boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe

William McNutt; created fruitcake empire

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

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

The bakery, which opened in 1896, got a jolt when Mr. 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. Fruitcake accounts for 98 percent of the bakery's total sales. And nearly all of those sales are by mail order, primarily from October to December, when each cake is 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, said. ``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. Members of the Ringling Bros. circus would leave with dozens of Weidmann's cakes to give as gifts while on tour, and descendants of the Ringling family still place annual orders.

Mr. McNutt's father, Lee William , and uncle Bob Rutherford bought the bakery in 1946. 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 Mr. McNutt had plans for selling fruitcakes to a wider audience. At the beginning, employees copied names and addresses of prospective customers out of phone books gathered from around the United States.

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

A stickler for details who insisted on quality and customer service, Mr. 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 include basketball hall of famer 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 to any place in the world that receives mail service, one customer was turned away: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis at the US Embassy in Tehran.

``We didn't think that was an order we needed to fill," Mr. 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. He played 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 Fort Dix, N.J., mustering soldiers out of the service.

Mr. 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 soda in Tennessee. In 1954, he married Josephine Pritchett of Nashville.

Mr. 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.

In addition to his son and wife, Mr. McNutt leaves another son, Bob of Corsicana; daughters Katherine and Melanie, both of Dallas; and two grandchildren.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives