Leonard N. Stern (1938-)

Leonard Stern took over the family business Hartz Mountain Pet Company from his father in 1959. By the early 1980s, he had expanded the company's focus beyond pet foods to make it America's leading pet supply manufacturer and name brand.

Updated: October 17, 2013

Introduction

In the early 1970s, Fortune Magazine compiled a list of thirty-nine dynamic entrepreneurs who had entered the ranks of America’s super-rich men worth more than $50 million.  This new breed of self-made millionaires included a mix of pragmatists, idealists, and a few devoted religionists.  Some were flamboyant, luxury-loving spendthrifts; others were private, quiet-living penny-pinchers.  Unlike the captains of industry who had ruled the great railroads, oil fields, and roaring steel mills of the early twentieth century, these new titans used their considerable drive and ingenuity to amass fortunes by purveying pet food, drinks, low-priced drugs, clothing, and insurance.  Topping the list was Leonard N. Stern, who at age thirty-five was a real estate mogul, head of the nation’s biggest pet supplies company, and had amassed a net worth of $500 million.

Leonard Norman Stern (born on March 28, 1938, in New York City, NY) was the second son of three children of Max Stern and Hilda (Loewenthal) Stern. Following in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps, Leonard took over the family business, Hartz Mountain, in 1959 at age twenty-one.  Hartz Mountain was already a long-established pet company when his father turned over the reigns to him.  Often characterized by his business and social acquaintances as a dapper, tough, cutthroat, arrogant workaholic, Stern has described himself as a self-made man determined to be “the youngest of the rich and then the richest of the rich.”[1]  His drive helped him carry the sluggish Hartz Mountain pet company he inherited from his father to unimagined heights by the early 1980s. 

He expanded the company’s focus beyond pet foods to multiple products for dogs, cats, tropical fish, and hamsters, making Hartz Mountain America’s leading pet supply manufacturer and name brand.  He diversified into alternative newspaper publishing, including The Village Voice, the grizzled dean of New York City’s alternative newspapers; real estate magazines through the Harmon Publishing Company; carpet cleaning machines via the Carpet Magic Company; and general merchandise service distribution through S.M. Cork in the United Kingdom.  While building and then selling those enterprises, Leonard grew the company’s real estate holdings to include more than 210 buildings with over thirty-eight million square feet of industrial, office, retail, and hotel space in New York and New Jersey, including the fashionable New York Soho and Tribeca Grand Hotels, and the company headquarters at 667 Madison Avenue in New York City under the umbrella of The Hartz Group, Inc.[2] In recognition of his philanthropy, New York University named the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he earned his MBA at age nineteen, in his honor.

As head of Hartz Mountain, Leonard has had his share of business battles.  His competitors complained that he engaged in monopolistic practices—offering bribes and kickbacks to distributors—that allowed Hartz Mountain to corner 70 percent of the pet supplies market. Hartz Mountain was buffeted in the late seventies and eighties by antitrust suits and the company ended up paying a $40 million lawsuit in 1984.  He had his troubles in the publishing business as well.  In 1984 he invested in the East Side Express, a gossipy tabloid that folded after a few months.  Despite his troubles, Leonard is also known for being a philanthropist who has turned his entrepreneurial skills to benefit New York City’s homeless by raising $100 million in private funds in 1985 to construct new, temporary shelters for two thousand families. 

A bon vivant in Manhattan’s East Side society, Leonard has spent much of his life pursuing an eclectic assortment of business interests while balancing an active social life.  The business magnate Donald Trump, in 1987, described Leonard as “a free-wheeling guy” who was “very capable” and “refuses to get too rooted in one line of business.”  David Schneiderman, the former publisher and editor in chief of The Village Voice, which Leonard purchased in 1985 for $55 million, called him “a risk taker [who] moves with the speed of light.”[3]

Family and Ethnic Background

The Stern family dynasty began modestly when the elder Max Stern left his home of Fulda, Germany, after failing in the textile business.  Worried about inflation and the financial turmoil that rocked Germany in the early twentieth century, the then twenty-eight-year-old businessman packed his bags and sailed to the U.S. in 1926 with his most valuable possession: five thousand singing canaries, which he’d received as payment for a debt.  He didn’t speak much English when he arrived, but “I Americanized my thinking very fast,” Stern told the Wall Street Journal in a 1973 interview.”[4]

