November 30, 2021

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Robert Haas, Financier and Aerial Photographer, Dies at 74

4 min read

Robert Haas, a financier who in his 50s used his wealth to go in a markedly different direction, becoming a published aerial photographer, and then in his 60s began collecting vintage and custom-made motorcycles and creating a Texas museum to display them, died on Sept. 28 in a hospital in Dallas. He was 74.

The cause was a respiratory illness, said Stacey Mayfield, his companion and the director of the Haas Moto Museum & Sculpture Gallery in Dallas.

Mr. Haas, who was known as Bobby, made his fortune in the 1980s. He and a partner, Thomas Hicks, led a group of investors in the leveraged buyouts of 7-Up and Dr Pepper, then sold 49 percent of the combined soft drink companies for $600 million to Prudential-Bache Securities in 1988.

“I was 41 years old and I’m where I thought I might be when I was 71, times 10,” he said in “Leaving Tracks” (2021), a self-produced documentary film. “What do I do now?”

He and Mr. Hicks, who had formed Hicks & Haas in 1984 in Dallas, ended their partnership after five years. And while Mr. Haas remained in the private equity business for another two decades, he sought other diversions that his great wealth could afford him.

With $2,000 in newly-purchased camera equipment but no knowledge of how to use it, he traveled in 1994 to a game reserve in Kenya on a photographic safari. He learned quickly from professionals, returned to Africa several times, and published a book of photographs, “A Vision of Africa” (1998).

On another safari the year his book was published, he chartered a helicopter from which he found a thrilling new perspective.

“Once that helicopter lifted off, I looked down at the earth from above and felt like a completely different photographer,” he told the Yale alumni magazine in 2011. “My eyes, hand and brain began working differently.”

Tethered by a harness to his seat so that he wouldn’t fall from helicopters with their doors removed, Mr. Haas produced wildlife and landscape photography that he brought to National Geographic Books, which published his work in “Through the Eyes of the Gods: An Aerial Vision of Africa” (2005) and “Through the Eyes of the Condor: An Aerial Vision of Latin America” (2007).

The latter book contains an improbable image that he found while flying over the Yucatán Peninsula: hundreds of flamingos who had somehow formed the shape of a giant flamingo.

“That was the Holy Grail,” Mr. Haas told The Toronto Star in 2010. “The Holy Grail is the ability to capture an image that no one else has ever captured before and is very unlikely to be captured again.”

In “Through the Eyes of the Vikings: An Aerial Vision of Arctic Lands” (2010), also published by National Geographic, Mr. Haas photographed glaciers, bays, rivers and other natural landscapes in Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Iceland and Alaska.

Lisa Lytton, the project director for the three books, said by phone: “The photographs that were the most successful were when he was capturing something that looked like an abstract painting, with beautiful color and light. He had a great eye for that.”

Robert Bradley Haas was born on June 12, 1947, in Cleveland. His father, Melville, was a car dealer. His mother, Phyllis (Bain) Haas, was a women’s fashion consultant.

Mr. Haas received a bachelor’s degree in 1969 from Yale University, where he studied psychology, and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1972. After working for a law firm and a venture capital company in Cleveland, he moved to Dallas to create Hicks & Haas.

Besides 7-Up and Dr Pepper, Hicks & Haas built an investment portfolio that included other soft drink brands (including A&W Root Beer) as well as companies involving pay-per-view television in hotel rooms, metal welding and flooring equipment.

“The lesson that we have both learned is that the best thing you can do is to have good partners and relationship with affection, trust and respect,” Mr. Haas told The New York Times in 1988. “We have a special ability to cancel out one another’s bad ideas.”

After parting with Mr. Hicks in 1989, Mr. Haas created the private equity firm Haas & Partners, which later became Haas, Wheat & Partners. It specialized in smaller deals than Hicks & Haas had done; one of its best known investments was the acquisition of 40 percent of Playtex Products for $180 million. Mr. Haas served as Playtex’s chairman from 1995 to 2004.

His deep dive into aerial photography gave way to an equally passionate immersion in motorcycles about 10 years ago. After buying one, he bought more and began to ride them (but only those with sidecars, which gave him more balance). He was as interested in the art and construction of classic motorcycles as he was with new ones, which he commissioned.

“We’re both basically nerds, and he became fascinated by the design and mechanical aspects of the bikes,” Craig Rodsmith, who built three motorcycles for Mr. Haas, including one called “The Killer,” said by phone. “For Bobby, it wasn’t only the bikes — he liked the story, the personalities behind them.”

Mr. Haas opened his Haas Moto Museum in 2018; it now has 230 motorcycles.

His interest in motorcycles led him to ride for about a year with the Viet Nam Vets Legacy Vets Motorcycle Club, a group made up entirely of veterans and active members of the military; he described his time with them in “Shakespeare and the Brothers: Embedded with a Band of Bikers” (2015).

In addition to Ms. Mayfield, who said she plans to keep the museum going for about three more years, he is survived by his daughters, Samantha Haas, Courtney Haas Bauch and Vanessa Haas Hood; four grandchildren; his sister, Jodi Davis; and his brother Richard. His marriage to Candice (Goldfarb) Haas, in 1969, ended in divorce in 2017.

Mr. Haas last year decided that he would bequeath the motorcycles he had commissioned back to their builders. As he told them in a scene captured in “Leaving Tracks,” he said he wanted to return to them “the children of your souls.”

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