Monday, December 7, 2015

Twenty Years Ago Friday

Twenty years ago this Friday, December 11th, fire broke out at Malden Mills Industries, Inc. The cause was a boiler explosion, which knocked out the sprinkler system. The fire continued well into the next day. About 30 people were injured. Malden's commitment to safety issues and evacuation training yielded excellent results, as there were no fatalities in the huge conflagration.

I had just started my second year working for a trade association that represented American textile mills. Malden Mills was one of our members. Malden Mills employed more than 1,500 workers at the 2 million square foot facility, which straddled the Methuen-Lawrence city line in the Merrimac Valley region of Massachusetts. Everyone assumed that Malden's president, Aaron Feuerstein, would take the insurance money and that would be the end of the company, at least as a manufacturer in Massachusetts. If he rebuilt at all, it was assumed it would be elsewhere, perhaps in China.

Feuerstein shocked the business world by declaring, immediately after the fire that he would rebuild, rebuild in Lawrence, and that he would use the insurance money to pay the workers while rebuilding and that they would have jobs. For this he became known as the "Mensch of Malden Mills."

He kept his word. A new Malden Mills, with the latest in new technology, rose on the site where the 19th century mill had stood. The workers were paid. And, to the extent that he could, their jobs were waiting for them when the new plant opened (not all 1,500 jobs, as he was forced to recognize that the only way the company could survive was as a smaller operation).

In an interview on CBS's 60 Minutes program, Feuerstein explained that in doing what he did he was simply following the teachings of the Torah --

"You are not permitted to oppress the working man, because he's poor and he's needy, amongst your brethren and amongst the non-Jew in your community."

Aaron Feuerstein did all he could to save the business and those jobs. Unfortunately, he couldn't do it all. By 2001 the company was bankrupt and he was forced out. The company survived, now re-named Polartec, after its best-known product.

Later this month Feuerstein will turn 90 years of age. He said recently to a Boston Glove reporter: "I go on living with gratitude and humility. I'm happy with my life. I do the best I can."

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