered with a friendly grimace and a grimace of her pickle. “Roast your ham! Make your toy poisonous! “Went another.

If the bird’s tailoring details were odd, at least the choice of spokesperson made sense: by the mid-1970s the baby boom was exploding and with the birth rate falling, it followed that a stork might need to a new line of work. And the company had previously run ads that played on the belief that pregnant women crave pickles.

“Honey, it’s time for your 4 o’clock pickle,” a husband tells his wife in one of Vlasic’s first printed advertisements. It was Mr. Vlasic’s kind of humor.

“We have decided that pickles are a fun food,” Mr. Vlasic told the New York Times in 1974. “We decided we didn’t want to take ourselves or our business too seriously.”

Robert Joseph Vlasic was born on March 9, 1926 in Detroit. His grandfather, Frank, was a Croatian who brought his family from the town of Livno in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina to Michigan in 1912.

Frank Vlasic opened a dairy with the money he had saved by working in a body shop. His son Joseph, Bob’s father, expanded the business into distribution and soon had the largest dairy distributor in the state. Bob’s mother, Marie (Messinger) Vlasic, was a housewife.

Mr. Vlasic graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Michigan in 1949. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he returned to Michigan and joined the family business.

In the early 1940s, the company had started expanding into fruit and vegetables and had the idea of ​​putting the pickles in jars so they were easier to transport and store. They were a hit: pickles were the perfect food for America in wartime, where every piece of food was saved.

As he grew up in the company, Mr. Vlasic decided to move it from distribution to production. He bought a sauerkraut factory in Imlay City, about an hour north of Detroit, and added pickle-making machinery. He signed contracts with cucumber and cabbage growers and expanded into neighboring states and eventually the rest of the country.

Vlasic initially sold pickles in just three styles: plain, Polish, and kosher, the latter being the spiciest. At its peak, it sold nearly 100 products, from classic spears and stackers to fancy toppings.

When Mr. Vlasic sold his company to Campbell Soup, he insisted on a seat on Campbell’s board of directors. He not only got one; he went on to serve as chairman of the board from 1989 to 1993. (The Vlasic label is now owned by Conagra Brands.)

Mr. Vlasic married Nancy Reuter in 1950. She died in 2016. Together with her son Bill, he has four other children surviving, Jim, Rick, Mike and Paul; 17 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

After selling his family business, Mr. Vlasic founded and managed a technology company, O / E Automation. But he has spent more and more time serving on charitable and nonprofit boards throughout Michigan. He acted as financial adviser to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit and was the first person outside the Ford family to lead the board of Henry Ford Hospital.

It was, his son said, the kind of job he liked.

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