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Marvin Schwan; Built Home Delivery Empire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marvin M. Schwan, who was one of the nation’s wealthiest men and was often called the Emperor of Ice Cream for his home delivery frozen food enterprises, has died. He was 64.

Schwan, whose yellow home delivery trucks brought ice cream and other frozen foods to generations of rural Americans in 49 states, died of a heart attack Sunday at a San Diego hospital.

Schwan was president and founder of Schwan’s Sales Enterprises Inc. of Marshall, Minn., a privately held company with 1992 revenues estimated at $1.8 billion, according to Corporate Report Minnesota magazine.

He had regularly been included in recent years on Forbes magazine’s list of the wealthiest Americans, and in 1992 he ranked 70th with a net worth estimated at $1 billion.

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Forbes said Schwan’s delivery service, which also includes pizza, sandwiches, fish, chicken, vegetables and casseroles, has a fleet of 2,300 vehicles, whose drivers regularly log 12- to 15-hour days visiting a route of 1,000 customers every two weeks.

Schwan believed in state-of-the-art technology in his rural market, equipping the trucks in 1986 with portable inventory and pricing computers.

Born in Marshall to Prussian immigrant parents, Schwan put himself through a two-year program at Bethany Lutheran College by working summers at a local ice cream factory. He joined his family’s milk bottling plant in 1950, but a local cap on milk prices two years later pushed the business to the brink of bankruptcy.

The desperate young Schwan loaded a panel truck with ice and ice cream and set out hawking his goods door-to-door to area farmers--just as larger dairies were abandoning home delivery.

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His trucks were painted with a swan, the company symbol, and they gradually expanded their inventory to pizza and other frozen foods until they resembled traveling convenience stores.

Schwan eventually bought three pizza companies, selling frozen low-cost pizzas to convenience stores, school lunch programs, hospitals and military bases.

Schwan, who lived in Sioux Falls, S.D., and commuted to his Minnesota headquarters in one of several private airplanes, consistently declined requests for interviews.

In a rare 1978 interview with the Minneapolis Tribune, he commented simply: “The American farm family has been kind and good to me and my company.”

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Schwan was married twice and had four children.


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