Another year, another book? It certainly seems that way. This week, Jossey-Bass published by latest as part of its prestigious Warren Bennis series: my collaboration with Mort Mandel called It's All About Who You Hire, How They Lead...and Other Essential Advice from a Self-Made Leader. Now leadership books are a dime a dozen, but this one is special--and not because I was involved in its creation.
Over the course of a long career in journalism, I’ve met and interviewed many of this generation’s greatest corporate leaders: Jack Welch, Andy Grove, John Chambers, A.G. Lafley, and Jeff Immelt, among countless others. Then, one day out of the blue, I received a telephone call from a friend who asked me if I had ever heard of Mort Mandel. I had to confess, I hadn’t. But the phone call led to a meeting and then to numerous interviews and the book that came out this week.
Management sage Peter Drucker once put Mort in the company of Andy Grove and Jack Welch. I think he did Mort an injustice. Unlike a Jack Welch, an Andy Grove, or a Lee Iaccoca, whose corporate achievements define their public personas, Mort has lived in two worlds all of his years: the world of profit and the world of social impact. Even as the chairman and CEO of a New York Stock Exchange Company for 34 years, he was spending as much as a third of his time in the social sector. Mort strongly believes that his experience in the social sector made him a better corporate executive, just as he is convinced that what he learned in business made him a more effective social capitalist.
It’s important to note that Mort isn’t an executive who lends his name to the board of a non-profit and shows up occasionally for a meeting or two. Rather, he has been a true social entrepreneur, with his time and his money, founding, either alone or with others, more than a dozen non-profit organizations, mostly serving the general community. They’ve worked to improve the quality of professional leadership in the social sector, to rehabilitate the inner cities, and to revitalize Jewish education around the world.
What makes Mort unusual, if not unique, is his selflessness in pursuing a life of purpose. From his earliest days, he understood that there was much more to a successful life than building wealth—though as a self-made billionaire his is a quintessential rags-to-riches story. Mort understood that a life without meaning, purpose and commitment isn’t a life at all. So he devoted a large share of his time to combat human misery by bringing leadership to social causes.
As a writer, helping Mort tell his remarkable story, it would have been easy for me to lapse into a modern-day version of Horatio Alger. After a childhood spent in the most humble of circumstances, Mort and his two older brothers scraped together $900 in 1940 and went into business as a distributor of auto parts. From a Cleveland storefront on Euclid Avenue, the brothers build Premier Industrial Corp. into a national company that by 1960 went public and in 1964 was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. For 34 out of 36 years, under Mort’s leadership as CEO, and making all major decisions jointly with his brothers, Jack and Joe, Premier reported record earnings and became extremely profitable, selling what many would consider fairly humdrum products—nuts and bolts, circuit breakers, chemicals, lubricating oil, and fire-fighting equipment.
A hundred dollars invested in Premier stock in 1960, when Mort led the company’s public offering, had grown in value to $23,200 by 1996, when Premier merged with British-based Farnell Electronics in a $3 billion deal. That comes out to a 232-times return, even without accounting for the reinvestment of some $417 million in dividends the company paid to shareholders during that period.
Shareholders weren’t the only beneficiaries. When the company was merged, some 56 employees became millionaires. Again, this extraordinary performance came not from a Silicon Valley highflyer or a brand name corporate player in New York, but rather from a lesser-known, somewhat under-the-radar company in Cleveland, Ohio, led by a man who was first an innovative entrepreneur and then a remarkably humble institution builder.
Since the sale, Mort and his brothers have built a highly successful private trust company, Parkwood Corp., to manage his family’s wealth and created a private equity firm in Israel that owns and runs two fascinating businesses, and has devoted much of his time to philanthropic efforts that, among other things, have nurtured a new generation of social leaders in Israel and have lent sorely needed support for the humanities in both the U.S. and Israel. That latter commitment—backed by an investment of some $50 million in funding by Mort and his brothers--comes from his strongly held belief that a civil and engaged society must learn the wisdom of its forefathers, the philosophers, historians and writers whose knowledge and experience all of us can benefit from.
Telling Mort’s story—and sharing with readers the powerful ideas that led to this success—would ordinarily be enough. But it wouldn’t do Mort’s journey or his beliefs justice. As a result, It’s All About Who is not your typical CEO biography nor is it yet another management book to add to a sagging bookshelf loaded with advice and counsel from the likes of Drucker, Tom Peters, and Jim Collins. Instead, it is the story of a man and the ideas that have allowed him to craft a life of significance.
For all of his corporate accomplishments, Mort’s greatest source of pride is in the social sector. One example is the recruiting and training of a social army of 450 outstanding leaders who are transforming K-12 education in Israel, building schools in which Arabs and Israelis sit side-by-side as classmates, and also bringing together religious and secular students in the same schools. No less crucial, he has helped to shape the lives of more than a million Jews by devoting extraordinary time and money to strengthen the leadership and the effective use of Jewish Community Centers around the world.
What Mort learned about management and leadership as a hands-on volunteer leader and philanthropist has been as profound as what he learned building a highly successful growth company. He believes that running the United Way or IBM is almost exactly the same, except in the measurement of outcomes. IBM generates profit. United Way touches and improves lives. What they share in common to get those results is great leadership, disciplined execution, and a rich culture built on respect, fairness, decency, and integrity.
Mort strongly believes that the single biggest problem with non-profits is that too many social sector leaders spend too much time thinking about their cause--and not enough time devoted to the management issues that will build the kind of institution that will ultimately be most helpful to the people they are trying to serve. The real waste, then, is the lives they could have touched and impacted but didn’t.
Respect for the individual, superior customer service, and the pursuit of excellence are core values that can deliver as much impact in the social world as in the corporate world. These ideas work in all settings. These guiding principles apply to all firms that serve people, whether they are universities, hospitals, charitable organizations, or multi-national corporations. They are the essence of great leadership—and the basis of Mort’s belief that a single individual has the power to change the world.
My favorite story is one that Mort is too humble to put in this book. It involves the only time one of his businesses suffered a work stoppage. Over a four-day period, in the dead of a winter in the mid-1990s, strikers picketed outside the plant in Wooster, Ohio. Mort saw to it that the company took a pickup truck, filled it with sandwiches and Thermos bottles full of hot coffee and tea, and made sure that the employees striking against him were well fed on the picket line. Mort considered those employees members of his extended family. Some of them had worked for Premier for 25 years. Sons followed fathers in that plant. “Why wouldn’t we treat them well?” asks Mort. Why, indeed.
With his hands, his mind, and his money, Mort Mandel has created a life of meaning. As a result, he has much to teach all of us—MBA candidates, entrepreneurs, managers and executives of companies, hospitals, schools, and non-profit enterprises. What does it take to start and build an enduring great company from the ground up? What does it take to transform a social enterprise into a highly performing organization that touches the lives of people around the world? What does it take to live a life you can be proud of? The answers to these questions can be found in the lessons Mort can teach us.
Most remarkable, perhaps, is that even at the age of 91, Mort not merely welcomes the future but believes that he still has a hand in shaping that future, of lighting a few candles in an often dark world sorely in need of light. You’ll be better for knowing him.