John Bryan Jr., the former CEO and driving force behind Sara Lee Corp., passed away Oct. 1 at the age of 81.
Bryan built his family’s meat business into one of the food industry’s great powerhouses. He took over Bryan Foods, a specialty meat business based in his native northern Mississippi, in his early twenties, selling it in 1968 to Consolidated Foods. Bryan stayed on at Consolidated, eventually becoming its president and CEO, and changed its name to Sara Lee in 1985.
Under Bryan’s leadership, Sara Lee concentrated on building strong brands, venturing into apparel as well as food. He also was an early entrant into overseas markets.
In addition to his business acumen, Bryan was well known as a philanthropist and arts patron in Chicago, where Sara Lee was based. He raised and contributed millions to cultural institutions like the Lyric Opera and the Art Institute, and helped raise more than $200 million for Millennium Park, whose opening in 2004 was a major cultural milestone for the city.