Had he been celebrating his 40th birthday, or his 50th, or perhaps even his 60th, there may have been more logic to the strange plan he would soon concoct, but at an age when most business owners are already well into retirement, there really was no excuse.
While the blaze had effectively destroyed his factory, it was quickly determined that nobody had died, and with an insurance payout of $300 million headed his way, this 70-year old, who had survived decades of severe business downturns, including one bankruptcy, might have decided that his ride was finally over.
He could have continued his already generous giving, while living out the rest of his days without the headaches of running a manufacturing company where “Made in America“ was fast becoming the stuff of nostalgia.
No one could have blamed him for gratefully accepting his God-given retirement.
But this man was not what you would call good retirement material. He felt no attraction to the golf course or the yacht club. In fact it might explain quite a bit to know that in his 60s, he routinely awoke at 5:30 each morning and practiced memorization as a means to keep his mind sharp, and you should also know that the objects of his memorization were the Old Testament and the works of Shakespeare.
One could make a case that at his age, managing the nuts and bolts operations of an old line manufacturing company, vulnerable to global, low-wage-paying competitors, that he might have chosen, let us say, more practical texts for his mental exercises.
In fact, questions of what is and what isn’t practical, would come up again and again once he left that Boston restaurant and arrived at the site of his blackened factory, 25 miles north, in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, near the New Hampshire border.
Lawrence, is what we often call an old mill town. It would be more accurately called a former mill town. To be sure, the mammoth brick mill buildings, up and down the Merrimack River, many built in the 1800s, still dominate the landscape, but not much milling takes place in those buildings, anymore.
The milling, which was mainly textiles, and the milling jobs began leaving town a long time ago. Some just disappeared, shuttered by foreign competition. Others went to Southern, non-union states, or to Mexico and Latin America, then to China and the Far East.
For as long as I can remember, Lawrence has been the New England version of a hard luck town.
In the 1950s and 60s it "benefited" from federal money, arriving in the name of “Urban Renewal,” but that money was tragically misused to tear down old architectural gems and replace them with flat, faceless brick buildings devoid of character. You may never appreciate how much of your town’s identity is stored in the stone walls, the grand front steps, and the pillars of its post office, city hall, library, and court houses, until they are replaced by, what my wife, Elodia refers to as cigar boxes.
For a while there was some hope for revitalization. Lawrence had all of those great brick mill buildings, with high ceilings, huge windows, many with views of the river. Some were converted into offices. They waited for new white-collared tenants -- designers and sellers of the new economy.
In the 1970s and part of the 1980s, Massachusetts was a center for high technology. High Tech companies that surrounded the Boston area were multiplying fast, and spreading further to the west, south, and north. They would surely find their way to Lawrence’s affordable, abundant, and unique office space, spun from abandoned mills.
But that didn’t happen. Our High Tech was supplanted by the newer micro technology, that had taken root in California’s Silicon Valley and in the Pacific Northwest.
I worked in Lawrence in the mid 1980s, in one of those huge, renovated mill buildings. A dilapidated mill building behind ours was about to be reborn as a Marriot Hotel. This was at the pinnacle of a new found hope.
This hope sprung from an agreement that would move Emerson College from Boston to Lawrence. Land would be provided for a magnificent campus. The college would have room and resources to grow to its heart’s content. The city would flourish with the influx of students, faculty, visiting parents, and ancillary businesses.
Emerson College, considered one of the premier colleges in the U.S. for the study of communication and the arts, would lead the way to Lawrence’s renaissance -- one that would shine a light on its historic industrial past, while powering it into its future.
But time dragged on without a closing of the deal.
Landowners fought in court the eminent domain that would take what was theirs and turn it over to the Emerson outsiders. The trailblazers on both sides of the deal eventually moved on in life, and were replaced by those who were not part of the audacious plan. And the economics changed, making Boston property more affordable for Emerson to expand without sacrificing the advantages and amenities of being in “The Hub.”
Marriott did not move in. There would be no renaissance. Not then. Not now. Not ever.
So now, you have two principal characters in this drama. The protagonist is Mr. Aaron Feuerstein, owner of the company founded by his grandfather, a textile manufacturing company known as Malden Mills. And you have a second character, a sad, tired face that remains on stage from lights up to closing curtain -- the people of Lawrence -- the character called: The Town.
