Jeno Paulucci has a long list. He wants people off welfare and back to work. He wants everyone to be on time. He wants businessmen to be honest and to plow profits into their communities. He wants the steel industry to stop polluting Lake Superior. He wants cash for minority entrepreneurs. He wants Italian-Americans to take pride in their origins and develop more political clout. He wants both President Ford and Jimmy Carter to come to a dinner he is hosting in Washington next week. He wants more people to eat his frozen pizzas.
Whatever Jeno Paulucci wants, whether visionary or arrogant, must be taken with some seriousness, because the 58-year-old businessman has an astounding record of getting it. Take money, for instance. The son of an immigrant Italian miner, Paulucci had made $100 million by the age of 50.
Or take politicians. Only an unembarrassable promoter like Paulucci could ask the presidential contenders to meet face to face—not in cosmic debate but at the National Italian-American Bicentennial dinner Sept. 16 (where Carter presumably will not call his hosts “Eye-talians,” as he did in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention). “It’s time both political parties began to realize there are some ethnics besides black people,” says Paulucci. “Italians are America’s largest minority. We are a sleeping giant.” Paulucci’s experience with politics heretofore has not been entirely happy. Though he is close to Minnesota Senators Hubert Humphrey and Fritz Mondale, Paulucci agreed to head up Independents for Nixon in 1972. After Watergate, instead of taking down the photographs of Nixon on his office wall, he glued a large seal on each reading “The (expletive deleted).” Jeno says, “I don’t give a goddamn about the bastard’s language, but he was a liar.” Now many politicians who write Paulucci for donations receive a rubber-stamped reply. It shows a large capital U intersected with an even larger screw.
The hangar at the Duluth, Minn. airport opens and a $3 million, blue-and-white Fan Jet Falcon is wheeled out into the dawn. At two minutes to six Paulucci arrives, beaming, cherubic, wearing a vested, pinstripe Godfather suit. “All set?” he inquires. Because he is a fanatic on punctuality, and his employees know it, he doesn’t wait for an answer. “Let’s go.”
Once in the air, Paulucci opens his desk (one of five he uses around the world) and pours himself a jigger of a 64-proof Italian bitters known as Fernet Branca. He offers the brackish aperitif to the other passengers, patting a trim stomach. “I was raised on this stuff,” he says. “Mama used to give me a jigger of this and a cup of black espresso for breakfast. My teacher always wondered why the little Dago kid came to school half smashed.”
It is an indication of Paulucci’s self-confidence that he can blithely refer to himself as a Dago now. It was a fighting word in Hibbing, Minn., where he was born in a shack in 1918. Jeno’s father supplemented the meager family income by making “Red Devil” wine for $1 a quart while his mother sold homemade pasta. “I can still remember my mama counting out our money every night on the bedspread,” Paulucci says. “That put a phobia on me. I guess I run scared.” As a child, he washed cars for 20¢. (“I used to get so mad at him, coming in all wet and dirty,” his 80-year-old mother recalls, “but he’d say to me, ‘Ma, look, I made money.’ “) At 14, when the Depression closed the mines and federal prohibition agents put an end to his father’s illicit winery, Jeno went to work for a grocer named David Persha in nearby Duluth. Paulucci was a born hustler. When a defective refrigerator sprayed 18 crates of bananas with ammonia—turning the skin brown and smelly but not affecting the taste—Paulucci yelled to shoppers, “Get your Argentine bananas here. You may never see bananas like this again!” Within three hours he had sold out.
After high school Jeno briefly attended junior college with the thought of becoming a lawyer. But the blood of a salesman was in him. “A good lawyer might make $50,000 or even $100,000 a year,” Jeno reasoned. “But a marketing man—he could make the world his oyster.” Then, only 16, he went on the road for a vegetable wholesaler, losing his job when his commissions exceeded the company president’s salary. On his next assignment, selling powdered garlic, he discovered the tiny plant that changed his life.
It was the mung bean sprout, a specialty vegetable grown in water tanks by Japanese immigrants. Paulucci bought a bushel basket of the unimpressive little plants with their scraggly tendrils and took them back to Duluth. Turned down by bankers, he borrowed $2,500 from a friend and went into business with his old boss, David Persha. It was 1940, Paulucci was 22, and what was to become the largest Chinese food company in the U.S. had been born. Paulucci called it Chun King.
His first offering was chow mein from a recipe his mother had invented. “I seasoned it for a Dago,” Paulucci recalls. “To this day everybody else makes it bland as hell.” Mother Paulucci continued to create new recipes and Chun King prospered. “I don’t even like Chinese food,” Jeno says, “but I can learn to love anything I make money on.”
Paulucci credits the company’s growth to “hard, hard work,” but his timing was right, too. Ex-GIs were returning home with a taste for foreign foods, and working women began to like convenience foods. By 1947 Paulucci had bought out Persha and made his first million—he does not know precisely when. (“Geez, I never did count it—I never had time.”) He also acquired a vivacious, pretty wife, the former Lois Trepanier, who came from the right side of the tracks in Duluth. Until then Paulucci was something of a brawler, an occasional visitor to a nearby red light district and a heartbreaker who had been engaged seven times (“Hell, rings didn’t cost much”).
