In Memorium: Entrepreneurs Who Died in 2009
Don Fisher, Founder of The GapSteve Bernard, Founder of Cape Cod Potato ChipsAntionette K-Doe, Owner of the Mother-in-Law LoungeAlan Scott, Founder of OvenCraftersDave Arneson, Co-creator of Dungeons and DragonsAnn Wilder, Co-founder of Vanns SpiceEdward Anderson, Founder of Lil' OrbitsLarry H. Miller, Owner of the Utah JazzMillard Fuller, Co-founder of Habitat for HumanityJohn Barry, CEO of WD-40Nancy Talbot, Co-founder of TalbotsBruce Wasserstein, Co-founder of Wasserstein PerellaFrank Batten Sr., Founder of the Weather ChannelBilly Mays, Infomercial PitchmanChristopher Hipp, Founder of RLX TechnologiesAlex Grass, Founder of Rite AidStanley Kaplan, Founder of Kaplan LearningKevork Hovnanian, Co-founder of Hovnanian EnterprisesTroy Smith Sr., Founder of the Sonic CorporationTheodore Nierenberg, Co-founder of Dansk International DesignsRichard Egan, Co-founder of EMC Corp.Norman BrinkerLynn Pressman Raymond, CEO of Pressman Toy CorporationSol Price, Founder of the Price ClubMelvin Simon, Co-founder of Simon Property GroupLionel Pincus, Co-founder of Warburg PincusArt D’Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate nightclubElmer Winter, Co-founder of ManpowerJack Cover, Co-founder of Cover TechnologyPercy Sutton, Founder of Inner City Broadcasting
A personal sartorial dilemma—shopping for jeans—prompted Fisher to open his first casual-clothing store in San Francisco with his wife, Doris, in 1969. The company grew fast, went public in 1973, and expanded through a mix of acquisition (Banana Republic) and organic growth (Old Navy.) A breakout "Who Wore Khakis?" advertising campaign in the 1990s cemented The Gap's status as a culture-defining brand. The New York Times observed that, at its peak, The Gap “as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, as centrally managed as the former Soviet Union and as American as Mickey Mouse.” In his later years, Fisher became a preeminent collector of contemporary art, much of its on display in The Gap's San Francisco headquarters.
With the idea of offering healthier foods made with little processing, Bernard established Cape Cod Potato Chips in 1980 in an 800-square-foot storefront in Hyannis, Massachusetts. To prepare, he bought an industrial potato slicer for $3,000 and enrolled in a week-long course on potato chip making at Martin's Potato Chips in Thomasville, Pennsylvania. The brand took off, in part because of its exposure to summer tourists who first discovered the snack food on the Cape. Bernard sold the company, bought it back, and sold it again before starting a new venture—Late July, another snack company—with his daughter, in 2001.
A local celebrity commonly known as "Miss Antoinette,” this New Orleans pub owner acted a spokesperson for Hands on Network, a volunteer organization dedicated to Hurricane Katrina relief. Antoinette, who was herself was rescued from the Mother-in-Law Lounge after being stranded by flood waters for seven days, was a passionate advocate for rebuilding of her city.
After graduating from agricultural college in his native Australia, Scott went to work at a fertilizer company and hated it so much he decided he never wanted to work for somebody else again. He hitchhiked across multiple continents opening a jewelry store in Denmark before moving to California in the mid-60s. There he used his knowledge of thermodynamics to start a business building brick ovens for homeowners at between $5,000 and $10,000 not counting materials costs. He went on to co-author a book promoting the use of brick ovens for cooking breads and pizza and a small, but loyal, community of enthusiasts was influenced by his ideas and innovations surrounding baking.
Geeks everywhere mourn the passing of Arneson who, with Gary Gygax, created the popular fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, in the early 1970s. Arneson later went on to start a second career as an educator with a focus on using gaming as an instructional tool. (Gygax died in 2008.)
Dubbed the “Spice Queen,” Wilder was almost 50 when she found her calling. She was helping a friend teach some cooking classes and they began making herb and spice blends for their students. A bulk-spice vendor keyed Wilder into the commercial potential of obscure spices such as ajowan seed, grains of paradise, and powdered sumac. Wilder ultimately traveled the globe in search of quality growers and processors and she helped introduce innovations like an environmentally-friendly method for steam-cleaning spices. Among other customers, she made private-label products for Zabar's, Dean and DeLuca, and Martha Stewart.
