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A hero to workers after Malden Mills fire, Aaron Feuerstein dies at 95

Mr. FeuersteinJohn Blanding/Globe Staff

Standing amid the ruins of the Malden Mills complex in Lawrence one day after a fire destroyed much of his business, Aaron M. Feuerstein became an instant hero when he pledged to rebuild the company on that smoldering site.

“The only thing I can do is resurrect a horrible situation,” he said on Dec. 12, 1995, with one building still burning behind him. “This is no time for me to feel sorry for myself.”

Mr. Feuerstein, who came to personify the bonds a business owner could form with his employees and the community, died Thursday of complications from injuries in an Oct. 27 fall in his Brookline home. He was 95.

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In an era that celebrated executives whose successes were based on slashing workforces or sending jobs overseas, the stubborn Mr. Feuerstein was twice recognized by President Bill Clinton for standing by his workers. He earned a reputation for altruism after the fire when he generously continued to pay some 1,400 employees while rebuilding the business his grandfather had started in 1906.

“We’re going to continue to operate in Lawrence,” he said that December day as firefighters were extinguishing the devastating blaze. “We had the opportunity to run to the South many years ago. We didn’t do it then, and we’re not going to do it now.”

The celebrity he earned remained, even when Malden Mills Industries Inc. had to cut its workforce and lenders forced the company to seek bankruptcy protection in 2001.

That led to the business being sold to Versa Capital Management, a private equity firm. The company’s name was later changed to Polartec, its leading fleece fabric brand. Twenty years after the fire, when Mr. Feuerstein was no longer involved in the business, Polartec said it would close the Lawrence facility and relocate to plants in Hudson, N.H., and Tennessee.

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Moving the company out of Lawrence was a “disgrace,” Mr. Feuerstein told the Globe at the time. “All those jobs are lost, after we dedicated ourselves to keeping them,” he said.

Four years later, the company was sold again, to South Carolina-based Milliken & Co., a business that also makes textiles.

After he was forced out of the company’s management, Mr. Feuerstein remained to many a sterling example of a public-spirited capitalist — a patrician counterexample in a time of accounting shenanigans, massive layoffs, and huge executive pay packages.

“When the tragic Malden Mills fire erupted in 1995, Mr. Feuerstein led the way to re-build the factory and most importantly, generously insure that his workers continued receiving pay,” Lawrence City Council President Marc Laplante said in an e-mail. “He exemplified good corporate citizenship and left a positive legacy in Lawrence.”

Bruce Butterfield, a former Globe reporter who became Mr. Feuerstein’s biographer, said several years ago that the mill owner was partly motivated by a simple desire to re-create the business as it had once been.

But then Mr. Feuerstein was amazed to get more than 30,000 letters from people across the country, praising his actions. Mr. Feuerstein came to believe he had tapped into “a hunger for social justice out there,” Butterfield said. “It amazes him that the little bit he did, out of decency, has touched so many people.’’

Aaron Feuerstein, who lived nearly his entire life in Brookline, was born on Dec. 19, 1925, a son of Samuel Feuerstein, who ran the family business, and Mitzi Landau Feuerstein, who spoke several languages.

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Mr. Feuerstein and his first wife, Marika Rosenbaum, who had her own business projects, had three children. She died in 1984.

In 1988, Mr. Feuerstein married Louise Woodhead, whom he said was a stalwart partner in reconstructing Malden Mills after the fire.

“Her whole life was dedicated to beauty and art,” he told the Globe for her obituary when she died in 2013. “She beautified everything she touched.”

Mr. Feuerstein graduated from Boston Latin School and Yeshiva University in New York. In 1947, he began working at Malden Mills, the family business his grandfather Henry Feuerstein had founded in Malden in 1906 as Malden Knitting Co.

The company later was known as Malden Spinning and Dyeing. In the 1950s, Mr. Feuerstein and his father moved the company into another mill building in downtown Lawrence, and by the end of the decade Aaron was running the company, sharing ownership with his older brother Moses.

In the depressed Merrimack Valley, Malden Mills and the 3,200 mostly immigrant workforce it employed at its peak became fixtures as other textile companies moved to Southern states and then overseas in search of cheaper wages. Malden Mills first gained national attention in the early 1990s after Mr. Feuerstein’s managers began to aggressively market an insulating polyester fabric they called Polarfleece or Polartec for ski jackets and other outdoor gear.

