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The former General Foods CEO and chairman who helped create some iconic American food products
Cool Whip, Jell-O, StoveTop Stuffing: these household names have graced the family tables of millions of Americans. However, few consumers know that the iconic brands were created under the stewardship of Charleston’s own James L. Ferguson. From his home on James Island, where he moved with his wife, Esther, in the late 1980s, the tall, handsome, and ever-so-modest Ferguson quietly admits that he’s the one who hired Bill Cosby to make the popular Jell-O television ads and that his company introduced a song memorized by a generation: “My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R….”
No, Jim would rather talk about bone-fishing, his travels with Esther, or his summers at the Aspen Institute. In fact, many of his Lowcountry friends don’t know about the extraordinary career of the former chairman and CEO of General Foods in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s often said that nice guys finish last,” remarks Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. “Jim Ferguson is the best proof that the saying is wrong. Jim is a nice guy—I don’t know a nicer one—and he finishes first.”
Ferguson finishes first, perhaps, because of his ingenuity in understanding what people want and his desire to provide the best. A child of the Great Depression, Jim grew up in Evanston, Illinois, where his father started a successful advertising business. When he was 10, his parents divorced. His father moved to New York City, only to be seen by Jim on special school vacations. His mother, Justine Dickson Ferguson, went to work in real estate, buying and managing Chicago apartments. She had great success, a rare accomplishment for a woman of that era. “One could say that my mother, rather than my father, was my role model in business,” says Ferguson.
So Jim spent most of his childhood days with best friend Marlon Brando. Young Ferguson and his pal, whom he called “Bud,” spent their childhoods together at Evanston playgrounds and movie theaters. “Brando was dramatic, even back then,” Jim recalls. “He’d cover himself with bandages and red Mercurochrome and then lie in the streets as if he’d been hit by a car.”
After high school, the childhood friends lost touch, and Ferguson spent two years in the Army in the Philippines before graduating with a degree in English and political science from Hamilton College. When Jim married his first wife, Elizabeth Gilbert, in 1950, his boyhood friend returned as his best man. By then Brando was a star on Broadway, and Ferguson a recent Harvard Business School graduate who had moved to Cincinnati for a job with Procter & Gamble. There, he worked as brand manager for products such as Gleem toothpaste, Lilt home permanents, and Charmin toilet tissue. In those years, he and his wife also had three children, Dick, Debbie, and Doug.
In 1962, he landed in White Plains, New York, at General Foods, the company originally founded by C.W. Post in 1895. Ferguson’s first job was in marketing as brand manager for Birds Eye, the aging frozen foods division that Post had owned since 1929. “The bottom line at Birds Eye was lousy,” Jim recalls.
He had an early, albeit short-term, success with Pop Rocks, an enormously popular carbonated candy, then in 1967, working with innovative lab technicians, Ferguson’s division launched a product called Cool Whip. This “whipped nondairy topping” was shipped frozen to stores in novel packaging—plastic tubs. Working with the ad agency Benton & Bowles, Jim helped create a TV ad campaign that featured a bed-and-breakfast hostess named Sarah Tucker who shocked her guests by adding a dollop of Cool Whip to her slices of homemade pie.
In short order, Cool Whip became more profitable than the entirety of Birds Eye, landing the 41-year-old Ferguson on the corporate radar at General Foods. He was made vice president in charge of the Jell-O division. “Keeping the brand successful basically required clever marketing and product innovation,” he says. So he hired a new spokesperson, comedian Bill Cosby, who with his adorable child costars catapulted the brand into the stratosphere. “I had met him through The Reverend Leon Sullivan, founder of Opportunities Industrialization Centers, which helps prepare the poor and unemployed for careers,” says Jim. “In later years, Cosby became a great friend of Esther’s and mine.”