A classic serial entrepreneur, Anderson had a healthy list of failed ventures under his belt before he found success. He paid for his tuition at Gettysburg College by repairing the school’s furniture and building do-it-yourself paddle kits for fraternities. He met with less success with his early water slide invention, his idea for a trampoline park, and a wolf whistling pantyhose dispenser. His breakthrough came when he invented a Rube Goldberg device that created mini-doughnuts. The contraption became popular among mom-and-pop stores by adding pomp and circumstance to the process of doughnut production. The 13-employee company now sells in 76 countries.
A college dropout who built a car-dealership empire, Miller was known for a management style characterized by hard work and attention to detail. Miller bought his first dealership in 1979 and expanded to 39 dealerships across six states. His company, the Larry H. Miller Group now controls about 80 companies, which employ 7,000 and have sales of more than $3 billion. Miller also bought and revived the Utah Jazz NBA franchise.
Arguably America's preeminent social entrepreneur, Fuller dipped his feet in finance at the age of six selling fattened hogs, rabbits and chickens at a profit. He became a successful businessman and was a millionaire by the age of 29, but his preoccupation with wealth almost scuttled his marriage. Consequently he reevaluated his priorities and started Habitat for Humanity, which signs up volunteers to build homes for low-income families. The homes are sold at no profit or interest; but Fuller frowned on hand-outs and insisted that future home buyers help with the construction. Habitat has built more than 300,000 homes worldwide.
Barry had a simple, two-part business strategy: Make it simple, and make it all-purpose. When he took over the Rocket Chemical Company in 1969, the firm made rust-fighting lubricants but had less than $1 million in annual sales. Barry slashed the product line to one—WD-40—and refused to position the product as being a fit for any particular industry; it was consequently adopted for a wide range of purposes. Barry was his product’s biggest fan: He once threw a fit during a visit to his company’s ad agency upon discovering a squeaky gate untreated by his product, which brought in $317 million in revenue in 2008.
From a humble start mailing 3,000 fliers people on the New Yorker’s subscription list, Talbot's retail business cornered the market on preppy women's apparel, churning out argyle sweaters, sensible skirts, and tweed jackets. The red Colonial door from the company's flagship store in Hingham, Massachusetts, became, among members of its target market, an iconic brand. Talbot and her husband sold the business to General Mills in 1973, but she remained on as a vice president for another decade. The company topped $1.5 billion in revenue in 2008, largely from the 55 million catalogs it mailed out that year.
And one of the pioneers in the field of mergers and acquisitions, Wasserstein played a key role in many of the big deals of the last few decades, from Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’ takeover of RJR Nabisco to Kraft’s more recent bid for Cadbury. He sold his firm to Dresdner Bank in 2000 for roughly $1.4 billion and he took the helm of Lazard in 2002. He also owned New York magazine.
Batten's fascination with weather dawned at age 8, when he rode out a hurricane in a seaside cottage; it deepened after he took up competitive sailing, and prompted him to create one of the most idiosyncratic and successful cable networks around. Batten started his career at the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, which his uncle owned. He took over as publisher in 1954 and, from that nucleus, built up Landmark Media Enterprises. Recognizing how much people depend on daily weather forecasts, Batten launched the Weather Channel in 1982; at the time critics joked that the Time Channel would come next showing a battery of ticking clocks. The channel owed its success to its local coverage and its supplementation of traditional advertising with cable subscriber fees. Batten retired in 1998 but remained a constant presence at Landmark until his death. Last year, Landmark sold the Weather Channel to NBC Universal for a reported $3.5 billion.
The pitchman behind household cleaners such as Kaboom and OxiClean, Mays was known as much for his distinctive voice and fast-paced exuberance as for having one of the best weapons in any businessman’s arsenal: a strong conviction in his products. He once told the Associated Press that he gave away OxiClean to every one of the 300 guests at his wedding and burst into his TV pitch during the festivities. Mays first honed his craft on the boardwalks of Atlantic City and his first chance at a TV pitch in the mid-90s shilling Orange Glo on the Home Shopping Network.
