February 05, 1996 12:00 PM

ON DEC. 11, 1995, DRIVEN BY FIERCE, 45-mph winds, flames spread across the night sky over the gritty old industrial city of Lawrence, Mass., where some 400 people had been working the graveyard shift at the Maiden Mills textile factory. At around 8 p.m., a boiler apparently exploded, consuming three of the company’s cluster of century-old brick buildings in a wild inferno. Near . ground zero when the blast occurred, forklift operator Andrew Desrosiers had just shifted his vehicle into drive. Minutes later he was a human fireball.

“I started screaming,” recalls Desrosiers, 24, now recovering from second-and third-degree burns over much of his body. “I was running for my life, trying to put myself out.”

Thirty miles away, Aaron Mordecai Feuerstein, president of Maiden Mills, was spending the evening happily, in a Boston restaurant, where his family had thrown a surprise party for his 70th birthday. But by midnight, summoned by a phone call from a company official, he was back in Lawrence. As he watched from a security booth, fighting shock, much of the business his grandfather founded 90 years ago was being reduced to ruins. For one of the few times in his life, he felt helpless. “It was like watching Rome burn,” recalls his wife, Louise, 58. “There were embers flying through the air that looked the size of basketballs.” But Feuerstein remained stoic. “I had to be strong and not show any weakness or fear,” he says. “There was no way in hell I was going to cry.”

All told, 33 people were injured in the blaze—but miraculously no one was killed. Still, the fire was catastrophic. Known for producing Polartec, an insulating fabric used in everything from underwear to jackets, Maiden Mills had long been a regional bulwark, thriving while other manufacturers in the Merrimack Valley declined. As textile mills go, Maiden offered a generous salary scale, beginning at $10 an hour—about $3 an hour more than at similar plants—with full benefits. Now 3,200 employees stood to lose their jobs. “I said to myself, ‘Aaron’s 70 years old,’ ” recalls Paul Coorey, president of Local 311 of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). ” ‘Oh, God, he’s gonna pack it up. It’s over.’ ”

So it seemed—to everyone but Aaron Feuerstein. Three days after the fire, at a local high school gym, he made a stunning announcement to several hundred employees: Not only would he rebuild his factory, he would also continue paying their salaries and benefits for at least another month—at a cost of $1.5 million a week. (A month later, Feuerstein would extend the arrangement into late February.) The mill workers roared in appreciation, and many of them wept.

Feuerstein’s beau geste made him America’s newest overnight folk hero, captivating a country shadowed by corporate downsizing—witness the massive layoffs at AT&T. Thousands of letters have poured into Feuerstein’s firm, many bearing checks totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars for his idled employees. President Clinton phoned the mill owner, brimming with praise, and last week he invited Feuerstein to the State of the Union address as his guest.

Feuerstein, for his part, seemed genuinely nonplussed by the accolades. “What?” he said at one point. “For doing the decent thing?” An orthodox Jew who never works on the Sabbath, he is quick to paraphrase a 2,000-year-old aphorism of the Jewish sage Hillel: “In a place where there’s moral depravity and no feeling of moral responsibility,” Feuerstein says, “do your damnedest to be a man.”

Or a mensch, to use the Yiddish word for a surpassingly decent human being. According to his own rabbi, Feuerstein’s largesse is entirely in character. “It’s part and parcel of who he is,” says Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz of the Young Israel of Brookline synagogue, which Feuerstein’s father, Samuel, helped to found in 1926. “When crunch time came, he was standing upright.” Adds the rabbi’s wife, Mindy, a management consultant who has done work for Maiden Mills: “When you put iron in a fire, what do you get? You get steel. This is Aaron Feuerstein.”

The Gewirtzes speak from experience. On Jan. 11, 1994, their temple was destroyed by an electrical fire. Aaron Feuerstein not only signed on to chair the campaign to resurrect Young Israel, but together with his older brother Moses, a board member, donated $2 million to the cause.

To anyone schooled in corporate hierarchy, Feuerstein’s management style might appear downright quaint. “I always had the door of my office open to anyone who felt they were treated unfairly, from the janitor to the vice presidents,” he says. “A lot of CEOs think there’s a line of command-that cannot be broken. But I feel that if someone in the line does something unjust, it must be corrected. Otherwise it simmers and develops into hatred and disloyalty.” Still, as union leader Coorey notes, Feuerstein is hardly a pushover. “Everybody’s saying this guy is Santa Claus,” he says. “No, he’s a businessman. He doesn’t like to be taken advantage of.”

