At the dawn of this century, S. Prestley Blake was in his mid-80s and comfortably retired. A cofounder of the Friendly Ice Cream restaurant chain, he was a multimillionaire, avid yachtsman, world traveler, and deep-pocketed philanthropist. On his retirement to-do list: building a $7.5 million replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, on property near his Connecticut estate.
A Springfield native son, Pres Blake was already a homegrown legend. But his affection for and his fierce dedication to his former company were anything but retired.
By 2000, Mr. Blake had turned back to the company he and his brother Curtis started during the Great Depression. “My baby,” as he called it, was under new ownership and struggling badly, saddled with massive debt, a plummeting stock price, and declining employee morale. Its chief executive stood accused of misusing company resources for personal benefit. Talented managers were dropping out. Friendly’s — as the chain was known — was losing market share and, worse, customer loyalty.
Mr. Blake took action. He began purchasing large blocks of Friendly’s stock, and by 2001 he was its single largest shareholder. He then launched a multiyear, $11 million legal battle to oust CEO Donald Smith and his management team.
The campaign was successful. Friendly’s was sold to a private equity firm in 2007, its twists and turns chronicled in a classic Harvard Business School case study on shareholder activism. Beyond that, the fight to attempt to restore Friendly’s to its former glory capped the career of a storied entrepreneur.
Pres Blake, who introduced millions to the Fribble drink and other frozen treats, and who took immense joy in doing so, died Thursday in Stuart, Fla. He was 106.
His son, Benson, told The New York Times the cause was respiratory failure.
While his was not precisely a rags-to-riches story, Mr. Blake personified the grit and vision required to turn a corner-store outlet into a regional brand.
From the outset, Friendly’s shops prided themselves on serving reasonably priced fare — burgers, sandwiches, ice cream concoctions — in a kid-friendly environment. In a postwar America hungry for homey comfort food, their formula hit a sweet spot.
Managerially, the Blake brothers were strikingly dissimilar. Pres, who oversaw the purchasing, finance, and real estate operations, was strict, uncompromising. Curt, who directed personnel and training functions, was, well, friendlier.
As Curt commented to the Globe in 2014, “My mom used to say if Pres owned the business alone, he wouldn’t have any employees. If I owned the business alone, I would give it all away to employees.”
Those who failed to share Pres Blake’s vision or values encountered a formidable foe, certainly, whether he was running Friendly’s from the inside or agitating from the outside.
“I guess you can see I’m stubborn. Always have been,” he wrote in “A Friendly Life,” a memoir originally published in 2011. In reflecting upon his war against Friendly’s management, he added, “To do nothing when you see a wrong being committed — well, that’s just not how I was raised.”
Stewart Prestley Blake was born Nov. 26, 1914, in New Jersey but mostly grew up in Springfield. His father, Herbert, was a sales executive; his mother, Ethel, a schoolteacher. One of four children, Pres was schooled at Mount Hermon (now Northfield Mount Hermon) and Trinity College. Yet his business acumen came not from textbooks or case studies but from hard work and hands-on experience.
Borrowing $547 from their parents, the Blake brothers opened their first ice cream shop in Springfield in July 1935. A nickel would get a customer two scoops; the brothers paid themselves a weekly salary of $4 apiece. Two years later, they opened a second shop, relying on profits, not borrowed funds, to expand their business model.
In 1943, the Blakes closed both shops for the rest of World War II. Curt enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Pres worked as a supplies expeditor for a Westinghouse plant. After the war’s end, they embarked on a period of rapid expansion, the number of Friendly Ice Cream locations reaching 25 in two years. At its height, the chain boasted 850 locations, mostly in the Northeast.
Positioned between such fast-food restaurants as McDonald’s and more upscale emporia, the Friendly’s chain became known for its cleanliness, speed of service, and commitment to customer satisfaction. Replacing a dropped ice cream cone without charge, for instance, was “part of a larger philosophy,” Mr. Blake observed. “Never try to pull any fast ones on customers, to gouge them or shortchange them.”
He remained company CEO until 1979, when the Blakes sold Friendly’s, now headquartered in Wilbraham, to Hershey Co. In 1988, Hershey resold the company to a restaurant management group led by Smith, a former top executive with Burger King and PepsiCo.
Smith’s group took the company public in 1997 and continued to expand, borrowing tens of millions to finance its growth. A crippling debt load — it swelled to $260 million — soon sent its share price spiraling, however, from $18 to under $2. By then a major shareholder, Mr. Blake confronted Smith at a public meeting, where he accused the CEO of using a company jet for personal travel and diverting Friendly’s revenues to a separate enterprise owned by Smith’s management group.
At one point, Mr. Blake hired a private detective to investigate Smith. In 2003, he filed suit, alleging misuse of corporate funds. The action led to a protracted legal battle that proved to be costly in many ways. When Curt Blake sided with Smith, asserting the CEO had mostly done a good job, the two brothers stopped speaking for many years. They did eventually mend fences, however.
From early on, Pres Blake sought out high-profile businessmen as mentors. That group included retail mogul J.C. Penney, General Motors CEO Harlow Curtice, Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame, and Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace.
In the less contentious moments of his retirement, Mr. Blake, who sold all of his Friendly’s stock many years ago, became a mentor himself to dozens of young entrepreneurs. He also found ample time to pursue other lifelong passions: sailing (on his 102-foot schooner America), world travel, collecting vintage motor cars (he owned as many as 24 classic Rolls-Royces), and philanthropy (on average, he and his wife donated $1.5 million annually). Mr. Blake and one of his cars even appeared in the film “Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.’’
Western New England College now houses the S. Prestley Blake Law Center, one of several institutional buildings or entities bearing the Blake family name. Mr. Blake was honored by many institutions and organizations over his lifetime, including the Boy Scouts of America and the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship.
Mr. Blake married three times. He and his third wife, Helen Davis, whom he wed in 1982, maintained homes in Somers, Conn., and Stuart, Fla. His brother Curtis died in 2019 at the age of 102.
Mr. Blake’s decision to build a 10,000-square-foot replica of Jefferson’s 18th-century Virginia homestead reflected his love of American history. “I want people to talk about the legacy of Thomas Jefferson,” he told the Globe in 2014, “and this house is a good candidate for promoting his life.”
Never intending to live there, Mr. Blake put the home on the market for $6.5 million, knowing he would lose money on the deal. The house, which sold at auction in 2016 for $2.1 million, features many modern amenities, including geothermal heating, LED lighting, and a three-car garage
In September 2015, Mr. Blake survived a frightening accident while operating a backhoe on his Connecticut property. The machine rolled down an embankment into an open pit. Its 100-year old operator survived with only scrapes and bruises.
Following a 2011 bankruptcy filing and numerous store closings, Friendly’s entered a period of expansion but has been hit hard, along with many restaurant chains, by the coronavirus pandemic.
The company filed for bankruptcy protection again in November. The Amici Partners investor group completed its purchase of Friendly’s last month for reportedly just under $2 million. There are now about 135 Friendly’s outlets, all operating on or near the East Coast.
Its ice cream manufacturing and retail distribution business in Wilbraham was sold in 2016 for $155 million.
Decades after retiring from active management, Mr. Blake continued to attend the company’s annual picnic for retirees, decked out in signature bow tie and blazer. He also enjoyed a scoop of Friendly’s ice cream virtually every day of his adult life.
Pres Blake’s favorite flavors? Chocolate and coffee.
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly referred to Curtis Blake as one of Mr. Blake’s survivors. Curtis Blake died in 2019 at the age of 102. The Globe regrets the error.