The success of Chun King was not without its anxious moments for Paulucci. Once he was hard-selling a buyer for a major food chain on the merits of his Chinese cuisine. He opened a can of chow mein, and was horrified to discover a large dead grasshopper on top. Though his kitchens were spotless—and such mishaps occur in any cannery—Paulucci hesitated only a half second before exclaiming, “This looks so good I’m going to take the first bite myself.” He scooped a spoonful into his mouth—grasshopper and all. The unsuspecting buyer bought.
Outside of Paulucci, no person did more to stimulate Chun King’s popularity than comedian Stan Freberg and his zany TV and radio commercials. Before Freberg, Paulucci had hired and fired almost every major ad agency in the country. (“Pound for pound,” grumbled one account executive, “Paulucci is the worst sonofabitch in the country to work for.”) In one memorable commercial, Freberg solemnly declares that nine out of 10 doctors recommend Chun King. As a doubter protests, the camera pans down a row of 10 white-coated doctors—nine of whom are Chinese. In areas where Freberg’s commercials were broadcast, sales jumped 40 percent.
For years Paulucci resisted offers to buy Chun King, but in 1964 he decided to accept $40 million from R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco giant that was diversifying. But the cavalier manner of the Ivy League lawyers in negotiations (“They had the nerve to treat me like a country hick”) so outraged Paulucci that he walked out. Two years later he did sell to Reynolds—this time for $63 million cash, $2 million of which he distributed among his employees in Duluth. When the company was sold, a million Americans were eating Chun King products every day—”so many,” Paulucci recalls happily, “that a Chinese-American newspaper chided Chinese-Americans for letting an Italian do it. I wrote back saying, ‘I don’t care if you sell pizza.’ ”
Casting about for new ventures, Paulucci followed his own suggestion. In 1967 he founded Jeno’s Pizzas, a company now doing quadruple the business of Chun King in its heyday. (Without him, Jeno feels Chun King has slipped, and he has offered to help Reynolds perk up its management.)
Paulucci can be a harsh boss. When an assistant was late for a flight, Paulucci flew off to make a speech without him. “And I had the speech,” the assistant laments. Paulucci is also a soft touch—though he insists his largesse is dictated by self-interest. He hires large numbers of handicapped workers and former alcoholics, and has one of the lowest absentee and turnover rates in American industry. “Lest we forget,” reads a sign at the plant entrance, “we are here to make money and that’s the only reason. But let’s have fun doing it.”
Paulucci is considered one of the more socially conscious big businessmen in the country. He lobbied for state tax concessions to encourage expansion of the taconite industry, which recovers iron from low-grade ore. The steel industry subsequently invested more than a billion dollars in northeast Minnesota. Then, a few years later, he published a pamphlet titled If You Don’t Enjoy Rape, Holler!!! It attacked Reserve Mining, a company owned jointly by Republic Steel and Armco Steel, for dumping waste containing potentially hazardous asbestos into Lake Superior.
Another Paulucci crusade, for which he has set up a nonprofit corporation, seeks loan guarantees for minority businessmen who cannot get conventional financing from banks. So far he has approached 700 banks with the appeal, “If the guy does well you’ve got a good client and you’ve helped America.” One of Paulucci’s more imaginative schemes is to reduce unemployment by giving tax breaks to businesses that hire people on welfare and keep them on the payroll for at least a year. He is afraid the present welfare system “will destroy America by trying to provide for every goddamn eventuality.”
Paulucci claims he hasn’t decided whom to support for President, but he is believed to be leaning toward Jimmy Carter and old friend Mondale. One Minnesota rumor has it that the senator has already suggested Paulucci for Secretary of Commerce, a job Paulucci says he was offered by the Nixon administration and that he rejected. He claims to hate Washington’s “bureaucratic mess” and would take no federal post “unless I could be Jeno.”
Being Jeno means taking care of his family with extraordinary generosity. Though he blusters, “The way to raise a good family is to be fair but tough as hell,” Paulucci 10 years ago settled his fortune on his three children and started from scratch with Jeno’s Inc. He also restored the 400-year-old Catholic church in his mother’s birthplace in northern Italy. Paulucci himself converted to Presbyterianism, his wife’s faith, when he got married.
Little disturbs Paulucci more these days than charges of corruption against big companies. He thinks the President should set up a national council on business responsibility. He wants boards of directors to be held responsible for corporate misdeeds—and he mentions Lockheed specifically. “They locked up [former Prime Minister] Tanaka in Japan,” Jeno Paulucci fumes, “and I’m beginning to think what’s good for Japan might be good for us. If any fancy bastards [meaning directors] receive fine fees for mishandling the public trust, they should be carted off to jail.” Is the Commerce Department, or any other office in Washington, really ready for that kind of talk?