Within a year, Ferguson was promoted again. And in 1973, he was named chairman and CEO of General Foods, overseeing more than 430 different products under 30 divisions in the United States, including Post cereals, Log Cabin syrup, Sanka coffee, Minute Rice, and the Gaines and Gravy Train pet foods, as well as production plants in 50 countries with more than 700 products around the globe.
The company had been foundering after a recent investment in a fast-food chain. “James L. Ferguson has no illusions about his new job,” wrote Business Week magazine. “He will preside over one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in modern marketing history.”
Working closely with the board of directors, including the founder’s daughter and largest shareholder, Marjorie Merriweather Post, Jim guided General Foods into launching new products such as StoveTop Stuffing and Crystal Light. He supervised the acquisitions of Oscar Mayer, Louis Rich, and Entenmann’s while expanding the company’s community and philanthropic endeavors. He was among the first of Fortune magazine’s Top 50 CEOs to noticeably increase the numbers of women and minorities in corporate management. “Bill Cosby helped us with our efforts recruiting from the black community,” says Jim. He was also asked to serve on several other boards, including Federated Department Stores, Chase Manhattan Bank, the Aspen Institute, and the New York Botanical Garden.
Divorced in 1979, two years later Jim met and married his second wife, South Carolina native Esther Baskin Moore, when she was director of development at Phoenix House in New York City. Together, the couple traveled the world on behalf of General Foods, meeting leaders of many countries, gaining an audience with Pope John Paul II, and sailing the Adriatic on the yacht of Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Then life changed precipitously in 1985 when tobacco giant Philip Morris tendered a generous offer to buy General Foods in a hostile takeover bid. The cigarette conglomerate was looking to diversify its product lines in order to appease shareholders fearful of liability lawsuits. “I reluctantly recommended to the board that we accept the offer,” says the former CEO. “It was a price that benefited our shareholders, what Wall Street calls a classic ‘bear hug.’ We had no real choice. That was a tough day.”
Ferguson helped transition the management to Philip Morris, but by then, he and Esther had fallen in love with Charleston. In 1989, they bought an antebellum estate, Secessionville Manor, on James Island overlooking Clark Sound and the Morris Island lighthouse. “Standing on the piazza, I saw dolphins swim by,” remembers the retired CEO. “That’s when I was sold on Charleston.”
When they moved here, it didn’t take long for his services to be solicited. Mayor Riley asked Jim to be chairman of the new state aquarium, and the Charleston newcomer helped raise $70 million to build it. “The South Carolina Aquarium would not be here had it not been for Jim Ferguson’s extraordinary leadership, huge commitment of time, and generosity,” says Riley. “It was a very difficult project to plan, develop, and construct. It needed a leader who had credibility in the business and civic communities. Jim Ferguson gave it that and much more. He inspired all who were engaged in it: the staff, the designers, the board, and thereby created a most wonderful and remarkable facility.”
In addition, Esther and Jim have been major supporters of local endeavors such as Spoleto Festival USA, Young Concert Artists, and The Sophia Institute. “Esther taught me about music and art,” says Jim. They have a home at The Aspen Institute and a palazzo in Trujillo, Spain, which they recently donated to the College of Charleston for students studying abroad. They also spent many years as co-owners of Cheeha-Combahee Plantation, which they joined at the urging of their friend Hugh Lane.
When Ferguson reached 80 years old and lost his only sister, Joan, he decided to write his memoirs. The quiet philanthropist is modest to the extreme, so it took a lot of coaxing from friends. His autobiography, So Far, So Good, is now available online and in local bookstores.
These days, Jim and Esther entertain often at Secessionville Manor—especially when their 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren visit from their homes around Boston and Philadelphia. And the Fergusons spend more time appreciating Enrique Graf’s International Piano Series than assessing the current state of the food industry.
“Jim has made Charleston a much more wonderful place,” says Mayor Riley. “He has a ready smile and a great sense of humor and is a man of such wide interests. He is a great guy, and we are so lucky to have him.”
Lovers of those comfort foods couldn’t agree more.