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Sue Gin, chief of airline catering empire, has died

Sue Gin

When a young Sue Gin worked at The Paradise Inn, the Aurora restaurant run by her Chinese immigrant parents, she eyed Chicago to seek her fortune.

Landing a job in Chicago as a Playboy bunny, she saved up her tips to invest in real estate.

Served a half-frozen sweet roll on Midway Airlines, she contacted the company chairman and successfully pitched to be its caterer. She founded Flying Food Group. It transformed airline meals by focusing on cold but tasty fresh ingredients in attractive lacquered boxes, rather than inferior facsimiles of hot restaurant meals produced in cramped jet galleys.

Today, the company supplies 300,000 meals to more than 70 airlines and many of the nation’s Starbucks coffee shops. Flying Food Group generated $436 million in sales last year.

Tough and resourceful, she weathered the demise of carriers that were some of her biggest customers and the downturn in travel after the 9/11 attacks by expanding to international airlines. All the while, she continued to buy and rehab real estate. Though she followed the rule of “buy low and sell high,” her properties flowered into some of Chicago’s toniest addresses.

Once, she lunched with President Bill Clinton as he picked the brains of business leaders before a trip to Asia.

Ms. Gin, 73, whom a relative described as “a combination of Mother Teresa and Lee Iacocca,” died Friday at Rush University Medical Center. She suffered a stroke Tuesday.

Her parents were Cantonese. Her father, Arthur Gin, left China at 15 and headed to San Francisco. His parents paid for him to be “adopted” by relatives, Ms. Gin told the Sun-Times in 1993. In those days, the U.S. quota for Chinese immigrants was low. Adoption proceedings helped them enter the U.S., she said. He returned to China to marry her mother. Eventually, he made his way to Aurora.

The young Sue graduated from high school in Aurora and went on to DePaul University, but dropped out to find work to pay medical bills from an illness.

Though she worried about leaving college, she said it opened doors that helped her become an entrepreneur.

She joined Dunbar Building Corp. and the Development Management Group (DMG), where she learned the real estate business from developer Louis R. Silverman.

The knowledge she gleaned helped her flourish. Longtime Chicago political power broker Oscar D’Angelo was an admirer of the way she did business — “like a man,” as he put it. He lost a battle with Ms. Gin after becoming a court-appointed receiver representing seven real estate trusts.

“I thought I was protecting the court and she went right around me and convinced the judge to do it her way,” D’Angelo recalled Friday. “She was capable, brassy without being boorish and willing to take a chance.

“She was unafraid of the unknown. Sue Gin was successful because she was smart, able to dissect a good business deal and recognize it when she saw it. She had a lot of pioneerism in her.”

“She was very driven and she was real smart,” said Rich Melman, founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

Her first major purchase was a $40,000 building at 2100 N. Halsted that would house Café Bernard.

After that disappointing breakfast on Midway Airlines, former Chicago Aviation Commissioner Tom Kapsalis said he introduced her to the chairman of the board. “She said, ‘I’d like to start catering the airline’s food,” Kapsalis said Friday.

She had vision, Kapsalis said. “She invested very wisely in the Greektown area in all of the slum buildings and they went up in value.”

Ms. Gin was a generous donor to many politicians. The clout that gave her control over lucrative Midway Airport concessions reached its peak during the administration of former Mayor Jane Byrne, but it continued under Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 1996, Ms. Gin was one of 23 government, business and cultural leaders to accompany then-Mayor Daley on an eight-day mission to France.

She was a member of the board at Exelon. “Sue was a fountain of ideas, an avalanche of energy,” former chairman John W. Rowe said in a statement. “She was a successful entrepreneur, an extraordinary corporate director and a philanthropist in both time and money.”

She also was president of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, named for her late husband, the chairman of MCI. They met in Chicago during the lengthy court battle MCI waged to break up AT&T’s monopoly.

In her private life, she had a side that few business associates knew, said Sherren Leigh, founder of Today’s Chicago Woman. “When her mother got sick and lived in a managed-care facility, Sue went there every single night and brought her food,” Leigh said, “and she paid for the nursing home too.”

Leigh, who loves shoe-shopping, once asked the practical Ms. Gin how many shoes she owned. “She said, ‘I have three pair. How many pairs can you wear? How many pairs do you need?’ ”

Ms. Gin was a friend of the late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, who in his memoir, “Life Itself,” credited her with helping his first steps to sobriety, as he began taking a drug prescribed to fight alcoholism.

He wrote: “I walked across my yard … and climbed four flights to Sue’s sunny kitchen to receive my first Antabuse pill. She had coffee waiting, and pastries from her bakery. Every morning we repeated this ritual. If I overslept she woke me on the phone: ‘Rog! Time for your medicine!’ She reported back to my counselor at the end of every week.”

Ebert thought so highly of Ms. Gin’s steadfast friendship, he bestowed her with a nickname, according to his wife, Chaz Ebert. “I think it was his ‘Antabuse angel,’ ” she said.

“As busy as she was, whatever it took,” Ms. Gin was there, Chaz Ebert said.

Ms. Gin, named this month as one of the 20 most powerful women in business by Crain’s, once told the Sun-Times that entrepreneurs should learn to use fear. “Learn as much about that subject matter that you can. The fear dissipates as you learn more because then you realize what the odds are, and the risk goes down,” she said.

Visitation for Ms. Gin, who split her time between Chicago and Virginia Beach, Va., is planned 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and 10-11:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Vincent de Paul Parish, 1010 W. Webster. Her funeral mass is at 1 p.m. Wednesday. A private burial is to follow in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where her late husband, a Pennsylvania native, is interred.