Eric Waldbaum, entrepreneur in financial services and information technology businesses, dies at 73

February 14, 2012

Eric Waldbaum, 73, an executive with retail, financial services and information technology businesses who also was a plaintiff in a noted libel lawsuit, died Jan. 28 at a friend’s home in Bedford, Va. He had pancreatic cancer.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Yvonne Behrens-Waldbaum.

Mr. Waldbaum drew public attention from 1971 to 1976 as chief executive of Greenbelt Consumer Services, one of the largest co-ops in the nation. The cooperative operated supermarkets, service stations, a furniture store and drugstores in the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

Mr. Waldbaum was publicly outspoken on energy legislation and other topics of the day. Under his leadership, Greenbelt Consumer Services paid for advertisements that strongly criticized pricing and food-dating policies at competing markets such as Giant Food and Safeway.

Mr. Waldbaum was dismissed by the board for reasons that were never publicly stated. He brought an unsuccessful libel suit against Fairchild Publications, whose Supermarket News wrote that the cooperative was losing money and retrenching under Mr. Waldbaum.

A federal trial judge ruled in 1979 that Mr. Waldbaum was prominent enough in his profession to be considered a public figure and did not prove Supermarket News deliberately published false information — the standard for public figures. The judge dismissed the suit.

The following year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the trial judge’s ruling and announced a test for determining whether a person qualifies as a public figure that has since been widely cited in defamation cases.

While with Greenbelt Consumer Services, Mr. Waldbaum served on the Ad Hoc Committee of the Uniform Grocery Code Council, which was initially formed to facilitate automatic scanning at supermarkets. The council recommended the adoption of the UPC symbol that is now commonplace in scanning systems on products in virtually every business.

After leaving Greenbelt Consumer Services, Mr. Waldbaum worked for several businesses and started others, including a computer retail store. He was president of Baskin Financial Corp. from 1985 to 1990 and then spent much of the next decade as a senior partner with Pacific Basin Partners, a U.S.-Japan consulting firm that provided strategy planning and advisory services for financial institutions, governments and aid agencies.

He subsequently was chief financial officer of eGlobal Business, a microlender, and created a technology consulting business that included Middle Eastern and former Eastern bloc countries.

He was on the board of Solargenix Energy, a North Carolina-based solar-energy business, and a past board chairman of Legacy International, a nonprofit organization focused on international conflict resolution that teaches leadership to youths and business development to young professionals.

Eric Waldbaum was a Philadelphia native and a 1960 mathematics graduate of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Early on, he worked in New York for Hills Supermarkets and the old E.J. Korvettes department store.

In 1997, he moved from Arlington County to Huddleston, a community southwest of Lynchburg, Va.

His marriages to Susan Carlin and Dorothy Stein ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Yvonne Behrens-Waldbaum of Huddleston; a daughter from his second marriage, Kiran Waldbaum of Alexandria; a sister; and a brother.

— Adam Bernstein

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