MINNEAPOLIS — Irwin Jacobs was a voluble, larger-than-life entrepreneur who built a fortune in the 1980s buying and selling some of the nation’s largest companies.
But he began and ended his career as a trader of everyday goods and, for much of his six decades in business, was known as “Irv the Liquidator.”
Jacobs, 77, was found dead Wednesday next to his wife of 57 years, Alexandra, in their Minnetonka, Minn., home. A longtime friend described their deaths as a murder-suicide. Authorities stopped short of calling it that but said no suspects were being sought.
Though he had faded in prominence in recent years, Jacobs for much of his career was a nationally-known investor who found unrecognized value in companies and made huge profits with short-term stock trades.
He said he had a fortune of more than $200 million at one point in the 1980s. During that decade, he took over and broke up the conglomerate AMF and made unsuccessful takeover runs at several other major companies, including Disney, Kaiser and ITT. For a time, he owned a minority stake in the Minnesota Vikings.
With a series of deals that began in the 1970s, his Genmar Holdings Co. by the 1990s was the nation’s second-largest maker of boats. The firm downsized after the 2008 recession and underwent a lengthy bankruptcy restructuring.
Jacobs in 1978 bought J.R. Watkins Co., a maker of soaps and household products. His son Mark has led the firm since the late 1990s.
At his death, Jacobs still owned his namesake business, Jacobs Trading Co. in Hopkins, Minn., the successor to one he and his father, Sam Jacobs, started in the 1960s.
Sam Jacobs was a Russian immigrant who supported his north Minneapolis family collecting used burlap bags, cleaning, recycling and selling them. Irwin Jacobs, who cleaned bags in grade school, joined his father on sales calls while a student at North High School. “I was a peddler,” Jacobs recalled years ago.
Among the uses of recycled burlap: sandbags in flood-prone areas. After working in flooded areas, the pair started the trading company to buy flood-damaged goods and resell them at a profit.
But Irwin Jacobs had bigger ambitions. In 1976, Carl Pohlad, the late Minneapolis banker, staked Jacobs to buy the slumping Grain Belt Brewery in northeast Minneapolis. After concluding that he couldn’t run it profitably, Jacobs closed the brewery, contradicting statements that he was in it for the long haul. He laid off the workforce, sold the equipment and brands for an estimated $4 million profit.
He made another big score buying and liquidating the assets of bankrupt retailer W.T. Grant & Co. in the late 1970s.
Jacobs leaped to the cover of national business publications by badmouthing a slew of corporate CEOs and launching takeover attempts and feints against numerous companies. At 6-3 and a 200-plus pounds with a full mane of silver-streaked dark hair, he had a swagger that could strike fear and anger in targets and competitors. But he also possessed an uncanny ability to spot value.
Jacobs built Genmar from the ashes of several companies, including bankrupt Larson Industries of Little Falls, Minn., maker of Lund and Larson boats. At its peak, the company had more than $1 billion in annual revenue and Jacobs loved being photographed in fishing and speedboats as the commodore of Genmar.
The firm tumbled into bankruptcy in 2009 after the sales tumbled during the recession and it wasn’t able to repay loans. The restructuring took several years and Jacobs called it “the most humbling and painful experience of my business career.”
Jacobs lived large. He drove a Rolls-Royce for years, flew aboard private jets and lived with Alexandra in a mansion on 32 acres next to Lake Minnetonka. The couple had five children.
In recent years, Jacobs seemed to enjoy his renewed focus on the Jacobs Trading liquidation business. In 2011, he sold the business to Liquidity Services, a Washington D.C.-based surplus good dealer for $140 million. But Liquidity Services subsequently lost a deal with Walmart to resell returned or damaged goods and moved to downsize.
In 2015, Jacobs bought back the Jacobs Trading unit for only $13 million plus a share of future profits. “We will grow the company again, I’m certain of that,” Jacobs told the Star Tribune in 2015.
Last year, Jacobs said he was excited about a Jacobs Trading unit, called Dock 1, that was created exclusively to peddle merchandise that had been returned to e-commerce firms.
“People who are looking for a bargain can find small electronics, toys, household goods and seasonal items,” Jacobs said. “Everything in the bins is $5 on Mondays, $4 on Tuesdays, $3 on Wednesdays, $2 on Thursdays and $1 on Fridays and Saturdays.”