All of which may help to explain Feuerstein’s aggressively hands-on approach. He often roams the factory in his three-piece suit and running shoes. “I remember as a child, in summer, when it was 110 or 115 degrees in the factory,” says his daughter Joyce Feuerstein, 37, a real estate agent. “He would sweat it out for two or three hours, right in there with the bottom-of-the-line workers, making sure things happened right.”

Rangy and angular, with a furrowed brow, Feuerstein is a creature of habit. After putting in his 10 or 12 hours at the mill, he invariably takes a nap at home. “Religiously,” says Joyce. “In his suit. All dressed. Like a corpse.”

Her father might dispute the analogy—he aspires to live to 120. “If you look at the closing chapter of Deuteronomy,” he notes, “it says that Moses was 120 years old upon his death, ‘and his eye didn’t diminish…and his manly vigor did not flee him.’ ” To that end, Feuerstein is assiduously health-conscious, though his daughter has another word for it. “My father is a serious hypochondriac,” she says. “He takes his pulse all the time. He’s very concerned about fat, to a fault. He drives you crazy if you should be a little heavy.”

To ward off illness, Feuerstein devours a dozen oranges daily—and when that idiosyncrasy was noted on the national news after the fire, crates of the fruit, sent by the Florida Orange Growers Association, among others, began piling up at his doorstep. Feuerstein also jogs five miles every other day—usually reciting Hebrew psalms en route. From 6 to 7 a.m., he exercises, during which he also recites his favorite poetry—by Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats. “I make it my business when I like something to memorize it,” he says. “So it can stay with me forever without having to read it,”

Feuerstein has always been indefatigable. Born in Boston, one of five children, he joined the family business as a teenager, working during vacations from the prestigious Boston Latin School and later from New York City’s Yeshiva University. He graduated in 1947. with a degree in English and philosophy. The family factory, then called Maiden Knitting and located in Maiden, Mass., just north of Boston, was purchased in 1906 by Henry Feuerstein, Aaron’s grandfather, and grew steadily in the 1920s and ’30s. Aaron worked first in quality control and eventually went on to supervise yarn making, fabric making and, finally, marketing. In 1956, Feuerstein oversaw the relocation of Maiden’s fabric business to the former Arlington Mill in Lawrence. In the 1960s, when many textile companies were moving south, where labor was cheaper, the Feuersteins resisted. “There’s a deep family attachment to the people and the community,” he says.

Feuerstein had married Merika Rosendaum, a restaurateur, in 1953. They had three children: Joyce and her older brothers Daniel, 41, and Raphael, 39—both now working in the family business—who scarcely saw their father during the week. “Maiden Mills is his mistress,” Joyce says. “It has always been everything to him.”

Aaron took firm hold of the company from his father in the early ’70s. Following a cycle of ups and downs, it started a strong climb in the early ’80s after Feuerstein’s research-and-development team created Polartec, a light, warm synthetic made largely from recycled plastic bottles, which now accounts for half of Maiden Mills’ $400 million in annual sales.

Shortly after Merika’s death in 1984, Feuerstein met Louise Godfrey, a rug specialist for an auction house, on a plane from Salt Lake City to Boston. A Utah-born Mormon, she converted to Judaism, and they married in 1987. Louise says she is not in the least surprised that her husband is rebuilding Maiden Mills. “For Aaron, I don’t think there really was a choice,” she says. “It would never have occurred to him not to rebuild.”

Fortunately, Maiden was gearing up for an expansion when the fire hit, and new, state-of-the art equipment, unscathed in the disaster, is ready to be installed. The mill is expected to be rebuilt within a year. “I can’t shirk my duty,” says Feuerstein. “There’s a lot I have to do. Because there’s somebody out there who’s not working if I don’t come through.” As of late January, two-thirds of Feuerstein’s workers are back on the job. Just four of the 33 injured remain hospitalized, and when the time comes, Maiden Mills will have a place for them.

If this is a novel position for a ’90s CEO, it is surely not an unwelcome one.

“Aaron Feuerstein knows a hell of a lot of his workers by their first name,” says Ronald Alman, New England Region director of the textile union. “He’s a throwback to the employers of 30 and 40 years ago, who felt you do have a responsibility to your work force.”

In other words, he’s a mensch.



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