Robert James Harbison 3d, 92, of Lafayette Hill, who guided his family's dairy business from horse-drawn delivery routes to a modern-day business merger, died Sunday, March 15, of complications from a stroke at the Hill at Whitemarsh.

In 1947, he joined Harbisons Dairies, becoming president and CEO in 1952. He was the fourth generation of Harbisons to lead the dairy founded by Robert Harbison in 1865.

Under his leadership, Harbisons Dairies in Kensington grew to about 700 employees, with 385 home-delivery milk routes and six plants.

"He helped the company complete the transition from horse-drawn delivery vehicles to trucks," his family said in a tribute. Later, he updated the packaging from glass bottles to plastic-coated paper cartons, expanded the business into West Philadelphia, and introduced the sale of ice cream.

As women joined the workforce, Mr. Harbison foresaw that supermarkets would replace home delivery as the source of milk, so he sought out Southland Corp., owner of the 7-Eleven convenience stores, as a business partner.

"Southland was acquiring dairies to source its stores, and it was a perfect match when they bought Harbisons Dairies in 1968," his family said.

Mr. Harbison stayed on for a decade, ending in 1978, and ran Southland's Eastern Dairies Division, consisting of Harbisons and Embassy Dairies in Baltimore.

Born in Philadelphia, he was the son of Sophia Ernst and Robert James Harbison Jr. He grew up in Frankford and moved with his family to Abington. He graduated from William Penn Charter School in 1940.

He majored in mathematics at Harvard College, enrolled in officer training, and graduated early so he could join the Marine Corps. He rose to the rank of captain.

After World War II, he earned a master's degree in business administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

In retirement, Mr. Harbison became a busy civic volunteer: He served on the board of directors of Abington Memorial Hospital; as chairman of the Delaware Valley Hospital Education and Research Council; and on a subgroup of the Philadelphia Area Committee on Health Care Costs.

Mr. Harbison was active with Abington Presbyterian Church and at Pocono Lake Preserve, a Quaker community in Northeast Pennsylvania where he spent many summers.

In 1982, he was selected as a charter member of Pennsylvania's Independent Regulatory Review Commission. The panel reviews legislation for consistency with legislative intent.

Mr. Harbison played the accordion and organ. He was a member of Huntingdon Valley Country Club, an avid tennis player, and an early user of computers.

In 1950, he married Elizabeth "Betty" Thompson. The two settled in Abington. They moved to Meadowbrook and, finally, Huntingdon Valley. She died in 2008.

He is survived by sons James Prescott, John Robert, Stephen Bartley, and Jeffrey Thompson; 10 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a brother.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Abington Presbyterian Church, 1082 Old York Rd. Interment is private.

Donations may be made to Abington Memorial Hospital, 1200 Old York Rd., Abington, Pa. 19001.

bcook@phillynews.com

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