By Robert Channick
For Sue Gin, a pioneering Chicago entrepreneur, big ideas came from humble origins. After she was served a half-frozen sweet roll on a Midway Airlines flight, she decided she could do better than the typical airline fare foisted on passengers. And so she did, launching Flying Food Group, a Chicago-based catering company that has taken airline food to new heights.
That success was one of many for Ms. Gin, an Aurora-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, whose career path took her from Playboy bunny to real estate investor, from acclaimed restaurateur to international airline caterer, breaking down barriers and inspiring many along the way.
“She always experienced sexism and racism and discrimination, and overcame it always,” said Hedy Ratner, a longtime friend and founder of the Women’s Business Development Center. “She looked at everything as a challenge, not as a barrier.”
Ms. Gin, 73, a much-admired leader in the Chicago business community, died Friday morning at Rush University Medical Center after suffering a stroke Tuesday at her Chicago office.
Ms. Gin launched Flying Food Group in 1983 with a single catering kitchen at Chicago’s Midway Airport and one airline customer — the now-defunct Midway Airlines.
She built it into a network of 20 catering kitchens from Honolulu to New York servicing more than 70 airlines. Last year, Flying Food Group generated revenue of $436 million, according to the company.
As president and founder of New Management Ltd., Ms. Gin also managed and developed an extensive Chicago-area real estate portfolio.
The company’s holdings include a 50-acre business center near Midway, West Loop properties and other residential and commercial developments.
Ms. Gin began working as a 10-year-old at her family’s Chinese restaurant in Aurora, the Paradise Inn, after the death of her father.
The youngest of three siblings, she handled the cash register, worked on the menu and helped purchase orders while her uncle ran the operation. That early experience shaped a career defined by hard work, innovation and tenacity.
In her late teens, Ms. Gin moved to the city, where she worked for several years as a Playboy bunny at the original Playboy Club in Chicago.
There, she was able to “save money for future capital investments and to gain administrative experience,” according to a 1993 Tribune Sunday Magazine article.
She then attended DePaul University for a year and a half while selling insurance, but left both to pursue a career in real estate, a long-term interest that yielded substantial rewards.
In 1972, she returned to her roots and opened Cafe Bernard, a seminal French restaurant on North Halsted Street.
As a successful restaurateur, the airline catering business seemed an unlikely departure. But convinced she could do better than the typical airline food, she pitched Chicago-based Midway Airlines on the idea. She won the contract and set up shop with Flying Food Group at Midway in 1983.
When Midway Airlines ceased operations in 1991, it was a setback for Ms. Gin. She persevered, steadily building her airline catering business to lofty heights. Flying Food Group now serves top international airlines, including Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, Lufthansa and Qantas.
The success was hard-fought, according to those who knew her.
“She was very committed to success in business and she had many reversals,” Ratner said. “When Midway Airlines went down, she didn’t know what she was going to do. She had to find a whole new way of diversifying into other airlines.”
Driven to success, Ms. Gin met a kindred spirit in William McGowan, founder and chairman of MCI Communications, whom she married in 1984. He died after suffering a heart attack in 1992.
She never forgot her roots, however, working throughout her life to help women and immigrants better their lives.
“At DePaul, Sue worked tirelessly as a trustee to support our first-generation students, because she saw herself in them,” said the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, president of DePaul, where she received an honorary degree in 2009. “Every student who has prepared for scientific and health careers at DePaul owes Sue Gin a great debt of gratitude, for she fiercely led the fundraising campaigns for both of the new buildings in which they study.”
Ms. Gin “fought tirelessly for immigrant workers and their families with a big heart and a clear, uncompromising voice,” said a statement released by the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, or IBIC, where she served on the steering committee.
Ms. Gin served on the boards of Exelon, Chicago Botanic Garden, DePaul, The Field Museum and Rush University Medical Center. She also headed the board of the William G. McGowan Charitable Fund, a philanthropic family foundation advancing causes championed by her late husband.
“This is a huge loss for all of us,” John Rowe, chairman emeritus of Exelon and IBIC co-chairman, said in the statement. “We will try to live her example.”
“Sue was a wonderful, energetic and bright woman who cared about making a difference in the world,” said Carole Segal, co-founder of Crate and Barrel and IBIC co-chairwoman.
A lifelong Chicagoan, Ms. Gin kept a second home near Virginia Beach, Va., where the hard-charging businesswoman went for relaxation, according to niece Sherilyn Kingsbury. There, she would thrust herself into an avocational passion — gardening — but her entrepreneurial nature would show.
“She grew things that weren’t supposed to be grown in certain climates,” Kingsbury said. “She fused different things together and created new things. Even as a gardener, she was always up for a challenge, always doing things that people said couldn’t be done.”
Ms. Gin is survived by three nieces and a nephew.