Oscar Mayer, hot dog legend, dies at 95

Oscar G. Mayer, who transformed his family business into one of the the world's largest meat processors, died Monday. He was 95.

The fact that most of the public probably did not know that "Oscar Mayer" was a real person -- actually he was the third member of his family to have that name -- was fine with him, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. He liked his anonymity, even as his company became one of the largest private employers in Madison, Wisconsin.

"Ironically, although Mayer had, perhaps, the most famous name in Madison, many local residents didn't even know he was a real person," the newspaper said. "The company long used a midget, 'Little Oscar,' as its spokesman and the real Oscar Mayer, a tall, dignified and courtly man, rarely sought publicity."

Mayer retired as chairman of Oscar Mayer in 1977 at the age of 62, the year that the company first posted $1 billion in revenue, though he continued to consult with management. Four years later, the company was sold to General Foods, a predecessor of Kraft Inc. (KFT).

The business was founded by his grandfather, Oscar F. Mayer, a Bavarian immigrant who started his career in 1873 at the age of 14 as a "butcher's boy" in a Detroit meat market. Ten years later Oscar, along with his brothers Gottfried and Max, opened a meat market, according to the Kraft web site. It was one of the first companies to volunteer to join the then-new federal meat inspection program. Oscar F. Mayer died in 1955 and Mayer's father, Oscar G. Mayer Sr., died in 1965.

Mayer's death underscores the human element of business that gets lost in today's world of mega-mergers. Consumers forget that there people named McDonald --actually they were brothers -- who operated a burger chain that Ray Kroc acquired and made famous. The Ford family still plays an active role in the Ford Motor Co. (F) and the Sulzbergers control the New York Times Co. (NYT). But these are the exceptions.

Media reports indicate that Mayer was proud of his family business. I also suspect that Mayer could have easily slipped into a deli to watch consumers buying his bologna, then slipped out the door without being recognized.

In these days of imperial CEOs, who are more worried about their pay than about their shareholders, that's kind of nice.
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