And there is a third.
For years, Malden Mills struggled to find a magical product -- one that would bring in enough money to justify its existence, and to keep it in a state where high labor costs and tough environmental regulations had defeated or chased away its industrial neighbors. For a while they had it in fake fur. But the popularity of fake fur crashed when real fur was brought low by those who publicly targeted well adorned fur wearers by hurling insults and splashing them with ink.
In 1982, Malden Mills entered Chapter 11...
…And emerged one-year later victoriously clutching a truly magical product. Longtime employees had discovered a way to weave synthetics, made up of 80% recycled materials, into a fabric that was warm, light weight, and could remove moisture from the body. A big, important customer, Patagonia was waiting for them to perfect it. Perfect it they did, and Polarfleece, was born.
Polarfleece, marketed as Polartec met an exploding demand for warm, light weight outerwear by hikers, climbers, runners, and the U.S. Military. Chances are you or someone you know has worn a Polartec jacket or sweat pants or slept under a Polartec blanket. You might have gotten yours at L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer, or at some other major retailer and never noticed the “Made by Malden Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts” label.
Imitators quickly emerged, so the Malden Mills workers had to continually improve and refine their processes. The Workers found ways to provide greater varieties of color and fabric weight. Even with everyday manufacturing, machinery could take it only so far. Human hands, eyes, and creativity were critical.
Reporter, Louis Uchitelle, writing an article in the New York Times, was looking on as Adelina Santiago operating a computerized machine, rolling out dark cloth at 50 yards a minute, noticed “the vaguest white line, invisible to an untrained eye” and quickly stopped the machine. “I give to catching imperfections the same importance that I would give if this were my own business,” said the $11 per hour employee.
Following the fire on December 11, 1995, when the drama began, the two words most often spoken were: the workers. And that character, The Workers, never, for even a moment, leaves the stage.
If this were a play, we might raise the opening curtain right here.
A gaunt, white haired Aaron Feuerstein stands against the backdrop of his blackened mill buildings. Reporters await his announcement. Will he say goodbye or will he rebuild? Of course he will lament the fact that his 3200 employees will be facing a very bleak Christmas. That’s a given.
The story in tomorrow’s papers will be about the fire. How did it start? How many were injured? With no crime of arson, it will be a short story, one without legs, as they say in the news business.
But standing before the cameras is a man who has just turned 70-years old, whose company was started at the very beginning of the century by his grandfather. This man before the cameras had carried this sacred trust through good times and bad, through three generations.
The reporters wait for their quote. The Workers, in shock, brace themselves for what might be the painful goodbye. The Town, watching from modest living rooms and seedy taverns has seen all of this before. You can fear bad luck’s arrival only so many times. When it becomes a regular visitor, you casually greet it, maybe even with a knowing “Oh, it’s you again!“ nod of the head.
But this time was different.
The mill owner was emphatic. He will rebuild. He will do it quickly. There was relief. Then he went on. He would keep all 3200 employees on the payroll while he rebuilt. He would maintain their health insurance coverage while he rebuilt. Christmas would be just fine. There must have been some momentary disbelief. Did they hear him right? While nothing was being made and nothing was being sold, everyone would be paid their full salaries?
Out of this man’s pocket?
At one of those seedy taverns, a man at the bar, hunched over his drink, mindlessly watching the local news broadcast must have sprung upright and shouted to the bartender, “Tommy, turn this up!” In living rooms, normal conversation must have suddenly stopped with the realization that something never before seen or heard was taking place.
60 Minutes ran a story. Morley Safer interviewed the newly famous CEO. Big companies were laying off in droves, providing little to their departing employees. They were of course doing what they had to do in the best interests of the stockholders, the corporation, or the brand.
Feuerstein loudly called out those corporations and those CEOs. He said that a new model must emerge. He said that companies and their workers and their communities had shared interests and shared responsibilities. He could not dump 3200 unemployed workers on an already suffering region. That, he later told Parade Magazine, “would have been unconscionable.” And, for this Orthodox Jew, it would have been a clear violation of Jewish law.
He was not quite finished. He would not just rebuild the factories, he would restore the turn-of-the-century architectural detail that his grandfather’s generation had taken such pains to craft into their historic structures. And, he would purchase state-of-the art machinery that would increase productivity, while being environmentally friendly.
