Servant leader: Umberto P. Fedeli finds value in every relationship

Umberto P. Fedeli plays to win. It doesn’t matter if he’s functioning as president and CEO at The Fedeli Group, as a board member at the Cleveland Clinic or as a trusted confidant who has been asked by a friend for help. It’s the way he approaches every facet of his life.

“It’s ultimately about performance,” Fedeli says. “I have no interest in getting involved in something just to play. If we’re playing on the field, we’re playing to win. If we do a fundraiser, I get judged by how much money we raise. If we’re taking care of a client, did we solve that client’s problem? It’s the outcome that matters. What is the goal and what do you have to do to get there? If we’re going to work, let’s work.”

In this way, Fedeli is your classic go-getter as a business leader as his focus is always on the next task at hand. You don’t have to spend much time with him, however, to understand that there is so much more to this man.

He’s built one of the largest privately held risk management and insurance firms in Ohio and it’s become a platform for Fedeli to feed his passion for bringing people together. Fedeli is also very competitive and has become a prolific investor in both public and private companies.

“I’m not an operator,” Fedeli says. “I’m not the guy who necessarily knows how to run that factory. I’m not the guy who knows how to run a bank. But I know the guy who runs the bank and I know the guy who runs the factory. I’m really good at introducing those people who are really good at what they do and together, we can make something happen.”

Fedeli met his wife, Maryellen in 1977 and they were married in 1984. They have five children, five grandchildren and an endless supply of love for each other, their friends and the work that they have done together over the years. There are many photos in Fedeli’s office, including one with Pope Francis, that include the both of them.

Fedeli had a modest upbringing as a child of Italian immigrants, “a peasant kid born in the inner city,” he says.

His dad made it to fifth grade, his mother to eighth grade. Fedeli graduated from St. Joseph High School and then earned his college degree at John Carroll University. He connected with his accounting professor at the age of 19 and the can-do spirit that would come to define his life soon led to the launch of his first insurance agency.

“I march to the beat of my own drum,” Fedeli says. “I was in my late teens and I had worked for some places and I just decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted to do things differently. I didn’t start off thinking about being an entrepreneur or a businessperson to achieve financial success. It was basically so I could do things the way I would like with who I would like and how I would like to do it.”

Fedeli’s career was off and running.

Connecting the dots
As co-CEO at The Riverside Co., Stewart Kohl lives and works in many of the same circles as Fedeli.

“Umberto is warm, genuine and incredibly connected at the local, state, national, international and perhaps intergalactic levels,” Kohl says. “He is very smart, hard-working and possesses an encyclopedic memory. But he is also humble and truly a servant leader who is committed to the success of our city, region and country. He has strong values, but an open mind and a heart as big as all of Italy.”

Among his most vibrant memories are the many lunches he’s attended at Fedeli’s dining room at The Fedeli Group.

“So many of my most memorable experiences with Umberto involve food and family,” Kohl says. “The all-Italian lunches in his office, cooked with the delicious ingredient of love by his mother and sister, are legendary. He goes around the room introducing each attendee with specific, detailed facts and anecdotes. And he wields the battery-powered parmesan cheese grater with vigor, making every guest feel so welcome.”

These lunches are an opportunity for Fedeli to connect the dots and bring clarity to plans that have been able to get past the idea stage. The roots of this type of problem solving can be traced back to his childhood when Fedeli forgot to bring his lunch to school one day.

“My mother didn’t drive a car, so she couldn’t bring it to me,” he says. “I was hungry, so I said to another kid, ‘Are you going to eat that apple and that half of a sandwich? If you are willing to share that, my mother makes homemade pizza. On Friday, I’ll bring you some.’ On Friday, I brought a whole sheet of pizza and it was good. Now I can forget my lunch all the time because everybody wants me to bring pizza for them. I had to be resourceful because I didn’t have resources.”

Whether he was a young boy trying to get some lunch or a seasoned professional trying to help his peers capitalize on a new business opportunity, the approach is remarkably similar.

“It’s really simple,” Fedeli says. “If you want a friend, you need to be a friend. The law of reciprocity is you have to give away what you want without expecting anything in return. Look at the need of that person, the need of that customer, the need of that friend who has a specific request or concern. What’s good for them?”

