It was a fortuitous encounter in 1970 that led Michael L. Sanyour Jr. to the high point in his business career -- leadership of an upstart auto importer called Subaru.
While representing Volkswagen at a New York auto show, Mr. Sanyour impressed a co-founder of Subaru, Malcolm Bricklin, and a company representative from Japan.
“I was in this game over my head,” Bricklin recalled. “So I needed good car people who really knew their stuff. But I also needed people with a good heart.”
As president and chief executive of Subaru of America Inc., Mr. Sanyour traveled frequently to Japan and expanded the network of dealerships between 1970 and 1975 as demand for the brand increased, said a son, Norman. He also helped to locate the company’s headquarters in South Jersey.
Leading Subaru was among Mr. Sanyour’s favorite assignments, because he helped build up the business from the grassroots, Norman Sanyour said.
On Saturday, Feb. 25, Mr. Sanyour, 86, of Moorestown, died of congestive heart failure shortly after he was transferred to a VITAS hospice facility in Stratford.
Mr. Sanyour wrote in his high school yearbook that his ambition was to become a businessman.
He fulfilled that dream spectacularly, going from working in his family’s little North Jersey grocery store to executive meetings in Japan.
He also served on the Moorestown Township Council and as mayor, championing the preservation of open space in the township.
And his membership in several prestigious organizations often put him in the company of world figures, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Benazir Bhutto, Colin Powell, President Gerald R. Ford, and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Another son, Ned, recalled that Gorbachev had been invited to speak in Philadelphia at the World Affairs Council. His father described the Soviet leader as a smart man. Mr. Sanyour joked that he tried to tell Gorbachev that his grandmother was Russian, but was not sure Gorbachev understood what he was saying.
Mr. Sanyour was born in Virginia. He was about 13 when his parents, Rebecca and Michael L. Sr., moved the family to Cranford, N.J., to start a business.
After he graduated from Cranford High School, he attended Union County Community College, where he sang baritone for a barbershop chorus. While entertaining there, he met Therese McCarthy, who became his wife of 51 years, said his son. Mrs. Sanyour died in 2002.
In 1952, Mr. Sanyour graduated from Rutgers University and then attended Harvard Business School, graduating in 1956.
Mr. Sanyour then began his long career, working for numerous companies. He started at Harbridge House, a management consulting firm in Boston, then moved back to New Jersey working as vice president of marketing for Volkswagen of America.
Ned Sanyour said his father also loved working for CMS Co., a financial consulting firm in Philadelphia, from 1986 until his 2014 retirement.
Earlier in time, the family’s Moorestown home was alive with six children. Ned said his father loved to travel, often leading the family in song on their many road trips.
“He really liked taking us crabbing at Barnegat Bay,” Sanyour said. He loved swimming and gardening as well, favoring orange tomatoes over red ones.
Mr. Sanyour served as a Moorestown councilman from 1988 through 2004, as deputy mayor from 1999 to 2002, and as mayor in 2003 and 2004. A devout Republican, Mr. Sanyour usually voted along party lines.
“But he voted for JFK,” Ned Sanyour said. “He admitted that in a moment of weakness.”
As a councilman and mayor, Mr. Sanyour was known to defend open space in town, voting against high-density housing. In 2004, he decided not to seek a fifth term, and in a surprise move supported three newcomers -- all Democrats.
Democrat Kevin Aberant, a lawyer, served as mayor from 2005 through 2008. Aberant said it was unlikely the newcomers would have been elected without Mr. Sanyour’s support, which he called a “courageous move” at a time the town was going through a transition.
“As my immediate predecessor, he left very big shoes to fill. He was an effective leader who cared very much about Moorestown,” said Aberant.
He recalled Mr. Sanyour’s work at Subaru as “amazing” in growing the company, adding, “I always had the utmost respect for Mike.”
Mr. Sanyour also served on many boards, including of CSS Industries Inc., the West Jersey Chamber Music Society, the Coriell Institute for Medical Research, and the World Affairs Council.
Mr. Sanyour’s many memberships included the Pine Barons Barbershop Chorus, the Union League, Moorestown Rotary Club, and Mensa International.
Mr. Sanyour enjoyed hunting geese and ducks, said Larry Ferraro, a friend since the 1990s.
“Mike was a very intelligent person, but never let anyone know it,” Ferraro said.
Besides sons Ned and Norman, Mr. Sanyour is survived by sons Jeffrey and Mark; daughters Florence Zelinka and Jennifer; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday, March 3, at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 42 W. Main St., Moorestown. Interment will be private.
Contributions in Mr. Sanyour’s name may be made to the Pine Barons Barbershop Chorus, Box 417, Moorestown, N.J. 08057.
Condolences may be left at www.lewisfuneralhomemoorestown.com