AS WITH MANY OF AMERICA’S GREAT FORTUNES, the Stroh family’s story starts with an immigrant: Bernhard Stroh, who arrived in Detroit from Germany in 1850 with $150 and a coveted family recipe for beer. He sold his brews door-to-door in a wheelbarrow. By 1890 his sons, Julius and Bernhard Jr., were shipping beer around the Great Lakes. Julius got the family through Prohibition by switching the brewery to ice cream and malt syrup production. And in the 1980s Stroh’s surged, emerging as one of America’s fastest-growing companies and the country’s third-largest brewing empire, behind only public behemoths Anheuser-Busch and Miller. The Stroh family owned it all, a fortune that FORBES then calculated was worth at least $700 million. Just by matching the S&P 500, the family would currently be worth about $9 billion.
Yet today the Strohs, as a family business or even a collective financial entity, have essentially ceased to exist. The company has been sold for parts. The trust funds have doled out their last pennies to shareholders. The last remaining family entity owns a half-empty office building in Detroit. While there was enough cash flowing for enough years that the fifth generation Strohs still seem pretty comfortable, the family looks destined to go shirtsleeves-to-shirtsleeves in six.