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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Mandel continues work to invest in humanities and Jewish education

Published: January 18, 2013
Section: Featured, Features

PALM BEACH, Fla. – Overlooking the palm trees and Atlantic Ocean through the spacious glass walls of his living room, Morton Mandel, 91, speaks sharply on business strategy, values, university politics and family life.

Mandel, who cofounded Premier Industrial Corporation and invested $900 with his brothers in 1940, merging it more than five decades later with Farnell Electronics for $3 billion, attributes his company’s fortune to rigorous hiring standards, along with principles and ethics being embedded into his corporate culture.

In 1940, the Mandels sold auto moulding clips for 69 cents on the streets of Cleveland to help pay the bills in a family with little money, struggling to get by after the Great Depression.

“I grew up in the Great Depression in a very high quality home. It never occurred to us to use the word poor,” Mandel said in an interview at his home earlier this month. “We defined rich as follows: no unpaid bills and a balance of money in the bank I didn’t need tomorrow.”

It was undoubtedly dollars, in fact billions of them accumulated by the family through Premier, that paved the way for major philanthropic investments, including their $22.5 million donation to Brandeis University for the construction of the Mandel Center for the Humanities. But Mandel insists that the uncompromising self-confidence instilled by his Glenville High School English teacher Laura V. Edwards taught him how to make those dollars, and the human values of decency and integrity instilled by his mother at home taught him how to manage and spend them.

In his recently published leadership book, “It’s All About Who You Hire, How They Lead, … and Other Essential Advice from a Self-Made Leader,” Mandel writes of his mother, “Almost everything I am, almost everything I became, I owe to her.” Describing himself as a “composite of influences,” Mandel recalled Edwards’ frequent advice in high school.

“She convinced me I could do anything I was qualified for and if I wasn’t, [to] go for it,” he said.

In a community where many younger than him choose retirement Mandel—who still serves as chairman and CEO of both Parkwood Corporation and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation—sees too much work left undone to bring his business and non-profit careers to a close. Mandel typically begins his day at 3 a.m. for his workout routine, including stretching and sessions with a trainer, before eating breakfast and working from his home office in his oceanfront mansion here in Florida, his New York City apartment or his business office in Cleveland. The packed calendar also includes travel to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and London. His drive to continue working stems from a desire to address massive societal challenges unsolvable by any individual. Mandel uses the metaphor of lighting candles to confront them.

“I’ve already lit ‘x’ candles,” he said. “I think there are more candles unlit than lit. There are huge unmet needs.”

For example, he explained, eliminating hunger likely requires lighting at least five million candles, and if he can light one or two more, he sees no reason to retire.

“The sum total of a lot of small impacts is a big impact,” he said. “Are you below the line or above the line in making a difference?”

Even political action, such as voting or writing a letter to the president, can aggregate into major change.

Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio described Mandel’s philosophy as one focused on contributing a longterm impact to society.

“His focus is to change not only one person but a group of people to elicit a longterm change,” Congilio said inside Nick and Johnnie’s Restaurant in Palm Beach earlier this month, as her grandchildren colored with crayons at a nearby table and tugged her shoulder, playing with her iPhone. “He has a very real foundation for what’s really important—family.”

While business created a fortune, Mandel claims that service and family create fulfillment for him today.

“I defined success as achieving material goals,” he said. “In my mid-60s, I realized something else, that what I was doing was pursuing a feeling of fulfillment. My real goal is to feel I have lived a life of meaning.”

Mandel’s recent book includes little complex strategy about investments and business. Instead, he simplifies his business success, or the success of any organization, to the people who lead and work for it. As he writes on the first page, “If you asked me to sum up everything I know in the fewest words, I would do it in just four: ‘It’s all about who.’”

The ideal candidate for any position, he explains, must be hired as an “enthusiastic yes,” judged on five main criteria in the following order: “intellectual firepower, values, passion, work ethic and experience.” The best organizations, Mandel believes, hire “A” rather than “B” or “C” level executives and employees. Character is central to the hiring decision.

“You cannot change a person. You can teach them skills,” Mandel said. “By the time they graduate elementary school they’re finished [in terms of values and character], maybe eighth grade.”

The search for values in a hiring process, his company believed, was crucial to building a culture of customer service, a core building block of Premier’s business philosophy. Whether it was ordering the needed moulding clips for Fords, Chevrolets or Plymouths in Cleveland or through a 24-hour answering service, shipping a broken part for a Disney World ride to Florida within hours and only charging $42, service mattered a great deal.

“Is everybody in our culture perfect?” Mandel asked. “No, but we make fewer errors,” he answered.

Values, which build principles, must guide decisions, he continued, writing in his book, “In my view, what makes institutions great is all the soft stuff, which I think is the hardest stuff in business.”

Those principles and so called “soft stuff” drove his decision not to invest with Bernie Madoff, the businessman popular and charming among the wealthy, prior to being arrested in 2008 for a 20-year Ponzi scheme, the largest fraud in Wall Street history; Madoff was sentenced the following year to 150 years in prison by a federal judge.

Coniglio described the impact of Madoff on Palm Beach as “a devastating not only financial loss, but certainly an emotional … sense of betrayal.”

At the time, Mandel recalls many friends in the Palm Beach community asking him, “Have you got any money with Madoff?”

Although they both belonged to the Palm Beach Country Club, Mandel only met Madoff after friends introduced the two and they talked for an hour and a half in his home.

“He’s in jail, but he’s brilliant. Literally, I was dazzled.”

Dazzled aside, Mandel recalls explaining to Madoff, “We have to understand how you make your money,” and remembers the response: “It’s a trade secret.”

The lack of transparency, coupled with the fact that Mandel required a first-rate auditing firm and Madoff used a firm with no reputation, drove the decision not to invest.

“We decided not to go with him because he just violated two principles,” Mandel said.

In his book, Mandel describes former Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz, who now serves as president of the Mandel Foundation, and who he began recruiting in 2008, as an example of an “enthusiastic yes” hire.

Reinharz’s greatest asset, Mandel believes, is that “he’s a very, very nice guy and people warm up to that.” The donation to campus for the Mandel Center, he explained, grew from a conversation over dinner in his Palm Beach home, not a request for money to the university.

A strong proponent of the humanities, Mandel urged college students to view their undergraduate degrees as a ticket to “function in a free society,” adding, “I don’t think college is a trade school.”

The Mandel family’s commitment to humanities extends beyond Brandeis. They launched the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, and the Mandel Foundation also donated $18 million to create the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The first key to success, in education, business or philanthropy, Mandel believes, is knowing what you want, even if it changes over time.

“If you don’t know what success is, you can’t achieve it.”