The world lost a colossal figure with the passing of business and philanthropy legend Mort Mandel last fall. Mort changed the world and left a huge legacy of goodness after nearly 100 years of striving for greatness. Separated by over four decades and a lot of digits in our net relative worth, he was a mentor to me, an important investor in my firm and the source of inspiration — as in WWMD (What would Mort do?)
I’m not alone in saying that Mort helped make me who I am, as he touched so many lives. But now, with time to reflect on our collective loss, I’d like to share some thoughts on why he was so special to those who knew him.
Mort lived an incredible life that was made richer because of how he lived it. Mort and his brothers built a multibillion-dollar business in Premier Industrial. They were exceptional investors. But they will likely be best remembered for their amazing philanthropy, civic leadership, deep kindness and unwavering ethics.
It’s worth noting that Mort and his family were deeply modest about their philanthropy and business success and in their day-to-day lives. Society often celebrates and rewards those who live life the loudest — be it in sports, politics, entertainment or business. Brashness makes headlines, sells tickets and sometimes influences stock prices.
Mort’s success was born of doing things the right way and always remaining empathetic. He was humble when he had every right to be boastful. He was practical rather than flashy — the first time he picked me up for breakfast, he was driving himself in a Ford station wagon. He regularly dined at Li Wah because a proper business lunch was under $20. I was joined by several friends to remember Mort there, and we were all amused and reminded of his wisdom when our tasty meal came to $30 for all of us.
Mort’s pragmatism was easily exceeded by his generosity. He famously spent his own money to eat with African-American fellow soldiers who were refused restaurant service in the segregated South in the 1940s. Disgusted at the racism, he bought everyone lunch from a street vendor.
“It was probably the first true leadership decision I ever made,” he said. “Managers who would be effective leaders must have principles and do the right thing.”
Such a decision at the time would hardly garner headlines — and even if they did, they would likely have not been positive in that era.
Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Cleveland, Mort and his three siblings watched their mother, Rose, shoulder the roles of breadwinner and caregiver after their father developed multiple sclerosis. They often saw their mother giving away her hard-earned dollars to neighbors in need.
“I don’t know where she got the money,” Mort reflected. Her generosity shaped his character. “We inhaled that,” he said. “All my life, I’ve been trying to give back.”
Mort always had deep awareness of any privilege he might have been fortunate enough to have earned, but he quietly lived by his code of ethics, and as times and attitudes changed, we can now all see how important some of his seemingly small acts can really be. Those little acts are what slowly change the world.
So when the family sold Premier Industrial for $2.8 billion in 1996, most of that money went into their foundation. Over time, the Mandels gave away hundreds of millions of dollars and left the peerless Mandel Foundation as a fitting legacy — an organization dedicated to changing the word for the better. Not as famous as the Rockefellers or Vanderbilts, Mort and his brothers did it all quietly, never forgetting their roots as struggling immigrants in Cleveland and always focusing on succeeding through hard work and ethics. This is the Mandel brand and an important part of their legacy.
I like to imagine Mort and his siblings together up in heaven after living their lives in such a down-to-earth fashion, despite their tremendous wealth and success. Late in life, the three of them talked about their journey in a video aptly titled “Our Cup Runneth Over.” They are examples for us all who spend too much time seeking bigger cups and not enough time counting our blessings.
In Mort’s superb book, “It’s All About Who,” he says, “Lighting even one candle changes the world,” and implores us to do our part to help to reduce the darkness. He was the greatest candle lighter I’ve ever known and his legacy will burn bright for generations to come.
Stewart Kohl is co-CEO at The Riverside Co.