While others were selling birds for up to $20 each, he decided to sell in volume for less than six dollars.  He sold his canaries to the John Wanamaker Department Store in Manhattan and then returned to Germany for more, creating a new trend in American pet ownership. Max soon turned to big variety and merchandise chains, pushing his belief that mass merchandising of live pets could be feasible and lucrative.  Soon his birds were sold at R.H. Macy, F.W. Woolworth, Sears Roebuck, and other stores, making Max America’s largest livestock importer by 1932. Known as a master marketer, he expanded the Hartz Mountain business, named after the Harz Mountain area of Germany from which he came (he Americanized it by adding the “t”), into bird food and cages.[5]

In the 1930s and 1940s, war had created a tremendous shortage of pets due to the scarcity of kennel help, the closing of kennels, the enlistment of thousands of dogs into the K-9 Corps under the Dogs for Defense program, and a government ban on the use of tin for cat and dog food containers.  While the war created a great demand for pets, Americans saw Hartz Mountain as a company known for selling the most operatic canaries.[6]  As Hartz Mountain made big money from its birds and other products, the company encouraged retailers to name canaries after singing stars.  The birds appeared on popular radio shows and sang their hearts out with the help of organ music.  Those shows prompted thousands of Americans to buy Hartz’s canaries.  It was under Max’s leadership that Hartz began to expand and diversify its products, first with his decision to stop creating sales for canary cages and making the cages themselves.  Later, the Sterns started Sternco Industries Inc., another family-controlled pet and pet supply company, which eventually merged with Hartz Mountain.  In his seventies, Max remained hearty and active in the company’s dealings.  He stayed on as chairman and received a robust compensation package of $250,000 annually for life.

Max spent the sunset of his life dedicated to philanthropic causes.  His interest in Jewish education led him to donate $10 million to Yeshiva University, where he founded the Stern College for Women in Manhattan, America’s first liberal arts and sciences institution for women with a Jewish focus, named in memory of his parents, Caroline and Emanuel Stern. He also supported the establishment of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, assisting in convincing Albert Einstein to lend his name.[7] The Max Stern Academic College of Emek Yezreel, in Jezreel Valley, Israel, is named in Stern’s honor.  He served on the Yeshiva board of trustees in several positions, including vice chair for thirty-five years, in addition to serving as honorary chairman of Yeshiva University.  He was also founder, president, and honorary chair of the Manhattan Day School, and honorary chairman of Torah Umesorah, the National Day School movement.  He was awarded the Jerusalem Medal in 1976.[8]  And in recognition of his contributions to Jewish educational projects in the United States and Israel, in 1981 Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem dedicated a park in his name in Jerusalem and gave him the key to the city.

Leonard’s mother, Hilda Loewenthal Stern, was born October 22, 1922, in Eschwege, Germany, and emigrated to New York in 1935.  The couple had three children: Stanley, Leonard, and Gloria.  All were reared in the Jewish tradition and encouraged to follow their father’s footsteps by going into the family business, as well as to follow the Stern tradition of philanthropy.

Young Leonard attended yeshiva (a Jewish school), and dreamt of going into business, though not necessarily with his father.  Max’s famed love of animals reportedly did not extend to personal pets. When Leonard brought home a monkey who relieved himself on the bedspreads and rugs, Max and Hilda told their second son to send the monkey packing—and to feel free to join it.  Leonard stayed, then brought home a live duck which his parents evicted after just four hours.[9]  One area where Leonard and his parents agreed was giving back. Describing his upbringing as “comfortable,” Leonard told the Wall Street Journal that philanthropy “was just part of life … I’m a son of an immigrant father who spent 40 percent of his time in community work.”[10]

A superior student, Leonard earned a Bachelor of Science degree from New York University at age eighteen, and his MBA there by age nineteen.  In the 1950s, a still-vital Max gave all the Hartz Company stock to his three children.  Leonard, twenty-one, stepped to the forefront in 1959, buying out his brother and sister’s interests to be the sole leader of the well-known and highly successful bird food enterprise.  While taking over day-to-day business operations from his father, young Leonard had a vision beyond the business’ decreasing sales and mounting debt to new opportunities, and he had the education, moxie, and business savvy to realize his ambitious goals.

Leonard married Judith Falk, a psychologist, in 1962 and had three children: Emanuel Theodore (b. 1962), Edward Julius (b. 1963), and Andrea Caroline (b. 1966).[11] The couple divorced in the mid-1980s, and have both remarried.  And, in keeping with the family tradition, Leonard’s sons and daughter would find their footing in the family business.

