Lorenzo Servitje, 98, co-founder of world's biggest bakery

"People who eat white bread," fashionista Diana Vreeland once said, "have no dreams." Selling it is something else entirely. By introducing his sliced white bread to Mexican consumers in 1945, Lorenzo Servitje fulfilled a vision that transformed...

Lorenzo Servitje, 98, co-founder of world's biggest bakery

"People who eat white bread," fashionista Diana Vreeland once said, "have no dreams." Selling it is something else entirely. By introducing his sliced white bread to Mexican consumers in 1945, Lorenzo Servitje fulfilled a vision that transformed the company he helped found into the biggest bakery in the world.

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Mr. Servitje, who established Grupo Bimbo with four fellow dreamers, died Friday at his home in Mexico City. He was 98.

His death was announced by the company, a Mexican conglomerate whose trademarks include Wonder Bread, Sara Lee, Entenmann's, Thomas' English muffins, Brownberry, Boboli and, in Britain, New York-brand bagels.

"Today, if you buy Arnold bread in the East or Orowheat in the West, Freihofer in Pennsylvania or Mrs. Baird in Texas, Stroehmann's in the mid-Atlantic or Old Country in Arizona, not to mention Roman-Meal, Sun-Made and Francisco sourdough, it's Bimbo," Aaron Bobrow-Strain wrote in White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (2012).

"White bread imperialism has come home to roost," he added.

By the mid 1990s, imperialism might have been trumped by globalization. Grupo Bimbo was selling more tortillas in the United States than in Mexico.

The company began as a small bakery and retail store opened by Mr. Servitje's father, a Spanish immigrant from Catalonia, in 1928. It was called El Molina — the Mill — evoking another dreamer, Don Quixote, and the plains of La Mancha.

When his father died suddenly in 1936, Mr. Servitje (roughly pronounced sair-BEET-hey) inherited the business, gave up his work as an accountant and immediately began figuring out how to import modern U.S. industrial baking technology.

After being delayed by World War II, Mr. Servitje and several partners, including his brother-in-law, started Bakery Bimbo at the end of 1945. They were soon joined by his younger brother Roberto Servitje Sendra.

Unaware of the pejorative connotations of the word "bimbo" in the United States (and Italy), the partners had innocently conjured up the name by combining the word "bingo," the U.S. version of a popular Mexican game called loteria, and the name "Bambi," the wholesome white-tailed fawn featured in the 1942 Disney film — although the company's logo is a white, fluffy bear.

"The Bimbo Bear, more than a mere agent of Americanization, also reflected a shift away from the cultural ethos of the Mexican Revolution and toward the embrace of modernity à la Americana," Robert Weis of the University of Northern Colorado wrote in the encyclopedic Iconic Mexico (2015).

The company began with 34 employees and 10 trucks that delivered four products: loaves of white bread in two sizes, rye bread and toasted bread.

Today, Grupo Bimbo has 130,000 employees and 170 factories in 22 countries that make 10,000 products distributed by more than 11,000 vehicles. The company reported more than $14 billion in sales in 2014.

Mr. Servitje succeeded with a multipronged strategy. He marketed his cellophane-wrapped, mass-produced bread as healthful and dependable, in contrast to the traditional French rolls, or bolillos — common at Mexican breakfasts — that were unavailable intermittently during frequent labor disputes and that sometimes originated in unhygienic bakeries.

In the early 1950s, sales of his white bread still lagged behind those of tortillas and bolillos, so he introduced Mexican consumers to other American-style products, like hot dog and hamburger rolls and doughnuts. (Grupo Bimbo became the country's sole supplier of buns to McDonald's.)

And after diversifying into candy and chocolate — controlling the entire process from production to delivery — Grupo Bimbo fended off potential competition by acquiring the Mexican rights to Wonder Bread. The company then broadened its distribution, expanding its market penetration in the United States beyond the South and buying companies abroad.

It became the biggest baking company in the United States in 2009 after acquiring Weston Foods; two years later, it became the world's biggest after scooping up competitors in Spain, Portugal and Argentina.

Mr. Servitje was president of Grupo Bimbo until 1981 and board chairman until 1994. He also served with many civic groups and frequently wrote about business ethics.

"Drawing on his Catholic background on the one hand and a fear of socialism on the other," Weis wrote, "he urged businesses to foster a family mystique that would pre-empt class antagonism."

Don Lorenzo Servitje Sendra (known as Don Lorenzo) was born on Nov. 20, 1918, in Mexico City. His parents, Juan Servitje Torrallardona and Josefina Sendra, were the children of Catalonian peasants. He studied accounting at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

His wife, Carmen Montull, died in 2002. He is survived by two sons, six daughters, 24 grandchildren and 50 great-grandchildren. His son Daniel Javier Servitje Montull is chairman and chief executive of Grupo Bimbo.

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