Aaron Feuerstein, Mill Owner Who Refused to Leave, Dies at 95

After a fire devastated his Massachusetts factory in 1995, he kept paying his employees and spent hundreds of millions to rebuild.

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Aaron Feuerstein, a Massachusetts industrialist who became a national hero in 1995 when he refused to lay off workers at his textile plant after a catastrophic fire, then spent hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild it, died on Thursday at a hospital in Boston. He was 95.

Aeffia Feuerstein, his granddaughter and partial caretaker, said the cause was pneumonia.

Mr. Feuerstein’s company, Malden Mills, was by the mid-1990s among the last large textile companies in Massachusetts, which had seen its manufacturing employment numbers crater from 225,000 in the 1980s to about 25,000 a decade later.

Most other companies, faced with competition from lower-wage states and cheap imports, had either closed or moved production out of the state.

Malden Mills, located just outside the old mill city of Lawrence, was a shining exception: Not only did Mr. Feuerstein refuse to move, but he and his company prospered, thanks to its proprietary fabric Polartec, which it sold to clothing brands like Patagonia and L.L. Bean. In fact, 1995 was a banner year for the company, with sales up 10 percent to more than $400 million.

Then, on the night of Dec. 11, 1995, a boiler in one of the factory’s five hulking plants exploded. The shock wave knocked out the state-of-the-art sprinkler system Mr. Feuerstein had just installed, and 45-mile-an-hour winds blew the ensuing fire to three other buildings. The blaze burned for 16 hours, injuring more than 30 workers.

Three days later, most of the plant’s 1,400 workers lined up to receive their paychecks, figuring it might be their last from Malden Mills. Mr. Feuerstein joined them. He handed out holiday bonuses and then announced an even greater gift: He would immediately reopen as much of the plant as he could, replace the buildings he had lost and continue to pay the idled workers for a month — a promise he later extended twice.

Working nonstop, he and his workers got the surviving building, the finishing plant, back in operation just one week later. Mr. Feuerstein bought an empty factory nearby to hold new equipment. By the first weeks of January, hundreds of his employees were back at work. And just 20 months later he opened a gleaming new $130 million complex.

A fitness nut who rose at 5:30 every morning to jog, read scripture and memorize poetry, Mr. Feuerstein announced the reopening with a quotation from E.E. Cummings.

“I thank you, God, for most this amazing day,” he said, “I who have died am alive again today.”

Mr. Feuerstein was a wealthy industrialist, but he was far from the Dickensian stereotype. He ate alongside his workers in the cafeteria, and he offered them no-interest loans for school.

“They all called him Mr. A.F.,” his son Raphael said in a phone interview. “If someone felt unfairly treated, his office door was always open.”

Mr. Feuerstein’s commitment to Lawrence and his employees was all the more noteworthy amid the painful waves of deindustrialization during the 1980s and ’90s, when private-equity buyouts and wage competition drained millions of jobs from high-income states like Massachusetts.

“I feel that I am a symbol of the movement against downsizing and layoffs that will ultimately produce an answer,” he told The New York Times in 1996. “People see me as a turning of the tide.”

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Mr. Feuerstein addressed his displaced workers in Lawrence, Mass., in January 1996, after the fire at his textile plant. He assured them of an extension of their wage and benefit packages for at least another 30 days — a promise he would later extend twice.Credit…Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The fire, and his bootstraps response, made Mr. Feuerstein a celebrity. The Boston Globe called him “the Mensch of Malden Mills.” He sat next to Hillary Clinton at the 1996 State of the Union address, during which President Bill Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over.”

He received scores of civic awards and honorary degrees, and he used his platform to castigate companies that refused to prioritize their workers’ interests.

“The basic idea that you can’t serve the interest of the shareholder and the worker simultaneously is foreign to me,” he said at a talk in Amherst, Mass., in 1996. “Their interests go together.”

But no good deed goes unpunished, and Mr. Feuerstein’s rebuilding efforts left Malden Mills saddled with debt, even as Polartec sales soared in the late 1990s. In 2001 the company went into bankruptcy; it emerged, two years later, with a restructuring plan that stripped Mr. Feuerstein of his management roles. His attempt to buy the company back was rejected by the new board, and he left in 2004.

“I was one of the few fighting to keep employment here. It really was a very difficult and losing fight,” he told The Globe in 2015. “I became one of the victims in the end.”

Aaron Mordechai Feuerstein was born on Dec. 11, 1925, in Boston. His grandfather, Henry Feuerstein, had founded Malden Mills in 1907, and his father, Samuel, had later taken it over. His mother, Miriam (Landau) Feuerstein, was a homemaker.

His first wife, Merika, died in 1984, and his second wife, Louise, died in 2013. He is survived by his children, Daniel, Raphael and Joyce; his sister, Juliet Korngold; and six grandchildren.

He attended Boston Latin School and Yeshiva University, where he studied English and philosophy. He joined Malden Mills immediately after graduating in 1947. The company, which made upholstery and other textiles before developing Polartec, moved to the Lawrence plant in the 1950s.

Mr. Feuerstein’s father founded the Young Israel synagogue in Brookline, Mass., where his family lived. Just over a year before the fire at Malden Mills, an electrical short at the synagogue started a fire that destroyed much of the building. Mr. Feuerstein donated $1 million to rebuild it.

Malden Mills did not survive long after Mr. Feuerstein left. The new owners moved Polartec production to New Hampshire and Tennessee in the late 2000s, and in December 2015 — on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the fire — announced that the factory would close at the end of the year.

Today the building houses several small businesses, including a brewery, a hydroponic farm and a 3-D printing facility.

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