An autodidact who schooled himself in computers after dropping out of college, Hipp got his start in the business in the mid-1990s selling powerful supercomputers, servers, and other equipment made by Silicon Graphics. When he got the idea for blade servers, which allowed for much smaller servers that also trounced the energy efficiency of the machines that preceded them, he struck out on his own to form RLX Technologies. Five years later, in 2005, HP bought the company, though the entrepreneur barely made any money from the sale since many rounds of venture capital had diluted his ownership stake. Now, however, blades are a major segment of the server market, representing $5.4 billion in revenue last year.
Grass, a depression baby, first saw the sparkle of entrepreneurial opportunity when the Supreme Court ruled that manufacturers couldn’t force retailers to charge a particular minimum price. Armed with experience working in his in-laws’ regional grocery distributor he bought a Scranton, Pennsylvania Thrif D Discount Center in 1962. Six years later, the chain had changed names to Rite Aid, jumped to 50 locations, and completed an IPO. But all did not go smoothly at the company: Grass was ousted as chief executive in 1995 by his son Martin; afterward, he dabbled in other business ventures including a sports card company. This year, the chain reached revenue of $24 billion at 4,900 locations.
Rejected from five New York medical schools, Kaplan started his tutoring business out of his parents’ Brooklyn basement with an aim to help students excel on merit and hard work as opposed to some intrinsic scholastic aptitude. His test preparation courses began to grow in popularity and, when he learned that a UC Berkeley student was flying across the country to attend, he undertook a national expansion. By 1984, Kaplan’s “poor man's private school" had 95,000 students attending over 700 full- and part-time locations and he sold it to the Washington Post Company for $45 million. Donald Graham, the chairman of the Post Company’s board, eulogized Kaplan this way: "He invented an industry, and not a small one. He was a highly principled leader of his company, and a very generous man."
In 1959, after fleeing Iraq with his family due to the political upheaval there, Hovnanian founded a construction company with his three brothers. The New Jersey-based business became well known for its sprawling suburban developments and for its Spartan approach to construction. Hovanian believed in skimping on amenities to offer first-time home buyers a better price; in that way, it grew into the sixth-largest home builder in the country. Though his son succeeded him as company president in 1988, Hovnanian remained on the board until his death in September.
Smith was proof of the fact that you don’t need a stellar idea to be a successful entrepreneur; you can just popularize somebody else’s. The Oklahoma native was driving along one day when saw a greasy spoon with a car-to-kitchen intercom, which he reproduced and made the focal point of the root beer stand he ran at the time, called the Top Hat. The Top Hat turned a consistent profit, but in 1959, Smith started to think bigger, launching the first of his drive-in establishments under the name Sonic Burger. The chain became known for waiters on rollerskates and for pumping radio hits into the parking lots via speakers. Smith retired from the daily grind in 1983 but he sat on the company’s board until his death. Today it runs 3,600 locations in 42 states.
A maker of popular Scandinavian-style kitchen accessories, Nierenberg started Dansk out of his garage with his wife Martha after a trip to Europe exposed the couple to the work of impressive industrial designers. He came back to the states with the idea of mass-producing the sleek implements made of exotic wood and stainless steel and, when he waltzed into a fancy Fifth Avenue boutique with a prototype one day, the executive he pitched ordered several hundred units on the spot. The excitement went to Nierenberg’s head as he promptly stepped off the curb and was almost hit by a bus. In the mid-1980s the couple sold the company the Lenox Corporation now owns it.
A pioneering entrepreneur in the field of data storage known for his hyper-competitive personality, Egan started EMC in 1979, though the company initially sold office furniture before graduating into computing equipment and finally data storage. The company went public in 1986 and according to one analysis, it had the top-performing stock on the New York Stock Exchange during the 1990s. Last year, EMC's annual revenue topped $14 billion and the company currently employs more than 33,000 people in offices around the world.
