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Northland business icon Jeno Paulucci sold frozen food company day before his death

Just one day before his Nov. 24 death, Northland business icon Jeno Paulucci agreed to sell Bellisio Foods Inc., according to Joel Conner, the company's chairman and CEO.

The transaction has not yet closed and, until it does, Conner said he was not comfortable sharing the buyer's name. However, he did identify the prospective new owner as a New York-based private equity group.

The deal probably will be completed by year's end, barring complications, Conner predicted.

Bellisio Foods, formerly known as Michelina's, is the fourth-largest producer of frozen entrees in the nation, churning out about 2 million Michelina's entrees and 100 tons of pizza rolls each day. The only producers larger than it are Nestle S.A., ConAgra Foods and H.J. Heinz Co.

The sale price of the company has not been made public, but Financial Times reported in July that the business was being shopped around by Lazard Middle Market. It wasn't the first time the company had gone on the auction block, with the Paulucci family asking for a price between $500 million and $600 million previously, according to reports. In July, Financial Times said the price probably had fallen below $500 million because of a weakening dollar.

A Lazard representative did not return phone messages from the News Tribune on Tuesday.

Bellisio employs about 1,500 people companywide. The bulk of its production is in Jackson, Ohio. The company also has operations in Minnesota, including a smaller production facility in Lakeville and several offices in Duluth. Conner said functions still based in Duluth include accounting, customer service, consumer affairs and packaging design. He said he expects those operations to remain even after the sale of Bellisio Foods is completed.

Because of ongoing health concerns, Paulucci had been less involved in daily operations of the company lately. But Conner said: "It's still a great loss. There's no way to measure the impact that someone like Jeno has on a company."

Paulucci, 93, died in his Duluth home on Thanksgiving morning. His wife, Lois, had died just four days before.

Bellisio Foods, founded by Paulucci in 1990, draws its name from his parents' home village in Italy.

Both were immigrants to America.

A Duluth restaurant of the same name, Bellisio's, is owned in part by his son, Mick, a partner in Grandma's Restaurant Co.

Paulucci grew up on the Iron Range and built several successful food companies, including Chun King, Jeno's Inc., Luigino's Inc., Michelina's Inc. and then Bellisio Foods. He repeatedly built companies up and then sold them off.

Jim Tills, a former employee and friend of Paulucci, recalled his credo. "He'd say, 'I don't just build businesses. I build them to sell.'"

That Paulucci completed his final deal just before meeting his maker came as no surprise to Tills.

"He was a finisher, without a doubt," Tills said.

In a eulogy delivered at Paulucci's private funeral last week, Conner said Paulucci often quipped that he was "too busy to die." But with a sales agreement for Bellisio Foods in hand, he could finally leave in peace.