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.”