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Obituaries

Peter Stroh, 74; Head of Brewery, Philanthropist

September 21, 2002|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Peter W. Stroh, who turned a family beer business into the country's third-largest brewery and used his riches to redevelop blighted areas of Detroit, died Tuesday of brain cancer at his home in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. He was 74.

Stroh headed the Stroh Brewery Co., founded in Detroit by his German immigrant great-grandfather in 1850. It was known for its Bohemian beer brewed in copper kettles.

The fourth generation of his family to lead the company, Stroh became a director in 1965 and chairman in 1982. He retired in 1997, two years before a drastic downturn in beer consumption led to his company's demise.

Over the four decades of his involvement in the company, Stroh became a civic activist and philanthropist who used his money to expand opportunities for minorities and underprivileged groups. His family also spent $150 million over the last two decades on redevelopment projects, including a massive renovation of buildings along Detroit's riverfront.

"He never gave up on the city," former Mayor Dennis Archer told the Detroit Free Press this week.

Stroh, a Detroit native, did not intend to enter the family business. He was educated at Princeton, earning a degree in international affairs in 1951. His dream was to work for the Central Intelligence Agency.

He was recruited by the agency after graduating from college and went to work in Washington while awaiting his security clearance.

Three days after obtaining his clearance, he was hit by a runaway truck that crushed his legs. He spent a year in the hospital recovering and was told he might never walk again. He eventually regained the ability to walk, though with a noticeable limp, but was forced to abandon his plans for a career in intelligence work.

He went to work at the brewery, immersing himself in the technical aspects of production. He joined the board in 1955 and was named director of operations in 1965.

As president, he led a series of takeovers that would transform the regional brewery into one of the nation's largest beer concerns. When Stroh's bought out Milwaukee's Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. in 1982, it became the nation's third-largest brewery, after Miller and Anheuser-Busch.

The company gained six breweries and entered burgeoning markets in the South and West, but assumed an enormous debt in the process: Stroh's had bought Schlitz by borrowing more than half of the $494.7-million purchase price.

The expansion came as the beer market was beginning to shrink. Within a few years, Stroh's found it was producing far more beer--an excess of 6 million barrels--than it could sell.

In 1985, it shocked Detroit by announcing that it was closing its 71-year-old brewery, a city landmark where the company's flagship brand, Stroh's, was made for 135 years.

Stroh called the decision to close the plant "the most difficult thing imaginable."

He retired as chairman in 1997. In 1999, the family sold the rest of the company to the Pabst and Miller brewing companies.

After the fires of the 1967 Detroit riot, which Stroh watched from the roof of the brewery, he plotted a strong course for his family in the civic life of the city. He was active in the Urban League and the Detroit chapter of the NAACP and quietly supported many charitable efforts.

Stroh family and corporate money was used to transform an old pharmaceutical complex into Stroh River Place, a 26-acre commercial and residential development along the Detroit River that has won critical praise.

Stroh is survived by his wife, the former Nicole Elisabeth Fauquet-Lemaitre; two sons; a brother; and a grandchild.

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