Fedeli recalls an instance when he was able to make a connection for a friend that ultimately prevented him from making a big mistake. This friend was looking to spend tens of millions of dollars building plants and equipment in a new location.

“I said, ‘How do you know this opportunity is going to exist to build these things?’” Fedeli says. “He said, ‘Well, we think there is.’ I introduced him to someone who was in a very high-level position that had both the know-how of the industry and the contacts. I set up the meeting, he went to Washington and when he came back, he was so excited. I said, ‘So, it’s going to work?’”

As it turns out, his friend’s excitement was actually a deep sense of relief. The meeting had revealed that it wasn’t the right time at all for a project of this scale.

“He would have done it and it would have been disastrous were it not for that meeting,” Fedeli says. “He was happy he didn’t go and take on something that would have been very difficult to get done.”

It’s that selfless commitment to helping people that made Fedeli a trusted resource for so many business leaders in the Cleveland area.

“Umberto never forgets his roots,” Kohl says. “He is a self-made man, but one eager to help others also succeed. And he wins by doing for others.”

It’s all about the result
Fedeli is a fierce advocate of the Cleveland Clinic. He has served on its board since 2000 and is also chair of its Government and Community Relations Committee, a committee he created at the request of Dr. Floyd Loop, a renowned heart surgeon who served as chairman and CEO at the Clinic from 1989 to 2004.

“I’m a volunteer, not an employee,” Fedeli says. “What we do is work with the Clinic and try to deal with the priorities they have. Government is very important to health care because of the nature of the business. We work with local, state and federal government on policy issues and appropriation.

“It could be individual relationships or working on strategies. We also work with trustees and doctors where they set priorities and we try to help them execute. We also work with outside consultants. There are a lot of different issues.”

Fedeli admires the Clinic’s commitment to excellence and to working toward positive outcomes, as well as the emphasis that the Clinic places on education and research to continually strive to get better.

“You start out with incredible talent,” Fedeli says. “They are the best at what they do. But the doctors have one-year contracts and they are all measured based on their performance. Everything is measured. And the people who evaluate them aren’t HR people, they are their peers.

“The guy who evaluates the heart doctor is a heart doctor. Who is a good colorectal doctor? Colorectal doctors would know. The patient’s interest, the nurse’s interest, the doctor’s interest, the hospital’s interest — it’s all aligned in the same direction. They’re not just going through the motions. Did we get the patient through the surgery? Did we save their life? Did we get rid of the problem? It’s not just about going through the motions. It’s about the outcome.”

Fedeli has also served on the Clinic’s executive committee and for more than a decade has served as event chair for the HeartThrob Ball, the annual gala that benefits Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital.

It’s an event for which he has helped raise millions of dollars. His efforts for the Clinic were commemorated in 2016 when both Fedeli and Maryellen were honored as Distinguished Fellows and inducted into the 1921 Society, the Clinic’s highest benefactor circle, which honors those who have made extraordinary contributions of services and resources to the Cleveland Clinic.

“We should all aspire to get paid to do something you believe in so much, we’d do it for free,” says Kristen Morris, chief government and community relations officer at the Clinic. “Umberto is a living example of that ambition.

“His business model is a perpetual celebration of friends and family and it’s made him extremely successful. I’ve heard him say, ‘Do the right things, for the right reasons, and good things will come.’ I guess he’s been doing the right things for the right reasons.”

Dr. Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, who retired in December as the Clinic’s president and CEO, presented Fedeli several years ago for his induction into the Cleveland Business Hall of Fame.

“Elected officials make the rules in a city,” Cosgrove said in his remarks. “But it’s the unelected leaders like Umberto Fedeli who set the tone. They’re the ones who make things happen. His vision and enthusiasm are priceless.”

A selfless approach to service
Fundraising is a big part of Fedeli’s life. His home in Gates Mills has hosted dinners that have included many well-known individuals, including President George W. Bush. His office is filled with photos of Bush’s visit to his home, as well as shots of Fedeli with people like Gov. Mitt Romney, House Speaker Paul Ryan, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and even one with Cleveland Browns legend Bernie Kosar.

“I’ve been blessed to have so many relationships,” Fedeli says. “It could be relationships with my friends, family, public officials or people who may be well known. Those relationships are my focus, the center of everything. You can never underestimate how important relationships are with everyone you deal with.

