Liz Claiborne, 78, fashion designer, in New York City. Starting in the late 1970s, Claiborne was one of the first to create apparel for the expanding ranks of women in the corporate world. Her outfits boasted clean lines and affordable prices. “She made the whole staff feel like they were part of this fantastic, wonderful mission,” says Dana Buchman, a protégé who runs her own label within Claiborne, a company with $5 billion in annual sales. “I don’t know if today’s female entrepreneurs know how groundbreaking she was. She didn’t hog the spotlight, but she changed the way women dressed for work.”
Warren Avis, 92, founder of Avis Rent A Car, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A former pilot, Avis founded a car rental company in 1946 to address one of his chief frustrations--finding an available cab at the airport. His company quickly became the nation’s second largest car rental business in terms of market share, a position it maintained for decades.
William Becker, 85, the creator of Motel 6, near Kingman, Arizona. On a cross-country trip in 1960, Becker couldn’t find cheap motel rooms. So he decided to start his own chain. Motel 6 debuted in Santa Barbara, California, in 1962, with 54 Spartan rooms, no closets, coin-operated TV sets, and a nightly rate of $6. Today, there are more than 800 Motel 6’s, and the average room goes for about $45 per night.
Charlie Cary, 89, sailing entrepreneur, in Vero Beach, Florida. At 50, Cary and his wife, Ginny, moved to the British Virgin Islands, where they launched the Moorings, a company that offered boat rentals and charter trips. Starting with half a dozen 35-foot yachts, Cary eventually built outposts on five continents, from Baja to Corfu to Tahiti. “It was always very important to Charlie that we were building a global company,” says Lex Raas, president of the Moorings, noting that Cary employed local workers whenever possible.
Anthony De Santis, 93, Chicago theater owner and restaurateur, in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. In its heyday in the 1960s, De Santis’s Drury Lane Theatre was known for its fabulous chandeliers and acts like Phyllis Diller and Debbie Reynolds. A high school dropout, De Santis worked in a paint factory until he nearly died in a plant explosion. After that, he decided to pursue a safer career, getting into restaurants and, ultimately, show business.
Bob Evans, 89, restaurateur, in Cleveland. If it weren’t for the interstate highway system, Bob Evans might never have become a household name. Beginning with a 12-stool diner in Gallipolis, Ohio, he built a loyal following with truck drivers for his hearty breakfasts. Today, the company runs 579 restaurants, and Bob Evans-brand sausage, hash browns, and breads are sold in supermarkets nationwide. In all, the business has $1.6 billion in annual sales and 50,000 employees.
Ernest Gallo, 97, winemaker and co-founder of Gallo Winery, in Modesto, California. When Ernest and Julio Gallo founded their winery in Modesto in 1933, a number of competitors were starting up in Napa Valley. Gallo emerged from the pack by making affordable wine. After World War II, the company targeted the emerging middle class. Today, Gallo sells one out of every four bottles of wine purchased in the United States each year.
Merv Griffin, 82, TV personality and real estate investor. Famous for helming The Merv Griffin Show from 1962 to 1986 and for creating Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune, Griffin invested his TV profits in real estate. His company, the Griffin Group, built a large portfolio of resorts, including the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Leona Helmsley, 87, hotelier, in Greenwich, Connecticut. Leona took charge of husband Harry’s company, Helmsley Hotels, in 1980, dramatically improving occupancy rates at the company’s 30 properties. Along the way, the tabloids dubbed Helmsley “the queen of mean,” thanks to her famously explosive temper. In 1989, she was convicted of evading $1.2 million in federal income taxes and served 18 months in a federal prison. Helmsley spent her later life out of the public spotlight--until her death, that is, when it was revealed that she left $12 million to her fluffy white dog, Trouble.
Arthur Jones, 80, inventor of the Nautilus exercise machine, in Ocala, Florida. Unimpressed with the barbells at a YMCA in Tulsa, Jones cogitated on the problem, ultimately inventing the Nautilus. It hit the market in 1970, just as fitness clubs began to pop up all over America. In 1986, Jones sold Nautilus for $23 million. In retirement, he amassed a menagerie of animals, including elephants and crocodiles, and developed Jumbolair, a private residential community for aviation enthusiasts (including John Travolta) that boasts its own landing strip.
