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L.W. McNutt Jr., 81; His Company Sold Fruitcake to World

September 16, 2006|Claire Noland | Times Staff Writer

L. William "Bill" McNutt Jr., who turned his family's bakery in Corsicana, Texas, into a specialized mail-order business that ships holiday fruitcakes around the world, has died. He was 81.

McNutt, who was president of Collin Street Bakery from 1967 to 1998, died Sept. 1 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at his Corsicana home, his son Bob McNutt said.

The bakery, which opened in 1896, got a jolt when McNutt arrived in 1958 and shifted its focus to mail-order sales. He introduced computerized mailing lists, direct consumer marketing and efficient shipping methods to eventually extend the firm's reach to 196 countries.

The company annually sells about 3 million pounds of fruitcake, or about 1.5 million cakes. That's just fruitcake, which accounts for 98% of the bakery's total sales. And nearly all of those sales are by mail order, primarily from October to December, when cakes are packaged in a red Christmas tin decorated with a cowboy and his lasso.

"We breathe, eat and sleep our cake," John Crawford, part-owner and vice president, told The Times this week. "We have a good time here."

Corsicana was a thriving oil boomtown on a railroad line 50 miles south of Dallas when German immigrant Gus Weidmann set up shop 110 years ago in the Collin Street Bakery.

It was on the ground floor of his partner Tom McElwee's luxurious hotel, where celebrities including Enrico Caruso and Will Rogers stayed on their way through town. Members of the Ringling Bros. circus troupe would leave with dozens of Weidmann's cakes to extend as gifts while on tour, and to this day descendants of the Ringling family place annual orders.

McNutt's father, Lee William McNutt, and uncle Bob Rutherford bought the bakery in 1946, and the McNutt partnership has owned the privately held company and maintained the basic recipes ever since.

In the 1950s, Collin Street was essentially a regional bread bakery, but McNutt had bigger plans for selling fruitcakes to a wider audience. At the beginning, employees would copy names and addresses of prospective customers out of phone books gathered from around the country.

McNutt led efforts to sell the baked goods directly to international consumers and to create a database that could be computerized. Later, he was quick to recognize the value of emerging technologies by accepting orders via phone, fax and the Internet.

A stickler for details who insisted on quality and customer service, McNutt bought a local pecan processor and an organic pineapple farm in Costa Rica to ensure a steady supply of ingredients for the best-selling "World Famous DeLuxe Fruitcake."

The company sends out about 12 million mailings a year and has about 1 million customers in its database, Crawford said. The celebrity clientele includes basketball great Julius Erving and Princess Caroline of Monaco, who picked up the annual order after her mother, Princess Grace, died.

Although the bakery says it will ship anyplace in the world that receives mail service, one customer was turned away: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

"We didn't think that was an order we needed to fill," McNutt's son said.

Two traditions surround fruitcakes -- one savoring the dense cakes filled with nuts and candied fruits, another ridiculing them as unwanted bookends -- and the McNutt family has come to understand both views.

"We can laugh at anything," said Bob McNutt, who succeeded his father as president of the company. "For the most part, when people come up with a fruitcake joke -- all of which are bad, by the way -- it gives us an opportunity to get our message out."

Born in Corsicana in 1925, Bill McNutt Jr. moved with his parents to Nashville and attended Vanderbilt University, playing both offense and defense on the 1943 football team, which went undefeated. He left college to serve in the Army at Camp Shelby, Miss., guarding German prisoners of war, and at Ft. Dix, N.J., mustering soldiers out of the service.

McNutt returned to Vanderbilt and graduated in 1949 with a business degree, later earning a master's at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He initially went to work for his father and uncle, distributing Dr. Pepper in Tennessee.

He married Josephine Pritchett of Nashville in 1954. She and their four children survive him -- sons Bill III of Dallas and Bob of Corsicana, daughters Katherine McNutt and Melanie McNutt of Dallas -- along with two grandchildren.

McNutt, an avid football fan, became friends with Lamar Hunt, the Texas oilman who co-founded the American Football League and owned the Dallas Texans, which became the Kansas City Chiefs, now part of the National Football League.

Together, they owned the Dallas Tornado of the North American Soccer League and won the league title in 1971. The Tornado folded after the 1981 season and entered into a minority partnership with the Tampa franchise, transferring the Dallas player contracts and other assets to Florida. The entire league folded in 1984.

Hunt became a minority partner in the Collin Street Bakery, and this week confirmed his appreciation for fruitcake.

"I don't eat it year-round," he said, "but at Christmastime, I'm right in there getting my fair share."

And after a memorial service Sept. 4 in Corsicana, the family gathered at home for -- what else? -- fruitcake.

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