Obituary: Duluth tycoon Jeno Paulucci shared his money, opinions

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , PAMELA MILLER and JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2011 - 2:55 PM

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Jeno Paulucci, the son of Italian immigrants who rose from humble Iron Range beginnings to earn the title "No. 1 overall entrepreneur in the world" and whose sharing of his self-made millions left an indelible mark on Duluth and northeastern Minnesota, died Thursday morning at his Duluth home.

Paulucci, 93, died just four days after his wife, Lois, 89, to whom he had been married for 64 years, also passed away at their home. His death was confirmed late Thursday by Dougherty Funeral Home in Duluth.

"Jeno was everything to Duluth and the Iron Range, known all over the country, even the world, for his success in business," Gary Doty, who was Duluth's mayor from 1992 to 2004, said late Thursday. "He created thousands and thousands of jobs here through the years."

Doty, who had been scheduled to deliver the eulogy for Lois Paulucci at her funeral, originally planned for Monday, said Paulucci's death was "especially devastating coming on the heels of Lois' passing."

Paulucci launched dozens of companies over his frenetic career, but is best known for founding the Chun King line of canned Chinese food products in the late 1940s, which he sold in 1966 for $63 million. Others included Jeno's Pizza Rolls, a brand sold to Pillsbury Corp. for $135 million, Luigino's frozen dinners and Michelina's Inc. -- named for his mother.

"There is no question that Jeno was the most important figure in the history of northeastern Minnesota in the past 50 years," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said. "Everywhere you look in Duluth, you see evidence of his entrepreneurship, of his sense of civic duty, of his investment in the fabric of life in northeastern Minnesota."

Even in his 90s, the feisty Paulucci regularly sent faxes to the mayor's office with suggestions for running the city, Ness said.

Paulucci was instrumental in helping develop Duluth's waterfront, and the Paulucci Space Theatre, a Hibbing planetarium, is named for him.

He was as tempestuous as he was generous, plainspoken, and never forgot his impoverished roots. As the son of a sporadically employed Iron Range miner, he picked up coal along the railroad tracks to feed the family's stove, sold ore samples to tourists to earn a few pennies and began his entrepreneurial career in earnest at 16, peddling fruit off a cart on the streets of Duluth. It was there that he first displayed the talent for salesmanship that was to earn him a fortune.

When an ammonia spill in a cooler stained the skins on 18 cases of bananas without damaging the fruit, Paulucci labeled them "exotic Argentine imports" -- and sold them at a premium of 4 cents a pound.

When Paulucci sold Chun King to R.J. Reynolds, he distributed $2 million to longtime employees. Reynolds almost had a deal to buy Chun King in 1964 for $23 million less -- until the tobacco company's legal beagles, replete with what Jeno called "their watch fobs and fancy degrees," managed to offend him, he said in a Star Tribune interview.

"They were treating me like a peon, saying things to each other like, 'I'm Harvard '36' or 'I'm Yale '42," said Paulucci, who dropped out of Hibbing Junior College as a freshman for lack of money. "Finally, I told 'em, 'Well, I'm Hibbing High School '35, and you can take your $40 million and shove it.'"

After selling Chun King, Paulucci spent a brief, restless period as chairman of Reynolds Foods. Then he started Jeno's and in 1967 began peddling pizza rolls and frozen pizzas. "I had to have something of my own," he explained.

Doty said he and the Pauluccis had become close friends in the past few years but that early in his political life, they clashed on many issues. "When I first ran for mayor, Jeno took out a full-page newspaper ad on behalf of my opponent [John Fedo]," Doty said. "He always told things as he saw them, told it like he felt it."

But under that rough exterior was "a big heart," Doty said. The Pauluccis quietly contributed a lot of money to food banks, heating assistance programs and other services for the poor.

Jeno's temper was as legendary as his entrepreneurial exploits. One yarn tells of an employee who fainted during a Paulucci tongue-lashing, only to have the boss revive him -- to continue the tirade. The tale probably is apocryphal, a close Paulucci associate said, "but it's certainly believable."

Then there was the day he took grievous offense at something Star Tribune columnist Jim Klobuchar had written. He was so irate, in fact, that he couldn't wait for the Postal Service to deliver his incendiary response.

So he ordered his pilot to roll out the company plane and fly 300 miles round-trip to deliver the missive in person. Characteristically, the five-page screed was signed, "Cordially, Jeno."

Paulucci squabbled over the years for a variety of reasons with city and state officials from Duluth to central Florida.

Yet he provided several million dollars of inducements to lure businesses to Duluth. And he is credited with an important role in bringing a civic center, airport terminal and skyway system there. By 1981, when he sold Jeno's to the Pillsbury Co., he'd been forced by rising transportation costs to move Jeno's production from Duluth to Ohio, a controversial decision that cost the city about 1,200 jobs. But Paulucci vowed to return those jobs to the region.

After a noncompete agreement with Pillsbury lapsed in 1990, when he was 72, Paulucci founded Luigino's to exploit his mother's pasta recipes.

Private services for Lois Paulucci had been set for Monday, but a spokeswoman for Doughtery Funeral Home said late Thursday that services for Jeno are pending and may be combined with those of his wife. They are survived by a son, Michael J. Paulucci, of Palm Coast, Fla.; two daughters, Cynthia Selton of Longwood, Fla., and Gina Paulucci of Wayzata, four grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

pmiller@startribune.com • 612-673-4290 janderson@startribune.com • 612-673-7199

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