In the freezer, he's hot

The Associated Press

Jeno Paulucci may not know much, but he does know food.

He sees the world through a microwave oven -- through ravioli, chicken Marsala and pot roasts ready in moments and through stomachs run empty by busy schedules.

You may never have heard of him, but he has probably been feeding you and your family for decades.

Even at 88 years old, the frozen food mogul whose current lines include Michelina's and Budget Gourmet is still peddling products all over the world. He recently began shipping to Russia and is poised to hit the Chinese market. Paulucci is also starting a line of appetizers called Bundinos, which are frozen buns filled with turkey or pizza ingredients.

"I try to keep ahead of the timing," Paulucci said. "Wherever there's a microwave, I believe we should have our product."

It began with Chun King lo mein in the 1940s and mushroomed into pizza and pasta lines. He is perhaps best known for his namesake Jeno's pizza rolls, though he sold that company to General Mills Inc. in 1985 for about $150 million and a big load of regret.

"I should've kept the pizza roll. It's something that'll damn near live forever," he said.

Charles M. Harper, former chief executive of RJR Nabisco and head of ConAgra Foods Inc., remembered inviting Paulucci to talk with his staff in the mid-1990s.

"I wanted to try to generate an entrepreneurial climate, and I wasn't sure these people in New York knew what an entrepreneur was. Jeno was my definition of an entrepreneur," Harper said. "He's rough. He's plain-spoken and a very direct guy. I happen to like that kind of guy. I like doing business with them."

Born three decades before anyone had a home microwave, Paulucci has made a fortune producing meals for the now-ubiquitous appliance. He still works at least five days a week micromanaging a lucrative empire called Centuria Group Inc., splitting time between his native Minnesota and modest "international" headquarters in Florida. Besides the food lines, Paulucci also has a chain of small banks (Republic) and numerous Florida real estate holdings.

Paulucci grew up on the frigid Iron Range, the son of an immigrant miner. He was constantly teased for his heritage, prompting him in 1975 to found the National Italian American Foundation -- "so that if you made a few dollars somebody wouldn't ask what syndicate you belonged to." He sprinkles in more than a few mild profanities when he talks.

"I used to get into fights. I used to just beat up any ... kid I could, as long as I got the first hit into them," he said. "I guess that's carried through in my life, and that's why I am so litigious. It isn't that I want to prove myself as much as it is I want to get even with the other guy. At age 88 you'd think I'd get over the ... thing."

Paulucci started his Chun King business in 1944 with a $2,500 loan and sold it to R.J. Reynolds less than two decades later for $63 million. He says he has started about 70 companies, some more successful than others. Paulucci tries to build them up, sell them and then start another.

Though still designing new entrees, Paulucci hasn't been to the grocery store in a decade. He says he has never touched a computer and prefers that employees use e-mail only if there's no other option.

Paulucci is 5 feet 4 and has a sandpaper voice. Sometimes soft Minnesotan vowels seep through.

He sure holds a grudge. He started a pie-filling company in 1950 specifically to drive a former business partner to ruin. (Paulucci lost money selling at drastically cut rates but forced his competitor to do the same until the former partner went out of business.)

For a businessman, Paulucci also has unconventional ideas about labor. He's stridently pro-union and thinks that the country is long overdue for a minimum-wage increase. He has made a practice of hiring convicted criminals and the disabled.

He believes businesses should give as much as 5% of pretax profits for community projects and those who make more than $100,000 a year should pay at least an extra percent or two in taxes.

For all his success, there are a few calls Paulucci would like back. He sold off shares in surgical staple and packing wrap companies because he didn't think they'd take off or he quibbled with owners. He started several restaurants that failed for various reasons, including bad locations, bad managers and his own stubbornness.

He's not ready to retire, not with everything going on. He intends to sell Michelina's this year and start something else, and in the meantime he presides over the entry into China. The first shipments will go in January or February.

"I just don't have anything else to do. I've got some friends, yes, but I love working. To me that's it."

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