Bill Renfro, the CEO of Mrs. Renfro’s whose tenacity as a salesman and salsa maker helped him grow his parents’ humble Fort Worth business into an international brand, died Monday night following a four-year battle with liver cancer, his nephew and daughter told the Star-Telegram. He was 86.
Bill was only 5 in 1940 when his father, George, and mother, Arthurine, created the George Renfro Food Company out of their garage, according to Doug Renfro, the nephew who currently serves as president. They started by producing spices and pepper sauces, eventually moving into bigger buildings, and adding syrups, jellies and traditional Texas chow chow to their catalog. Bill, from the time he was a child, was helping out as the small operation fought to make it, Doug said. After two years in the Army in Oklahoma, he started working full-time.
In 1972, the brand, which by that time was known as Mrs. Renfro’s, began focusing on salsa. Three years later, George passed away.
Bill and his brother, Jack Renfro, were left to oversee a company undergoing great change — and the two felt up to the task.
Bill’s only daughter, Becky Renfro-Borbolla, one of four kids, said she remembers the tireless dedication her father put into his work, from developing salsa recipes to personally driving deliveries out to Arkansas, Oklahoma or Missouri. At the same time, she said, he coached for her brothers’ baseball teams and came to her drill team performances. He took them on road trips to Colorado even though money was tight, teaching his kids how to fish for trout.
He always conducted himself, as a family man and a businessman, with decency, Becky said. It was a trait he learned from his parents, she said, and one he wanted to pass onto his children.
“Today, all the condolences coming in are saying, ‘He was the nicest man I ever knew,” Becky told the Star-Telegram over the phone on Tuesday. “His parents taught him to be honest, and Papa said, ‘If we owe somebody money, and they haven’t sent us an invoice, you call and get that invoice.’ And he taught us that.”
The second-generation company president, whose hair turned silver at a young age, had a reputation in the North Texas food industry for maturity and civility, Doug said. People would refer to him as “that nice white-haired man.”
“The number one comment you’ll hear in the industry and friends is consummate gentleman,” Doug said. “The food industry is not genteel, maybe, as others historically.”
Bill is survived by his brother Jack as well as his wife, Angela Renfro, sister Linda Renfro and children, Gary Renfro, Lynn Renfro, James Renfro and Becky. He also leaves behind two step-children, Katrina Ball and Janelle Jaeger; 14 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
He was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2017 and was told he would have two or three years to live, a prediction Becky believes he surpassed because of his love of life. Even as they moved him into an inpatient hospice facility on Saturday, she said, “he was laughing and he was joking with the nurses.”
He was unresponsive by the next morning, and died at 11:58 p.m. Monday.
“He wanted to get every minute out of March 1st he could,” Becky said.
His four children and his sister got to be with him that day, though other family weren’t allowed due to COVID restrictions.
Becky and Doug hope his death inspires people to remember his character and his many accomplishments, such as being a founding member of the Tarrant Area Food Bank. At the family company, Bill pushed for bold flavors of salsa like peach, and even came up with the name Mrs. Renfro’s. His mother’s image has been used in their logo since she died in the 1990s.
Through “stubbornness and tenacity and persistence,” Doug said, Bill took a brand that was hard to find in stores 30 years ago and helped make it “the largest independent salsa brand in the nation.”
“And nothing gave him more pleasure than finding our product, and having friends see it in Canada and Vancouver, and Miami and Chicago,” Doug said. “It was really satisfying.”
‘He never met a stranger’
Becky and Doug, like their fathers, grew up around the family business, they said. They remember coming to the holiday parties as children and climbing on boxes in the warehouse, and later as teens working during the summer.
Their families were lower-to-middle class and their fathers did hard work to support the company, such as driving to Memphis at 3 one morning to make it to a certain fruit stand, as Doug remembered. They were “very humble and very aware of the sacrifices their parents made,” he said.
Bill’s role was usually that of the salesman, selling the family product with passion and a smooth touch. Doug would attend trade shows with him where he went up to as many people as possible to say something like, “Can I let you try some great salsa?” He was persistent with people, Doug said, and “he never met a stranger.”
He also did all the books by hand, without the funds for a CPA or an attorney.
“It was so exciting over time to see us start to have some success on a national and international level,” Doug said, and to see Bill and Jack “harvest the fruits of their labor.”
One of Becky’s favorite stories was from the 1960s, when Bill was making long drives to transfer products. He had an idea to buy some fresh tomatoes in order to sell them to a farmer’s market in Dallas to make extra money, Becky said. But by the time he and her grandfather, George, got there, the farmer’s market didn’t need any of the produce. And they were left with a truck-full of tomatoes.
Bill and George took those tomatoes and created a recipe for hot and mild tomato relish.
Becky loves the story, she said, because it shows her father’s sense of “true entrepreneurship.”
“They took something that could have been a costly mistake and turned it into a beautiful product,” she said.