Bob Vlasic, who grew family business into national pickle brand, dies at 96

Mark Hicks Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Robert Vlasic, who turned Detroit-based Vlasic Food Products from a regional firm into a national powerhouse for pickle sales, has died, his family confirmed Wednesday.

The Michigan native was 96 and surrounded by family when he died of natural causes on Sunday, May 8, 2022, at his Bloomfield Hills home he previously shared with his wife, son Bill Vlasic told The Detroit News.

Robert Vlasic died on Sunday at the age of 96. He grew his family's regional pickle company into a national brand.

Robert Vlasic was the son of Joseph Vlasic, who took the creamery business his father, Frank, formed in Detroit after immigrating to the United States in 1912 and expanded it into selling pickles spiced with garlic and dill, according to the company's website. 

The company sold pickles to Detroit's Polish community during World War II. But after Robert, known as Bob, joined the business after the war and became general manager, he began during the 1960s to expand the company into a national brand through acquisitions.

The company's first plant was built in Imlay City, an hour north of Detroit. The company went on to become the top-selling pickle brand in the United States, at one point selling 24% of the pickles, peppers and relish sold nationwide, The Detroit News reported.

“My father was a remarkable man. Not only was he extremely successful in business, he just was very involved with helping with others and working with Detroit institutions he loved,” said Bill Vlasic, a former New York Times auto reporter and former Detroit News business writer.

“My dad always was a great believer in following your own path. One of the things he said to me was: 'Do it while you still can. Reach for your dreams. Don’t hold back.' For me, he was an inspiration in terms of what one man can accomplish. He grew a small hometown food business and made it a national company.”

Robert Joseph Vlasic was born to March 9, 1926, in Detroit to Joseph and Marie Vlasic. He graduated from Culver Military Academy in Indiana and earned an engineering degree from the University of Michigan. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, later meeting Nancy Reuter, who he married on Nov. 11, 1950. Over 65 years of marriage, they raised five sons.

Vlasic stayed with the company his grandfather founded after it was sold to Campbell Soup Co. in 1978. He became chairman of Campbell in 1988 and remained in that position until his retirement five years later.

He also was involved in the community, philanthropy and the Catholic Church. Vlasic was the finance committee chairman for the Cranbrook Educational Community in Bloomfield Hills and, in that role, influential in the Evening News Association's sale of The Detroit News to Gannett Co. Inc. in 1985. He served as a financial adviser to the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit. Vlasic was a donor to the University of Michigan and sat on the board of Henry Ford Hospital from 1976 to 2006, including serving as its first non-Ford family chairman.

"He was a stalwart supporter of our mission to improve public health, and through his service left an indelible impact that can still be felt and seen today," Bob Riney, Henry Ford Health's chief operating officer and president of healthcare operations, said in a statement. "Personally, I learned a lot from Bob; he always asked the tough but fair questions around business planning, and he did that because he wanted us to succeed. I am forever grateful for his leadership, mentorship and commitment to bettering the lives of those around us and those we serve.”

As the first chairman of the West Bloomfield Hospital's board, he gave the first gift to the hospital and supported construction of the Nancy Vlasic Skywalk connecting Henry Ford Hospital and the Brigitte Harris Cancer Pavilion.

“Bob Vlasic took great pride in being a leader for Henry Ford Health. He cared deeply about the health of our community and was regularly the ‘first’ to lead and the ‘first’ to contribute," Mary Jane Vogt, executive vice president and chief development officer, said in a statement. "We are profoundly grateful for his life, his accomplishments and his love for Detroit and its people."

Following his departure from Vlasic Foods International, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001. Today, it's owned by Chicago-based Conagra Brands Inc.

"Conagra Brands sends our heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of Bob Vlasic," Dan Skinner, brand communications manager, said in a statement. "Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Frank, and father, Joe, Bob was instrumental in the growth of Vlasic into a nationally recognized brand. His innovative leadership helped pickles become a popular part of American cuisine."

The Vlasic family will receive friends from 4-7 p.m. May 27 at A.J. Desmond & Sons funeral home's Vasu, Rodger & Connell Chapel in Royal Oak. St. Hugo of the Hills Stone Chapel in Bloomfield Hills will hold a Funeral Mass at 11 a.m. May 28. Visitation at the church will begin at 10:30 a.m.

Survivors include his sons Jim, Bill, Rick, Mike and Paul, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. His wife, Nancy, died in 2016.