Russell W. Kruse, 85, auctioneer and owner of Kruse International, in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Regardless of where he was working, Kruse serenaded his home state by singing “Back Home in Indiana” before every auction. He capitalized on a mellifluous voice to build a company that popularized the antique car auction in America, and moved $200 million in real estate and nearly $300 million in oil industry equipment per year. The Kruse family sold the company twice--once to eBay for $150 million--only to buy it back each time.
Albert J. Langer, 94, famed deli owner, in Agoura, California. The son of Russian immigrants, he opened Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant in Los Angeles in 1947. The deli’s trademark hand-cut pastrami sandwich on hot rye bread (with mustard, of course) developed a cult following, drawing crowds to Langer’s even as the deli’s MacArthur Park neighborhood was beset by poverty and crime in the 1980s. In an ode to Langer’s published in The New Yorker, Nora Ephron hailed the pastrami sandwich as “a work of art.”
Jim Moran, 88, auto dealer, in Hillsboro Beach, Florida. Moran turned his $360 investment in a gas station near Chicago into JM Family Enterprises, an $11 billion automotive empire that includes the world’s largest private Toyota distributorship. His breakthrough TV ads--which hailed him as “Jim Moran the courtesy man”--helped to invent the vocabulary of car dealership commercials, a feat that landed Moran on the cover of Time magazine in 1961.
Jan Nathan, 68, publishing entrepreneur, in Hermosa Beach, California. In 1983, Nathan left her job as president of a company that published in-flight magazines to start a consulting practice for trade associations. One of her first clients was a group of small presses that wanted to organize a book conference. She subsequently launched the Publishers Marketing Association, which helped thousands of small book businesses adapt in the Barnes & Noble era.
Anita Roddick, 64, co-founder, with her husband, Gordon, of the Body Shop, in Chichester, England. A vocal champion of socially responsible business practices, Roddick developed merchandise that reflected her interest in social justice, offering cosmetics that weren’t tested on animals and came bottled in ecofriendly, refillable containers. She took the Body Shop public in 1984 and sold it to L’Oréal for nearly $1.4 billion in 2006.
Louis Flores Ruiz, 88, co-founder of Ruiz Foods, in Dinuba, California. Ruiz’s parents came to the U.S. after their land was seized by Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution. In 1964, Ruiz started making cheese enchiladas in a 400-square-foot facility. The business quickly expanded into burritos and tamales, which helped establish the market-leading El Monterrey-brand frozen foods. Today, Ruiz Foods employs 2,500 and has $400 million in annual sales. And, according to the company, 30 cents out of every $1 that is spent in the U.S. each year on Mexican frozen foods is spent on El Monterrey.
Paul Secon, 91, co-founder of Pottery Barn, in Rochester, New York. In 1949, Secon and his brother Morris bought three barns full of handmade ceramics in upstate New York. At first, they hauled merchandise to Manhattan by station wagon; then they opened a store. As the business grew, Secon traveled to Europe to find new products. He fell in love with Denmark and moved there, and he and Morris sold his share of the business in 1968.
Mark Smith, 66, rocket engineer and entrepreneur, in Huntsville, Alabama. Smith left a job at NASA to launch two companies that developed modems: Universal Data Systems, which he sold in 1980, and Adtran, a two-time Inc. 500 company that has 1,600 employees and a market value of $1.6 billion. “Forty years ago Huntsville was nothing but a bunch of cotton farms,” says Tom Stanton, Adtran’s CEO. “Mark helped lead the technological evolution of this city.”
Ralph F. Stayer, 92, founder of Johnsonville Sausage, in Naples, Florida. Growing up fatherless during the Great Depression, Stayer saved every penny he could to buy a butcher shop in Johnsonville, Wisconsin, in 1945. Today, his bratwurst is distributed nationally and--despite the old adage about how sausage is made--the company is studied by business schools as a model of quality manufacturing.
Lois Wyse, 80, advertising executive, in New York City. Wyse, who co-founded Wyse Advertising with her first husband, Marc, in Cleveland in 1951, helped put local companies on the national map. She famously persuaded a client named Bed & Bath to change its name to Bed, Bath & Beyond, and its sales perked up instantly. In 1966, Wyse opened an office in New York City, where she wrote a column for Good Housekeeping and helped to start the Committee of 200, an organization for women executives. But her most enduring achievement was crafting the tag line “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.”