Irwin Jacobs was a voluble, larger-than-life entrepreneur who built a fortune in the 1980s stalking, buying and selling some of the nation’s largest companies.
While his successes made him a name on Wall Street for a time, he began and ended his six decades in business as a trader of everyday goods.
The bodies of Jacobs, 77, and his wife of 57 years, Alexandra, were found Wednesday in their Lake Minnetonka-area home, a friend calling the deaths a murder-suicide.
His name had faded in prominence in recent years, but for much of his career Jacobs was a feared and flamboyant investor, having risen to fame in the 1980s heyday of individual corporate raiders.
“He was a visionary. He was a taskmaster. He wasn’t afraid of tough decisions,” said Mark Sheffert, an executive in the 1980s at what is now U.S. Bancorp.
Jacobs once had a fortune valued at nearly $400 million in the 1990s. He took over and broke up the conglomerate AMF and made unsuccessful takeover runs at several other major companies, including Disney, Kaiser and ITT.
For a time, he also owned a minority stake in the Vikings.
With a series of deals that began in the 1970s, his Genmar Holdings Inc. became the nation’s second-largest maker of boats by the 1990s. The firm downsized after the 2008 recession and underwent a lengthy bankruptcy restructuring.
In 1978 Jacobs bought J.R. Watkins Co., the Winona-based maker of spices, soaps and household products. His son Mark has led the firm since the late 1990s. Last year, the family sold Watkins’ home and personal care products to a private equity firm and retained the spices and baking products business.
At his death, Jacobs still owned his namesake business, Jacobs Trading Co. in Hopkins, the successor to one he and his father, Sam Jacobs, started in the 1960s.
Sam Jacobs was a Russian immigrant who supported his north Minneapolis family collecting used burlap bags and cleaning, recycling and selling them. Irwin Jacobs, who cleaned bags in grade school, joined his father on sales calls while a student at North High School.
“I was a peddler,” Jacobs recalled years ago.
Among the uses of recycled burlap: sandbags in flood-prone areas. After working in flooded areas, the pair started the trading company to buy flood-damaged goods and resell them at a profit.
But Irwin Jacobs had bigger ambitions. In 1976, Carl Pohlad, the late Minneapolis banker, staked Jacobs to buy the slumping Grain Belt Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. After concluding that he couldn’t run it profitably, Jacobs closed the brewery, contradicting himself that he was in it for the long haul. He laid off the workers and sold the equipment and brands for an estimated $4 million profit.
He made another big score buying and liquidating the assets of bankrupt retailer W.T. Grant & Co. in the late 1970s.
Jacobs leaped to the cover of national business publications by badmouthing a slew of corporate CEOs and launching takeover attempts and feints. At 6-foot-3 and 200-plus pounds, he had a swagger that could strike fear in targets and competitors.
He also possessed an uncanny ability to spot value. Jacobs built Genmar from the ashes of several companies, including bankrupt Larson Industries of Little Falls, Minn., maker of Lund and Larson boats. At its peak, the company had more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
The firm tumbled into bankruptcy in 2009 after sales fell during the recession and it wasn’t able to repay loans. Jacobs called the ensuing reorganization the most humbling and painful experience of his career.
In recent years, Jacobs seemed to enjoy his renewed focus on the Jacobs Trading liquidation business.
In 2011, he sold the business to Liquidity Services, a Washington D.C.-based surplus goods dealer, for $140 million. But Liquidity Services subsequently lost a deal with Walmart to resell returned or damaged goods and moved to downsize.
In 2015, he bought back the Jacobs Trading unit for $13 million plus a share of future profits.
Last year, Jacobs told the Star Tribune he was excited about a Jacobs Trading unit, called Dock 1 Bargains, that was created to peddle merchandise that had been returned to e-commerce firms.
Sheffert, who in the 1990s started Manchester Companies, which worked on restructurings, said he had plenty of “knock-down, drag-out fights” with Jacobs over the years yet they always got back together.
“He had a Midas touch, but it didn’t always work out,” he said. “And he was a proud man.”
Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.