When I saw the news that Irwin Jacobs had died, I was shocked. Jacobs, 77, was best known in the outdoor industry as the chairman of Genmar Holdings, at one time the world’s largest boat builder.
Irwin Jacobs, 77
But I’d known Jacobs since the 80s when he was known as “Irving the liquidator” for his practice of buying into companies and threatening to break them up. It was a practice known as “greenmailing” - and Jacobs, along with T. Boone Pickens, were two of the best in the world at the buy in, agitate, and get out - with a heavy profit practice.
When I first met Jacobs, we were producing a show for the Business News Unit of CNN called “Pinnacle”. The show was very successful, and allowed me to meet many of the biggest names in the business world: Peter Grace of W.R. Grace Corporation, Anthony Goizueta, the Chairman of Coca-Cola, Malcom Forbes, John Phelan, the Chairman of the NYSE, Mary Kay Ash -the founder of Mary Kay cosmetics, Pickens, and many others.
Only two of those business giants, Goizueta and Jacobs, ever acknowledged having been on the show. I dismissed it at the time as just another effective business technique. It wasn’t unusual in those long-gone times, to actually receive a hand-written note from the most skillful businessmen. They knew that relationships were critical - especially with the media. Although CNN was still a fledgling operation at the time, I remember Jacobs’ note saying “one day, the whole world will know about business- because of CNN.”
I didn’t have any further contact with Jacobs until I began The Outdoor Wire nearly 20 years ago. I was covering the FLW Championship when a friend introduced us. He had no way of knowing that Jacobs and I had met- years before- and I doubted seriously that he would have any recollection of our meeting.
To my surprise, Jacobs smiled, shook my hand and said “looks like we both survived CNN.” And from that minute forward, he always treated me like an old acquaintance, not a reporter who had asked him some decidedly unfriendly questions about his business practices in the 1980s.
When I first traveled to Flippin, Arkansas, to visit Ranger Boats, we stayed at Jacobs’ sprawling estate above Bull Shoals Reservoir. That’s when I realized that the same guy I knew as the “liquidator” was also the guy who owned J.R. Watkins Co., the soap and household products company. It was obvious there was some connection- Watkins products were everywhere.
Why am I doing all this reflecting about a man who was as tough a businessman as you’d ever want to meet? Because behind all the tough, confident businessman, Jacobs was a marshmallow when it came to his family.
Ultimately, it seems his love for Alexandria, his wife for 57 years and the mother of their five children, was the ultimate cause of both their deaths.
Police reports from Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota indicate that Jacobs, described by his friends as “distraught” over Alexandria’s failing health and signs of dementia, shot her, then himself.
The police have stopped short of calling it a murder-suicide, but say Irwin was “responsible” for the deaths. They are seeking no other suspects, and say there’s no risk to the public’s safety.
It’s an unexpected end to a colorful figure who cut a path through our industry.
More than that, it’s yet another example of the fact that not even the privileged are exempt from despair that convinces them life is no longer worth living.