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Little Big Man

When Pizza King Jeno Paulucci sets out to do "good works," it can be hard to tell philanthropy from business.
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IF YOU WERE TO CAPTURE JENO Paulucci's life in a photograph, the image would be mostly blurred. Even a finely calibrated shutter could not fix on this little Caesar caught up in the whirlwind of his own enterprise. Even the most highly focused lens could not distinguish the elements in the frame -- the private from the public, the profitable from the philanthropic, the work from the play. To Paulucci, it's all "action." And what's clear to everyone is how very much he enjoys being in the center of it.

Over the years, Paulucci has been photographed in a variety of business poses: the Duluth vegetable peddler who turned a field of bean sprouts into Chun King Foods before selling it all to R.J. Reynolds Industries Inc. for $60 million; the king of frozen pizza who got an offer of about $200 million from archrival Pillsbury Co. that he couldn't refuse; the developer of Heathrow, a 3,500-acre planned community for the rich located north of Orlando. Not content to hang it up yet, he's now launched Pizza Kwik, a chain of pizza-delivery shops that he is taking national.

Along the way there have been shots of Paulucci even more flattering: handing out pizzas to the unemployed on a subzero New Year's Eve in his native Hibbing, Minn.; hawking moccasins for a struggling Indian tribe to a Sears Roebuck & Co. buyer in Chicago; lobbying for the rights of the homeless with Ralph Nader in Washington, E.C.; launching a statewide aid program for the hungry in St. Paul.

Jeno Paulucci is the very picture of a mover and shaker, a man who inspires admiration, envy, maybe even a touch of resentment. Like many who have reached the age of 67, Paulucci has moved to Florida, but you would hardly call it a retirement, this 80-hour-a-week pace, barking orders over the office speakerphone and hopping around the country in his private jet. He is the entrepreneur who sells his companies before he has to manage them, the public figure with clout and political influence who never worries about protocol or elections. And these days he spends much of his time using his wealth and business skills, not to mention the force of his personality, in the service of an unorthodox brand of social responsibility.

"There's a helluva lot to do, and, unfortunately, too many executives are too busy covering their own asses to do it," says Paulucci, explaining his own commitment to philanthropy. "They think their only job is earnings per share, and taking care of their own perks and golden parachutes. They don't realize that part of their duty, in my judgment, is to participate.

"I think the real so-called good deeds are the kind that come only from damned hardheaded business," he continues. "Otherwise you're just giving money away. That's fine, admirable, but you can give it away only once." Give of your time and your know-how, your clout and your connections, he says, and you've leveraged your commitment from mere charity to real change.

There is an obsessive quality to Paulucci's brand of social responsibility, however -- one no doubt deeply rooted in his family experience. His father, Ettore, was an immigrant miner too sickly to be more than sporadically employed in one of the open-pit mines that were once the mainstay of the hardscrabble economy of Minnesota's Iron Range. The family lived in a house they had built on a foundation of railroad ties, and heated with stray pieces of tar block and coal. Jeno remembers a childhood spent mostly by himself: the Scandinavian mothers of his childhood pals, he remembers, forbade them to play with "the dago, the wop."

The desire of a poor kid who made good to give something back, the need for the outcast to be at last accepted and praised -- these are the underlying motivations. You see them both in Paulucci's determination to settle up accounts with Duluth, the city he has long loved and twice forsaken.

First it was Chun King, closed in 1974 by the tobaccomen of R. J. Reynolds. The loss was 700 jobs, most of which Paulucci had filled with the disabled and the down-and-out. Eight years later it was Jeno's Inc. -- the city's largest manufacturing employer, with 1,200 jobs -- that left. Its reluctant owner explained that the company was forced to move by prohibitively high freight costs that made it unprofitabl to make frozen pizzas in the frozen environs of northern Minnesota. With unemployment in Duluth then running around 20%, Paulucci came under attack in not-so-whispered conversation among businesspeople along Lake Avenue, and in the columns of the oft-critical Duluth News Tribune and Herald. "I pledge that I will some way, somehow, bring new business to Duluth," replied an embattled Paulucci in a full-page ad, promising to replace every one of the lost jobs. "Don't cross me off until the day they pat me in the face with the shovel."

Little did most Duluthians realize that Paulucci's promise would become an un-official oath of office. Though he now spends most of each year more than a thousand miles to the south, Paulucci remains close enough to Duluth's civic affairs to be considered its other mayor and director of economic development. Single out any major civic or economic project in this city of 85,000 and if Jeno Paulucci didn't have something to do with making it happen, it's because he judged it either a sure thing or a worthless cause. The elected politicians can worry about laws, bureaucracies, and constituencies; Paulucci's got what constitutes real power: money, connections, and room to maneuver. His is the number preprogrammed into the real mayor's telephone system. He is the one-man ad hoc committee that makes others superfluous.

When the city council balked at funding a feasibility study to support its bid as the home of the state's new convention center, it was Paulucci who came up with the money -- a third from his own pocket, the rest exacted from local businesspeople. A bureaucratic logjam standing in the way of a proposal to build a 600-job paper mill also loosened under Paulucci's pressure (although one question in Duluth now is how much Paulucci will get for land he owns at the project site). He has even talked of mooring an old ocean liner on Lake Superior to lure tourists to Duluth's shores. Can a Paulucci lobbying effort for legalized gambling be far behind?

Getting new jobs and businesses back into the old Jeno's Pizza factory on Lake Avenue South, however, is Paulucci's top priority. Need space for your company? Jeno will give it to you rent-free until the business is in the black. Need financing? You might try the local bank Paulucci owns. Meanwhile, Salomon Brothers Inc., on retainer from Paulucci, is keeping an eye out for companies spun off in Wall Street's merger mania that might be acquired and moved to Duluth. But Jeno is not content simply to wait on investment bankers. He's likely to be on the phone to Europe at 6 a.m. pushing Duluth to an olive oil maker in Italy or a pastry maker in Denmark.

Still, the big green question mark on the sign outside the old Jeno's factory reminds Duluth residents that five years of moving and shaking on the part of their First Citizen has yet to make them whole. There's an ad agency and a fishing-tackle company on half of the first floor. A garment manufacturer and an electronics company are upstairs. And that faint smell of Parmesan and oregano isn't a holdover from happier days -- it's Joanna's Food down in the basement, the new maker of the dry-mix pizzas that Paulucci used to sell as a sideline to his frozen pies. All together, these firms have generated only about 120 jobs. Nobody, least of all Paulucci, would consider this anything but a good start. It's a little like building a company, he says. Revitalizing a city takes luck, faith, and a lot of patience.

Patience is not one of Jeno Paulucci's virtues. For most Minnesotans, a fishing trip means drifting in a lonely boat, listening to the loons and pulling up an occasional northern pike or walleye. But not Jeno. He'll give any lake five minutes to yield up a satisfying catch, or he's off in his private seaplane for another lake and another try. "We may fish seven or eight lakes in a day," explains Ed Korkki, a 33-year fishing buddy, "but we always come back with the limit."

Then there was the time Paulucci tried to beat the crowd out of a hockey game at the Duluth civic center he helped to build, only to find his illegally parked Wagoneer blocked by buses. The bus drivers, intent on a game of cards, suggested that he wait until the hockey match was over. "Do you know who I am?" the angry Paulucci is said to have roared. To which one driver reportedly replied, "Hey, fellas, we got a guy here who doesn't know who he is."

For one who hasn't much time for contemplation or self-reflection (he even says his prayers while jogging on a treadmill), Paulucci knows very well who he is. He's gotten by in life on a powerful instinct for what sells, and how to sell it. As a young fruit-seller, Paulucci once made an extra 4? per bushel on some bananas that had been browned by ether, hawking the otherwise edible fruits as "special Argentine bananas." Years later he went nationwide with a television commercial created by Stan Freberg that claimed "9 out of 10 doctors recommend Chun King." The camera panned to show 10 smiling doctors in white coats, 9 of them Chinese. Sales soared.