The lightweight fleece was a hit with retailers such as L.L. Bean. Mr. Feuerstein backed those who believed the fabric could be branded with its own name, like Intel computer chips, and command a high price. By 1995, the fleece accounted for half of Malden Mills’s sales of $425 million.

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An avid outdoorsman, Mr. Feuerstein loved to ski and jog in jackets made from his company’s fabrics. An observant Jew, he also could quote from memory long passages by the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides and works by Shakespeare.

The nighttime blaze on Dec. 11, 1995, ended his company’s momentum. One of the worst fires in Massachusetts history, it destroyed three buildings, seriously burned more than 20 workers, and cast doubt on the company’s future. Investigators determined that the fire probably was caused when nylon flocking fiber accidentally was ignited by an electrical spark.

Advisers urged Mr. Feuerstein to rebuild slowly and to quit the upholstery business that accounted for much of its revenue to that point. He brushed them off and paid wages to all 1,400 displaced workers in Lawrence for 90 days after the fire and extended their health benefits, at a cost of $25 million. By the end of 1996, all but 400 were back and a new factory was opened the following year.

Mr. Feuerstein later said his actions after the fire made good business sense by keeping skilled labor on hand. At times, he also downplayed the altruistic aspects because his actions also put Malden Mills in good stead with politicians who later helped the company gain military contracts.

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Others remember broader principles on display. The morning after the blaze, in a conference room untouched by the fire, company managers urged Mr. Feuerstein to wait for more details for insurers before declaring his intentions. But he insisted on announcing he would continue to pay wages for at least 30 days, because of the approaching holiday, said Robert Himmel, who previously was the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“He said, ‘I’m not throwing 3,000 people out of work two weeks before Christmas,’ ” Himmel recalled.

That thrust Mr. Feuerstein into a public spotlight he had previously shunned. Co-workers remember that before the fire he had even declined to wear a name tag at industry trade shows so as to not draw attention. Himmel said that just after the fire, Mr. Feuerstein seemed more nervous about appearing on television than about the future of his company.

Pressed into service, Mr. Feuerstein eventually warmed up to his new public profile and often made light of the enthusiastic coverage he received. Later, in difficult negotiations with Malden Mills’ creditors, Mr. Feuerstein joked that he might earn more as a television personality than as a factory owner.

Still, Mr. Feuerstein’s response to the fire made him a national hero who was an invited guest at Clinton’s State of the Union address in 1996.

In the end, Malden Mills never completely recovered. By the time its fleece-making was operating in earnest again, the outdoor-goods market had peaked and overseas competition from Asian and European fleece producers had reduced the company’s market share.

In 1997, Mr. Feuerstein abandoned the upholstery business, which had helped drive rebuilding costs to $450 million. The difference between that and a $300 million insurance payout became a crushing debt, coupled with several warm winters that hurt sales.

In late 2001 Mr. Feuerstein was forced to seek bankruptcy protection for a second time as a condition of $25 million in financing that Malden Mills needed to continue operating. It was a difficult blow, and afterward none of his three children remained in a management role at the company.

Although the company eventually emerged from Chapter 11 in 2003, Mr. Feuerstein held just one of seven seats on its board and a fraction of its stock. Layoffs and divestitures, some on Feuerstein’s watch, had shrunk the workforce to 1,000 people.

Though he and his son Daniel were negotiating with potential lenders and investors to raise money they needed to buy back control of the company, by early 2005 Mr. Feuerstein had been marginalized from the company’s leadership and had quit the board.

That end didn’t dim the respect he had earned from the community.

“I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of condolences from the entire Malden Mills community,” Daniel told the Globe Friday. “The love went both ways.”

In addition to Daniel, Mr. Feuerstein leaves two other children, Raphael of Brookline and Joyce of Cotuit; a sister, Juliet Korngold of Manhattan, N.Y.; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be announced.

When Mr. Feuerstein died, he was surrounded by his grandchildren, Daniel said. “Family was so important,” Daniel added. “The devotion he had to his family explains the devotion he developed for his community, and he never separated the two.”

Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.