September 05, 1977 12:00 PM

At the age of 53, Frank Nicholas embarked on a new career as head of the Beech-Nut baby food company—and on a new family. Four years later both are flourishing: Beech-Nut’s sales, second only to Gerber’s, have jumped 25 percent to $70 million a year, and Nicholas, father of three grown children by his first marriage, has added three by his second. “My wife, Elizabeth, and I created our own marketing research group,” Frank says of his new brood, aged 14 months to 4 years. “And they certainly aren’t yes-men.”

Nor is Nicholas, a lifelong maverick who has shaken up the entire baby food industry. He put twist-off caps on his juice bottles (so a nipple could be attached) and abolished added salt from all his company’s products, as well as added sugar from 92 of them. “Our competitors are flat of foot,” he gloats. “They still have products on the supermarket shelves containing added salt.” And salt, Nicholas notes ominously, “can actually lead to hypertension among infants!” The reason manufacturers added seasonings, says the Beech-Nut boss, “is because that was what the mothers wanted. But a baby’s tastebuds develop from the front of the tongue to the back,” according to his research. “They can’t even taste salt. So we test our baby food on the babies.”

The Minneapolis-born son of a shock absorber salesman, Nicholas flew over the Hump from Burma into China with a combat cargo squadron during World War II. On one mission, the plane on which Nicholas was navigator flew 350 miles off course and ran out of gas. Nicholas bailed out with the crew, smashing his ribs and ending his military career.

Back home, with a disability pension he still receives, Frank attended Northwestern University on the GI bill and “more or less lived on candy bars.” He had noticed that “the machines were constantly running out of candy” and convinced the university administration to give him the campus concession. Soon he was refilling the machines four times a day and selling 90,000 candy bars a month. The laundry concession came next, then the cleaning, flowers and coin-changing traffic. By the time he enrolled in North-western’s law school, he was raking in $1,000 a month in clear profit.

So once he received his degree in 1952, the then going $250-a-month salary for beginning lawyers was unacceptable. Instead, he became sales manager for the Brunswick Corp. for two years before signing on in 1957 as executive vice-president of Alcoa founder Arthur Vining Davis’ industrial enterprises.

A millionaire by 1972, Nicholas went scouting for a business of his own and wound up with Baker Laboratories, manufacturer of infant formulas. “At the time, there was no company that sold both the formula and the baby food,” he says, “so I set out to buy myself a baby food company.” The answer was Squibb’s lagging Beech-Nut subsidiary, but Nicholas was rebuffed repeatedly in his attempts to acquire the company. Finally he landed it for $16 million.

Since he took over, Nicholas boasts, Beech-Nut has become the top seller in Japan, and he intends to accomplish the same feat at home within the next five years. “Gerber is the Hertz and we’re the Avis,” he smiles between sips of his own Beech-Nut apple juice. “You can bet we’ll be No. 1. I’ve never settled for less.”

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