In 1962, Time magazine ran a story about a 43-year-old Italian-American businessman -- the term "entrepreneur" was not yet in style -- who had built a Chinese food empire in Minnesota. Using innovative principles, such as "cut out the middle man" and "take advantage of waste," his Chun King brand had annual revenue of $30 million and accounted for more than half of all U.S. sales of packaged Chinese food.
Forty-five years later, Luigino Francesco Paulucci, better known as "Jeno," has started some 70 privately owned companies -- and shows no signs of halting that streak. A self-described "peddler from the Iron Range," he peddled Chun King to the tune of $63 million in 1966. He was also the mastermind behind Jeno's Pizza Rolls, which he sold for $135 million in 1985.
Today, Paulucci owns Michelina's, based in Duluth, Minn., whose line of frozen dinners includes the Authentico and Budget Gourmet brands. And while he has relinquished control of the company's daily operations, he hasn't even thought about calling it quits. Now 89, Paulucci is getting ready to launch yet another new business, which will manufacture a Hot Pockets-like snack called Bundinos.
According to Paulucci, he has never invested any of his own money in his companies. Instead, he has negotiated loans from government bodies by promising to create jobs. "Jobs are the most valuable commodity on earth," Paulucci writes in his autobiography, Jeno: The Power of the Peddler. "To be traded just as if they were money."
A lifelong advocate of labor unions, Paulucci has also established programs providing training and employment at union wages for the handicapped, mentally challenged, ex-convicts, and others occasionally labeled "unemployable." These efforts led to his United States Employer of the Year award from the President's Council on Employment of the Handicapped and the National Association of Manufacturers in 1972.
Outside of the frozen foods industry, Paulucci has made important contributions as an activist and a philanthropist. He started the National Italian American Foundation in the mid-1970s, acting as the foundation's chairman and CEO for almost 20 years. In addition, he has twice served as a presidential emissary to Italy, appointed by former Presidents Ford and Carter, to evaluate disaster relief needs. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he and his wife, Lois, shipped more than 100,000 gallons of drinking water to aid victims in New Orleans. He has also played an important role in the revitalization of the taconite industry in Minnesota.