Find a Leader . . And Listen. My conversation with Jeno Paulucci

Like many people, in the next month I plan to tackle the biography of Steve Jobs.  I like reading about interesting people, especially leaders.  While we learn by doing, slowing down to learn here and there is one of the key things leaders can do to raise their own performance.  But do not forget the living biographies that are around us.  Here is my story of pausing to hear a living biography.

Jeno Paulucci died Nov.25th at the age of 93. 

I met Jeno in 1999 when I went to Duluth, MN to run Grandma’s Marathon.  When I planned the trip I thought of Jeno because my Grandfather had talked about him years before.  The family story was that my grandfather, as the dean of Hibbing Junior College, had convinced Jeno to stay in college.  He went on to become the second most famous person to come out of Hibbing, Minnesota (behind Bob Dylan – aka:  Bobby Zimmerman).  The highlights of his business career:

  • Founded Chun King – sold it to RJ Reynolds for $62M
  • Founded Jeno’s Pizza Rolls – sold to Pillsbury for $135M (rebranded to Totino’s)

*if you want more his Wikipedia page has more details

I wrote Jeno a note, and he answered with a handwritten note to accept my offer, so I setup a meeting.  He met a friend and I for a couple hours and we talked about his memories of my grandfather, why he started his business, his current business (Michelina’s pasta), and life stuff.  The line I most remember was him sharing a decision point he had as to whether to sell Michelina’s in his 70’s or keep it.  He went home and told his wife that he thought he should sell it so he could spend more time with her.  Her response was “Jeno, if the only reason you are selling it is to spend more time with me then keep it.  Having you around every day, all the time, will drive me crazy.”  He decided to keep the business. 🙂

Jeno and I - Grandma's Marathon 1999

The other thing that struck me about Jeno was that his office was very plain and he was very normal.  He knew my grandfather and made time for me to just talk, and the conversation was very easy.  When I met him at the end of the marathon he ordered me to go get my jacket so I would not get cold.  He was kind of bossy. 🙂

Often times the holidays puts us in rooms with people that we do not know that well, and much of the time is spent figuring out how to escape.  When I see a room full of people I see it as a kind of a library of biographies.  Storied that can be heard by asking things like: Where they lived?  Where they grew up / went to college / worked? What were some highlights from past jobs / holidays / vacations?  Who is the most famous person they have ever met?

I never talked to Jeno after 1999.  The one thing about his obituary that caught me eye was the piece about his wife.  She died 5 days before Jeno.  Apparently she must have been pretty important to him.  Go figure. 🙂

2 thoughts on “Find a Leader . . And Listen. My conversation with Jeno Paulucci

  1. Dave – It was fun meeting Jeno and he was so straight forward, not flashy, midwestern business person. I got a kick out of meeting with him.

    Thanks for the note.

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