These days, Paulucci spends much of his time selling himself. To many, the incessant grandstanding and self-promotion grate. Even his critics, however, admit that it works. "He demands to be recognized," says one, "just as he demands that the people he's trying to help be recognized." Jeno sees it in grander terms: "I'm telling the story of America. But I'm also selling a product" -- himself, though he stops short of saying it -- "and using the power and influence of the media to deliver a message." The message? "Dammit, we are our brother's keepers. We've got a responsibility, and we've got to live up to it."

This is a man who enjoys the role of "catalyst, devil's advocate, and son of a bitch." Paulucci shrugs off enemies and writes off mistakes with the supreme self-confidence of a man with a mission. Those who cross him may receive a letter stamped only with an emblem of the letter "u" with a screw through it. "When I'm right," he says, putting up in his chair like a rooster preparing to enter the coop, "nobody better get in my way. I'll take on anybody. Sometimes you've got to make a problem worse before it gets better."

As he speaks, he is interrupted by any number of calls from associates and politicians. A county commissioner in Florida, one of the many politicians Paulucci supports, is confronted with a choice: redesign a highway project to better suit the needs of Paulucci's Heathrow development, or have Jeno as a problem. "You've got enough problems without adding me to the list, isn't that right?" asks Jeno with an impish smile. A few minutes later it is the Vice-President on the line -- of the United States, no less -- and George Bush receives the benefit of Paulucci's opinion on a particular administration initiative. The conversation is more delicate than the one with the county commissioner, but only by degrees. Jeno Paulucci doesn't care who sees the strings being pulled.

If he can't get his way through his own brand of diplomacy (he has passed up two ambassadorships, he says) Paulucci opts for some old-fashioned muscle. He once helped push through the Minnesota legislature a bill to tax the profits of taconiteproducing companies and return the proceeds to the people of the Iron Range. In Milan, he closed down a beverage plant several years back when he found himself at odds with the Italian government on layoff restrictions. And when Disney Inc. opposed his plans to link his Heathrow development by monorail to Disney World and Orlando Airport, Paulucci put his lawyers to work on a lawsuit challenging the legality of an embarrassing list of special benefits and concessions that Disney has received from the Florida state government. Shortly thereafter, Disney relented and began to negotiate.

You have to admire this ruddy-faced rogue whose knack is for finding opportunities to do well by doing good. The former bean-sprout farmer describes his businessman's attitude toward social responsibility this way: "You plant, you harvest, you plow a little back in for the next crop." Those who skip the last step aren't just greedy, he says, they're short-sighted.

Paulucci shifts his seat, and with it his metaphor. "Life is a relay race. We each have a certain stick -- what is it, a baton? -- to pass on to one another. Don't give me a statue or put my name on a building. Give me the goddamn stick and let me run with it. And then let me give it to somebody else. If they stop, or drop it, I'm gonna kick 'em aside, pick it up, and keep running for 'em."

In conversation, Paulucci's voice ranges over several octaves. Gruff and low when talking about himself; mid-range when he's asking for favors; upper register for making the big points. More often than not, he avoids "I" in favor of the more royal "we," but it is less an affectation than a sign of how little distinction he makes between himself and his community, between self-interest and community interest.

"There's nothing Jeno Paulucci does that isn't a very good business decision for Jeno Paulucci," declares a Duluthian who has watched him for years. It's a common suspicion folks have about their roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done civic booster. Is it really proper to let the hand of business wash the hand of social responsibility? Isn't it just a bit self-serving, unseemly, all the publicity and philanthropy and profit reinforcing one another?

Paulucci responds to the questions with surprise. "You bet I'm out to make a buck. That's the name of the game -- what keeps it all going, isn't it?"

Last updated: Jun 1, 1986




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