Jimmy John's founder recalls dad's zest for life

  • James P. Liautaud, an educator and businessman, died on Oct. 23 at the age of 79.

    James P. Liautaud, an educator and businessman, died on Oct. 23 at the age of 79. Courtesy of Jimmy John Liautaud

  • Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of Jimmy John's subs.

    Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of Jimmy John's subs. Daily Herald file photo

  • RICK WEST/rwest@dailyherald.comJimmy John's sandwich shop

    RICK WEST/rwest@dailyherald.comJimmy John's sandwich shop

Updated 11/2/2015 7:28 PM

In the eyes of his son, James P. Liautaud made everything exciting.

He was an entrepreneur, an educator and a very successful businessman. He always worked hard, always tried new things.


"Everything he did, he did it with fervor and zest," said his son, Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of Jimmy John's sandwich shop. "If you're going to do a job, do it right. If you're going to throw a birthday party, make it amazing. If you're going to do anything, do it awesome."

James Liautaud, 79, died from pancreatic cancer on Oct. 23. A man full of excitement and a father full of love, his influence will forever live on in the many lives he touched, Jimmy John Liautaud said.

"We certainly loved him and respected him," he said. "We miss him like crazy."

A resident of Hoffman Estates and later Cary, James Liautaud had close ties with the suburbs.

After serving in the U.S. Army and graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Liautaud became president of Capsonic Group in Elgin in the late 1960s. He founded other Elgin-based companies, including American Antenna, a company that manufactures CB antennas and two-way radios, and K40 Electronics, which builds radar detection systems.

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"Besides employing and creating jobs for lots of people, he was a giant tax base for the community and for the state," Jimmy John Liautaud said. "What he did there was pretty awesome."

But it didn't always come easy, Jimmy John Liautaud said. After spending all day at work, he recalls, his father would come home for family dinners only to get back to work at the dining room table. He declared bankruptcy in 1972 and again in 1976, Jimmy John Liautaud remembers, but after that, James Liautaud never had debt the rest of his life.

"Everything he did was out of the box, but he worked really, really hard," he said. Still, family was extremely important to James Liautaud, his son said. He loved spending time with his wife, siblings, four children and their spouses, 15 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

In 1983, James Liautaud fronted the seed money for the Jimmy John's business. But more than that, he said, he taught his son valuable lessons that were pivotal to the sandwich shop's success.


"He's the one who really told me to focus on what you can do great and leave the mediocre stuff to the rest," Jimmy John Liautaud said. "He was incredible. He was always my backstop and the guy I bounced stuff off."

James Liautaud's passion for teaching eventually led him to sell his businesses and become an educator. He created and endowed the Liautaud Business School at the University of Illinois -- Chicago. He also started several organizations, including The Liautaud Institute.

Rod Shrader, the Denton Thorne Chair in Entrepreneurship at UIC and Liautaud's colleague for 18 years, said the two worked together on research projects, including one about how CEO personality characteristics affect the performance of organizations.

"The thing I think of most is his ability to always be there to encourage, inspire and coach faculty and students," Shrader said. "He was a great mentor."

He added that Liautaud funded scholarships for UIC scholars, "transforming the lives of some very bright students."

"My dad was the guy who wanted to teach a man to fish," Jimmy John Liautaud said. "He was very, very curious, right up until the day he died. He was insatiable for information. He was the pursuit of awesome."


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