A pioneer in casual dining, Brinker got his start in the restaurant business in the 1950s with a dinky group of San Diego eateries called Jack in the Box; the franchise grew so rapidly under his care that he became president of the company in two years. He then started Steak and Ale in 1966 with the aim of providing a full-service sit-down meal that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Ten years later, when he sold the chain to Pillsbury, it had 109 restaurants in 24 states. He followed that up with Chili’s, a powerhouse chain that he built under the umbrella of his company, Brinker International. At Brinker's death, Ellen Koteff, editor of Nation’s Restaurant News said of the entrepreneur: “He was the most influential person in the restaurant industry. This is not even debatable.”
After her husband died, Raymond took charge of the family toy business, and served as its chief executive for more than 20 years. When she initially took the helm, the company’s bank balked because she was a woman. She eventually secured a new bank but she continued to make waves by hiring fashion industry artists to retool toy packaging, refusing to sell toy weapons, sticking to products made in the United States, and scoring licensing deals with big-name athletes and celebrities. Her biggest hit: Creating toy Doctor and Nurse Bags intended to demystify medicine for children.
One of the inventors of the concept of a members-only discount warehouse, Price initially targeted small business owners in search of supplies. The positioning was too narrow and Price suffered a $750,000 loss in the store’s first year. Business improved once he opened membership to the general public. Price’s philosophy was a no frills approach to supplying consumers: his selections were slimmer than those of other stores, he wouldn’t take credit card payments, and many of his stores were in out of the way locations to save on real estate. By 1993, when Price Club merged with Costco, the chain had $6 billion in annual revenue from a mere 94 stores across North America.
Following his discharge from the Army, Simon got a job as a leasing agent for suburban shopping malls. He eventually went out on his own and invented a strategy that is now common practice among mall owners: to attract big tenants like department stores with a lowered rent in order to secure funding from a bank. He then charged the other stores proportionally more in rent. Another innovation of his was to add movie theaters to his malls after noticing that their parking lots were languishing, empty in the evenings. His company had its IPO in 1993 and, today, it owns malls around the globe. He also owned the Indiana Pacers.
Eschewing his family's garment business, Pincus got a master's in business administration at Columbia and joined the investment firm Ladenburg Thalmann & Company where he became a partner by the age of 29. In 1964 he had set up shop for himself and a couple of years later he merged firms with Eric Warburg. Their investment fund backed companies such as Mattel very early, and Pincus became a leader in the field, helping to found the National Venture Capital Association. He also advised the government on easing federal regulations that allowed pension funds to become substantial investors in private equity and venture capital funds.
As a young man, D’Lugoff drifted around the country holding an eclectic series of jobs, from driving a cab in Los Angeles, to serving as a tree surgeon’s assistant, and later a union organizer. When he returned to New York, he set out on a career as a concert promoter eventually buying his own venue. The Village Gate, though most often associated with jazz, was a general artistic hotbed that hosted actors, comedians, and musicians of all genres; D’Lugoff had a keen eye and ear for picking the acts the public would flock to see. The club closed it’s doors in 1994—a victim of skyrocketing rents in Manhattan.
After finding themselves in need of a secretary in a hurry to file an urgent law brief, Winter and his brother-in-law realized the potential of providing a broader range of employees to other companies. They borrowed $7,000 to carry out their idea and built Manpower into the world’s third-largest provider of staffing services with offices in 82 countries. Fun fact No. 1: Despite the name, most of the company's early employees were women. Fun fact No. 2: Winter's indulged an eccentric hobby—he loved to craft artwork from car bumpers.
As events such as airplane hijackings grabbed headlines with greater frequency in the 1960s, Cover—a physicist and aerospace scientist—decided it was time to try to invent and market a non-lethal device for police to use in emergency situations. More than 13,000 law enforcement agencies now use his invention, which came to be known as the Taser.
A Civil Rights lawyer who represented Malcolm X among others, Sutton was also a confirmed capitalist. He owned media outlets such as The New York Amsterdam News and the AM station WLIB and bought the famed Apollo Theater out of bankruptcy in 1980. He also started a company that invested in Africa and another that sold interactive technology to radio stations. In 2007, surveying his long and varied career, Sutton told Inc., "Yes, I was involved in a lot of businesses. I lost money like it was going out of style." He also built a tidy fortune. —Josh Spiro