This is the year of the bad-ass businessman turned bellicose politician.
But I prefer to write about Aaron Feuerstein.
On Dec. 19, Feuerstein, also known as “the Mensch of Malden Mills,” turns 90. That milestone birthday offers a chance to celebrate humility and honor over vanity and venom.
Feuerstein sealed his legacy as a man of integrity after a Dec. 11, 1995, fire that destroyed the family-owned textile factory he operated on the Lawrence-Methuen border.
Instead of grabbing a big insurance payout from the ashes, Feuerstein promised to rebuild and keep employees on the payroll as long as he could. He gave them Christmas bonuses and two months pay. Instead of selling out, he saved jobs.
Out of that act of decency came first, local fame, and then national acclaim. Feuerstein was hailed as an American hero and rare moral leader .
Even 20 years ago, it was news for a business executive to put empathy for employees ahead of personal gain. Today it’s even bigger news.
Feuerstein’s story did not have a fairy tale ending. The company, which is best known as the original manufacturer of Polartec fleece, could not pay off its debts after rebuilding. Malden Mills was forced into bankruptcy, eventually ending three generations of Feuerstein family ownership. A new company, with no connection to Feuerstein, now operates at the historic site. Four of the mill buildings were sold to a developer, who is turning them into a mixed-income apartment community.
But Feuerstein is at peace with the outcome. He said he did what he could to swim against the economic tide, as other textile companies moved overseas to take advantage of cheaper labor and lower production costs. “I was one of the few fighting to keep employment here. It really was a very difficult and losing fight,” said Feuerstein. “ I became one of the victims in the end.”
When he lost the battle, “I was not going to let the final defeat kill me,” said Feuerstein.
Today, he reads a lot and lives with two of his six grandchildren. That arrangement allows him to keep a pledge he made to his wife, before she died in 2013, that he would not live alone. A devoted Orthodox Jew, he belongs to the Young Israel of Brookline temple, which is hosting a luncheon on Dec. 6 to honor his birthday. That, he said, “is enough celebration for me.”
Looking back at the conflagration that ended up defining his life, Feuerstein said he essentially got credit for doing the right thing. “I got it,” he said, “because most American corporations had forgotten that the worker is part of the enterprise.”
If that memory is even dimmer today, it’s “because in our business schools we’re taught the object of business is 100 percent profitability to the shareholder. The people who own the place are the ones who have to get 100 percent profitability, not 99 percent, not 98 percent. They have to have it all. That is most unfortunate,” said Feuerstein, who never went to business school. He is a graduate of Boston Latin school and of Yeshiva University in New York City, where he studied English and philosophy.
Of course, economic forces are bigger than one man’s act of generosity in times of crisis. Owners and CEOs always walk away with much more than workers who lose their livelihoods to changing times, but how a business leader responds to disaster matters. As Feuerstein said at the time of the fire, he was guided by a quote from the Jewish tradition: “When all is moral chaos, this is the time for you to be a mensch.”
“I go on living with gratitude and humility. I’m happy with my life,” Feuerstein said as he approaches 90. “I do the best I can.”
After all, he’s not a saint. He’s just a human being who, when tested, tried to think beyond his own comfort and financial security.
By the way, Feuerstein does believe there’s a place for successful business people in politics. Though, as far as the businessman who is making big headlines today, he gently suggests “there’s an entertainment factor which detracts.”
Besides, no one will ever call that particular businessman a mensch.