William G. Salatich, at 87; former executive at Gillette

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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William G. Salatich rose from childhood poverty on the South Side of Chicago to lead Gillette North America and become vice chairman of the company’s board of directors during 32 years with the company.

The son of Serbian immigrants, his work ethic inspired his oldest daughter, longtime Boston television news anchor Natalie Jacobson.

“He was a teacher by example,’’ said Jacobson, who spent 35 years at WCVB-TV before leaving in 2007. “I watched how hard he worked, and that was his admonition to all of us: Anything is possible if you work hard at it.’’

Mr. Salatich, who lived in Needham and Wellesley during his Gillette career, died Oct. 28 at his home in suburban Chicago from congestive heart failure. He was 87.

Jacobson said her father “lived the American dream.’’ His life was built on hard work aided by good luck and devotion to treating others with kindness, she said.

When he was 5, his father died of a respiratory disease from years working in the Anaconda Copper mines of Butte, Mont.

In the 1920s, Mr. Salatich played stickball in a Chicago field until the ball wore out, and he and his teammates had to scrounge up 76 cents to buy a new one, he told his family.

Mr. Salatich never went to business school and joked upon receiving the 1975 Horatio Alger Award in New York City: “I don’t have any letters after my name, but I have had something for the past 40 years, and that is a J-O-B.’’

He graduated from Lane Technical High School in Chicago at age 16 and worked as a factory man, bowling alley manager, and cabdriver. He served in World War II and returned home in 1945.

He and Dawn (Trbovich) had less than $70 when they married. She made him an appointment for an aptitude test that led to his job as a Gillette razor blades salesman in 1947, according to his family.

They were married 37 years and had four children. She died in 1979 from breast cancer.

At Gillette, Mr. Salatich held 11 different positions over the years. He moved his family to Boston when the company relocated the Toni hair products and Paper Mate divisions he was overseeing.

Jacobson recalled seeing her father read the dictionary before bed to improve his vocabulary. “He was always interested in bettering himself,’’ she said.

His son, Bill Jr., who lives in Chicago and has been a member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for 30 years, said his father still read the dictionary at bedtime well into his 80s.

“He was a man who never forgot his roots,’’ his son said, describing a home filled with Serbian traditions. “I don’t think there’s one Serb born since 1921 who doesn’t know of my father.’’

While at Gillette, Mr. Salatich expanded the company’s marketing connections with professional and college sports. Roone Arledge, sports executive producer with ABC, forged deals with him over the phone days before sporting events, according to his son.

A photo of Mr. Salatich playfully throwing a punch at heavyweight great Muhammad Ali appears in a 1998 book on the history of the company.

As head of the company’s Toni division, Mr. Salatich linked Gillette to the Miss America Pageant during its heyday under host Bert Parks.

Mr. Salatich also saw the promise of Right Guard as a Gillette powerhouse product, according to his son, and pursued an innovative sampling program to boost sales of the company’s Trac II razor amid heavy competition from Wilkinson, a British company. Gillette mailed the Trac II to 30 million households in a child-proof tube.

“He was a great Gillette executive,’’ said Robert J. Murray, a retired executive vice president who worked as Mr. Salatich’s assistant beginning in 1968. “He had this remarkable curiosity. He would just question and question things. He would ask such incisive questions.’’

Gillette’s division presidents knew to be prepared for meetings with him, said Murray. “They knew Bill was not one who would just sit and listen passively to a presentation. He really wanted to hear all the implications.’’

Mr. Salatich’s support for hiring and promoting minorities drew him a merit award from The National Conference of Christians and Jews. “My dad was very proud of that award. He was ahead of the curve back in those days,’’ Bill said.

After his wife’s death, Mr. Salatich retired from Gillette in 1979, a decision he told Murray he later regretted as premature.

He moved back to Chicago and served on the boards of several companies, including Motorola Corp. and Eastern Gas and Fuel.

He was a trustee of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital and Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif.

In 1984, he married Phyllis (Peterson).

He enjoyed sport fishing and playing golf and cards. He was a longtime director of the Bob Hope Desert Classic charity golf tournament.

In addition to his wife, daughter, and son, Mr. Salatich leaves his brother, Robert; two other daughters, Jean of Chicago and Sandra of San Francisco; his stepsons, Bruce Wilmot of Oregon and Douglas Wilmot of Norway; nine grandchildren; and three great grandchildren.

Services have been held. Burial was in Montrose Cemetery in Chicago.