F.M. Kirby, Woolworth Heir, Alleghany CEO, Dies at 91

Fred “F.M.” Kirby, an heir to the Woolworth family retailing fortune who was chief executive officer of Alleghany Corp. for 25 years and chairman for 39 years, has died. He was 91.

He died Feb. 8 in North Carolina, according to an obituary in the Daily Record of Morristown, New Jersey. No cause was given. He lived in New Vernon, New Jersey.

The grandson of Fred Morgan Kirby, co-founder of the F.W. Woolworth variety store chain, Kirby succeeded his father in 1967 at the helm of Alleghany, an insurance and investment company similar in structure to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corp. He retired from Alleghany in 2007 at age 88.

He also succeeded his father as president of the Morristown-based F.M. Kirby Foundation, which reported more than $425 million in assets at the end of 2009. In the last three years for which it has reported, 2007 through 2009, it distributed more than $77.6 million in grants to groups in the family’s areas of interest, which include the arts, education and health.

The F.M. Kirby Cardiac Post-Surgical Care Unit at Morristown Memorial Hospital and the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Children’s Hospital in Boston are among the beneficiaries of the family’s philanthropy.

“Fred Kirby took seriously the words found on his family’s coat of arms: ‘Facta Non Verba,’ meaning ‘deeds, not words,’” according to the death notice his family placed in the Times Leader newspaper of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

15 Percent Return

New York-based Alleghany has held interests over the years in railroads, trucking, asset management and industrial minerals in addition to insurance. It delivered a 15 percent annualized return since 1967, 5 percentage points more than the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, Barron’s reported in 2007. Kirby was president and CEO of Alleghany from 1967 to 1992.

A family feud pitting Kirby against his three siblings erupted in 1986, when he removed his brother and two sisters from positions at the foundation and installed his wife and children. The siblings sued, and Kirby prevailed.

Fred Morgan Kirby II was born on Nov. 23, 1919, in Wilkes-Barre, the second of the four children of Allan P. and Marian S. Kirby, according to the death notice.

It was Allan’s father who, along with C.S. Woolworth, opened the first five-and-dime Woolworth store in Wilkes-Barre in 1884. The two partners would eventually open 96 such stores, spread throughout most states east of the Mississippi River. In 1911 they merged with Woolworth’s brother, F.W., to create what became one of America’s largest retail chains.

English Channel

F.M. Kirby graduated from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1942 and headed immediately to training with the U.S. Naval Reserve. His assignments during World War II included Navy bases on the English Channel that prepared for the invasion of Normandy, according to the death notice. Following the invasion, he was assigned to a port and reconnaissance party in the Brest Peninsula of France.

After the war he attended Harvard Business School and went to work at Vick Chemical Co., in Greensboro, North Carolina, before succeeding his father at Alleghany.

Kirby got his motorcycle license at 63 and, for his 85th birthday, received a Jet Ski as a gift from his wife, Walker. She survives him, as does their daughter, Alice Kirby Horton; their sons, Fred M. Kirby III, S. Dillard Kirby and Jefferson W. Kirby; and 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

(Corrects name of Kirby’s wife to Walker in final paragraph.)
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