“Am I going above and beyond? Am I solving problems? Am I adding value? How do I add value in every relationship? You play to your strengths. You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know who knows better.”

One of the greatest honors of Fedeli’s life was when he was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2003.

Sponsored by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, this award is presented annually to a select group of individuals for their accomplishments in their field and areas of service. It has been awarded to seven U.S. presidents, former Vice President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Coretta Scott King, Muhammad Ali, Lee Iacocca and Rosa Parks, among other distinguished honorees.

“I got this letter and I didn’t know what it was,” Fedeli says. “I went to New York and to Ellis Island and there were all these military bands playing. I’m sitting there and looking at the honorees and thinking, ‘They must have made a mistake.’”

There was no mistake. Fedeli is proud of his Italian heritage and is currently chairman of the Northern Ohio Italian American Foundation, a charitable organization he helped establish in 1995.

But among all these honors, there are a few titles that don’t make headlines, but bring just as much, if not more personal pride.

“Husband, dad, grandfather and friend,” says Fedeli. “I’m blessed to have had so many relationships with friends, family, public officials and people who may be well-known. That’s my focus, that’s my center.”

So busy — and loving every minute of it
Fedeli has accomplished so much in his life, but he’s still got plenty of work to do. In the fall of 2015, he launched a new private equity-style bank fund called the Strategic Value Bank Partners Fund. He partnered with Marty Adams, a longtime friend and business partner who built Sky Financial Group into a bank with $18 billion in assets and 200 locations until it was sold in 2007 for $3.5 billion.

He’s also working with long-time investment professionals Ben Mackovak, who is also a business partner with Fedeli, and Fred Cummings.

“The whole idea was we built a team and we partnered,” Fedeli says. “I couldn’t hire these people. It would be impossible. They are superstars. These are fighter pilots. But we can partner with them and invest alongside each other and work together. The idea was to build a team that we didn’t historically have, get other people involved and develop a disciplined process.”

Thus far, the results are so promising that Fedeli has begun raising a second fund.

“The first fund is two years old and we just raised another $60 million, so it’s just under $200 million in two years,” Fedeli says. “We just made the first investment for the second fund in a private bank in Colorado.”
Investing is yet another passion for Fedeli, who is always looking for another great opportunity.

“The Great Recession, it was horrible,” Fedeli says. “There were a lot of challenges and a lot of problems. But there were also a lot of opportunities that were out there to buy companies, do business or try other things. Sometimes when there is fear and uncertainty in one area, there could be a whole other opportunity somewhere else.”

He enjoys investing alongside friends who are involved in private equity or have businesses or real estate projects that they are working on.

“When I have an area that I know, I may do it,” he says. “When I don’t know something, I go with people who are experts in that area. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner, says you have to develop a lattice of mental models. Ninety-five percent of Buffett’s net worth did not come until after he was 65 years old. I try to study what works, what doesn’t work and why it works.”

Fedeli puts in the time to find opportunities where he can earn a solid return on his investment.

“I invest in public companies that I feel have incredible quality, good values and growth potential,” Fedeli says. “They have a durable, sustainable competitive advantage.”

Fedeli is also an avid reader, though he prefers to read shorter summaries that encapsulate what’s in books rather than whole books.

“I can read 25 20-page summaries instead of one 500-page book,” he says. “I also read annual reports and research things. Investments are a hobby.”

It all adds up to a very busy life, one that Fedeli wouldn’t trade for anything.

“I love Cleveland, I love the people,” Fedeli says. “There is no business opportunity or financial incentive that could ever get me to move away. There is no business or financial incentive, no prestige or position, nothing. I love this community and I love the people more than anything else. My family and friends are here and our business is here.”

During the holiday season, Fedeli sends out personalized emails to friends and clients that offer warm thoughts for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. The message he delivers is quintessential Umberto Fedeli.

“As I reflect on the many gifts I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, amongst the best of those are the wonderful relationships that I have had the great honor, privilege and pleasure to have had,” he writes. “I would genuinely like to say Thank You!”

Selfless leadership is what Fedeli is all about, Morris says.

“He has an amazing ability to see what is most important in life (and business) then lead accordingly,” she says. “He uses his power to encourage and support, rather than control — and it works.”

How to reach: The Fedeli Group, (216) 328-8080 or www.thefedeligroup.com