And that’s how a sad-town mill owner became a hero to millions of people.
But as weeks passed, some began to wonder if this hero had promised too much? Not at all, so long as everything goes perfectly. But, of course, this is not a perfect world. Some things are bound to go wrong. The only question is: How many things will go wrong and how wrong will they go?
Perhaps a saner man would have paused.
A saner man might have calculated into his equation problems collecting all of the expected insurance money.
A saner man might have scaled back salaries paid to idle workers and even stopped payments to those with the least value or the least longevity with the company.
A saner man might have expected having to settle a law suit from some of the employees injured in the fire.
A saner man might have expected that the interruption in manufacturing would result in business lost to his competitors.
We might forgive him for not anticipating three consecutive warm winters, dampening demand for Polarfleece.
But then, why would we be surprised by the madness of this man who alone carried the sacred trust of his grandfather and his father, whose employees had lifted him from bankruptcy, and who worked for him as though they were working for themselves, and whose head was filled with the likes of Moses and Macbeth?
He was fast running out of money, but there was still time to make the necessary adjustments. He had only to go before the cameras and before The Town, The Workers, and now The World, and say: “I will continue to stand by my principles to the best of my ability, but I now have to make some difficult and painful decisions.”
But, of course he did not do that. Instead, he borrowed a lot of money. From banks.
Here, I must introduce you to the fourth and final character. Until now, our little drama has gone without an antagonist. And I must caution you, that you may be inclined to see this antagonist as a simple villain, one deserving of loud jeers.
I ask you to please not rush to judgment.
Six years after the famous fire, mired in debt, Malden Mills once again filed for bankruptcy. This was more than just the bankruptcy of a company, it was a body blow to the newly hopeful City of Lawrence. People hearing the news sent in donations of $5, $10, $100 dollars. Saving Malden Mills, and its ideals, became their cause. They spoke loudly. They said, “We are in this together.”
But a new voice was about to be heard. Not that any of us actually heard the voice, any of us outside of the boardroom, that is, or not privy to the behind closed doors executive meetings. GE Capital had become Malden Mill’s largest creditor, and now they and the group they headed had the final word.
Together this group takes center stage as our final character, which we can conveniently call, The Banks.
Though no one in their living rooms or in the seedy taverns, or in the press, for that matter, actually heard The Banks’ last word, their intent was clear. It was to bring sanity back to the situation. It was to remove the drama and replace it with a strategic plan.
The first step in this plan was to relieve Aaron Feuerstein of all operational control. His role in his company would become only symbolic. Other steps would include rational solutions appropriate for a company so heavily in debt, mainly reduction of the workforce, including moving some manufacturing to Asia.
In 2004, 78-year old Feuerstein moved to buy back his company. He used the prestige he had gained from his national spotlight to raise almost $90 million in financing, guarantees, and tax incentives to put together an offer that would keep 1,000 jobs in the area and provide low cost housing for residents. The plan was creative, unorthodox, and sound.
The board of directors, led by The Banks turned down his offer without providing an explanation.
Who could blame them?
They were not going to get into a public debate with a beloved crazy man who heard moral commands to do good, and who could inspire others to play Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. This was business.
Today, the company, once known as Malden Mills is under new ownership and is called, Polartec.
On Mother’s Day 2006, Polartec’s buildings were damaged by flood water, halting manufacturing, and requiring major clean up and restoration.
The company continued to struggle financially.
This past September, Polartec honored 154 longtime employees. As reported by Bill Kirk in the local newspaper, the Eagle Tribune, Joyce Cegelis joined the company as a clerk, “just shy of her 18th birthday.” Now, she is 68 years old, and is head of the payroll department.
She arrives at 6 a.m. and works 10 to 12 hour days. “They need me,“ she says. “I make the coffee.”
“We’ve seen floods, fires and bankruptcies,” said Loretta Riordan, a 42-year old employee whose son, Dan has worked there for 24 years. “We’re just waiting for the locusts,” she joked.
I, for one, will not be surprised if the locusts do come. I just wonder who will be there to turn them away. Of course, that someone would have to be somewhat mad to think they could defeat The Locusts.
Don't you think?
Please note: I was not able to link to Louis Uchitelle's wonderful article, published in the New York Times, July 4, 1996, to which I am greatly indebted.