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

Robert J. Vlasic, who, by combining keen business acumen with an even sharper sense of humor, has transformed his family business into t...


Robert J. Vlasic, who, by combining keen business acumen with an even sharper sense of humor, has transformed his family business into the world’s largest purveyor of pickles, pickles, sauerkraut and a host of other pickled condiments. country, died May 8 at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was 96 years old.

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

People have been pickling vegetables for thousands of years, and the practice of pickling has long been popular in North America; George Washington would have collected 476 different kinds of pickles.

Yet when Mr. Vlasic was growing up in Detroit, the son of a Croatian immigrant who ran a dairy distributor, Americans consumed just 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 by the time Mr. Vlasic sold his business, 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 outpacing his nearest and much bigger rival, HJ Heinz.

The company’s success is largely attributable to Mr. Vlasic’s strong management acumen. An engineer by training, he insisted that his managers keep their reports on a single page, in order to better focus their attention on the essentials.

But he’s combined that ruthless boardroom demeanor with a laid-back, light-hearted approach to his products. He loved pickle jokes and eventually collected them into a pamphlet, “Bob Vlasic’s 101 Pickle Jokes”, whose cover featured a cowboy hat pickle and this knee-slapping salty:” Who’s the toughest pickle in Dodge City? Marshal Dill.

Vlasic Pickles entered the pantheon of American pop culture in 1974 with the debut of his mascot, the stork Vlasic. Improbably decked out in a bow tie, pince-nez and a postman’s hat, he held a pickle like a cigar and quietly crackled in a voice borrowed from Groucho Marx.

“Now that’s the tastiest pickle I’ve ever eaten!” went one of his catchphrases, delivered with a friendly glow and a fuss from his pickle. “Ham your ham! Make your toy poiky!” went another.

If the bird’s sartorial details were odd, at least the spokesperson’s choice made sense: By the mid-1970s, the baby boom was exploding, and with the birth rate falling, it followed that a stork might need a new job. And the company had previously run ads playing 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 early print ads. It was Mr. Vlasic’s kind of humor.

“We 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 Croat who brought his family from the town of Livno, in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Michigan in 1912.

Frank Vlasic opened a creamery with the money he had saved 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.

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

In the early 1940s, the company had begun to expand into fruit and vegetables and came up with the idea of ​​putting pickles in jars so they would be easier to transport and store. They were a hit: pickles were the perfect food for wartime America, where every morsel of food was preserved.

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

Vlasic initially sold pickles in just three styles: plain, polish, and kosher, with the latter being the most heavily spiced. At its peak, it sold nearly 100 products, from classic spears and stackers to fancy relishes.

When Mr. Vlasic sold his company to Campbell Soup, he insisted on serving on Campbell’s board of directors. Not only did he get one; he then served 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. Along with his son Bill, he is survived by four other sons, Jim, Rick, Mike and Paul; 17 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

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

It was, his son said, the kind of work he loved.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Robert J. Vlasic dies at 96; Made a fortune making pickles fun
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