Business Development

Leonard’s entrepreneurial instincts proved to be right on target, and the company’s sales grew, thanks to its unique approach to marketing the pets and their products in mass retail outlets rather than confining sales to locally-based pet shops. One of the company’s advertising taglines was “Perk up your parakeet with Hartz Mountain Parakeet Seed.” Word spread through heavy radio and television advertising, and America’s pet lovers grew to recognize that in addition to bird care, the Hartz brand had what they needed for their dogs, cats, rabbits, gerbils, turtles, and all kinds of other pets. This simple approach spawned a revolution in the industry.[12]  As Leonard told Fortune magazine in 1973, “I took Hartz from canaries into pet supplies, from sixty products to twelve-hundred products, from eighteen people to four-hundred in the field, from packaging to integrated manufacturing, from being a debtor to being a lender.”[13]

By the late 1960s, growing affluence among Americans fueled growth in the pet industry.  Sales of cat and dog food in 1968 amounted to $918 million, a gain of nearly 14 percent over the 1967 level.  In 1969, consumers were spending three billion dollars a year on the purchase of food, habitation, care, and grooming for their dogs, cats, goldfish, turtles, monkeys, and other animals.  This was triple the total pet field volume spent in 1960, the industry’s first billion-dollar year.  The annual expenditures rose 20 percent faster than the pet population, which had been gaining about 3 percent a year during that decade.  At the dawn of the 1970s, the Pet Food Institute forecasted that consumers would buy over one billion dollars worth of canine and cat food, nearly more than twice the amount spent on baby food in the U.S. Pet fish accounted for about 20 to 25 percent of the industry’s annual volume.  But while food accounted for the majority of sales in the cat and dog sectors of the pet industry, it was non-food items such as tanks, pumps, lights, colored gravel, filters, heaters, and decorative plants that generated the most sales for fish.[14]

Pet supplies manufacturers like Hartz were able to get their customers to buy products through an advertising technique called “anthropomorphism,” which meant attributing human qualities of taste to their pets.  Advertisers discovered that pet owners were willing to pay a premium for pet food that looked good to them and didn’t have offending odors.  Additionally, brand name affiliation and new methods of packing eased owners’ handling of pet food.  The company’s rawhide bones and other dog treats were in such high demand that it made sense for Hartz to acquire facilities in Brazil to process rawhide, which provided one thousand jobs in that country, and freed them from dependence on outside suppliers. Hartz found that flea collars were big business, leading them to develop several flea and tick prevention products for dogs and cats, which grew into pet shampoos and other personal care products. The expansion continued in 1994, when Wardley Products, which was the nation’s largest manufactured line of aquatic fish supplies, joined the Hartz Group.

In 1987, Hartz faced problems with its new flea repellant, Blockade, which was its highest-profile product that year.  Reports surfaced from all over the country that the product had poisoned hundreds of cats and dogs, and six humans.  Symptoms included loss of coordination, seizures, excessive salivation, and vomiting.  Some stores pulled the product from their shelves, and three pet owners filed a class action suit in federal court in San Diego charging Hartz with negligence and fraud.  The suit charged that “Hartz, knowing that Blockade was defective and dangerous . . . placed it on the market without adequately warning of the defect.”  As the plaintiffs sought damages and an injunction against further Blockade sales, Stern spent millions in advertising touting that the spray was not harmful to pets.[15]  The product was never banned and to this day there are complaints that animals have had adverse reactions to the neurotoxin in Hartz’s flea and tick prevention shampoos and drops.  Veterinarians have tried for decades to have the products removed from the market.

By the late 1960s, Leonard said that his pet supplies business was generating more cash than it needed, and so diversification was a business imperative.  “Real estate made sense because we could use our capital and it would be managed by a relatively small cadre of experienced people,” he said.  Leonard saw beyond pets to property when he learned that a soggy, garbage-strewn piece of real estate in the Meadowlands area of New Jersey was for sale at a bargain rate of $13,000 an acre. “I thought I had seen the Next Coming,” he told the New York Times.  Leonard said that people thought he was crazy for purchasing a 750-acre plot of land in New Jersey, which has long been famed for stench, chemical dumps, and bad jokes.[16]

Once again, his bold vision and penchant for risk-taking paid off, and this land formerly known for pig farms grew into the heart of one of America’s most profitable privately-owned real estate portfolios. The initial 750-acre land in Secaucus became Harmon Cove, considered one of the nation’s leading distribution locations, just outside of the Big Apple.  Locating near Manhattan and both the New York and New Jersey Ports, which became one of the country’s most powerful magnates for corporate development, turned out to be a strategic goldmine. It drew hundreds of offices from Manhattan during the 1980s and raised the value of undeveloped Meadowlands property to more than $500,000 an acre. Harmon Cove gave birth to the phenomenon known as outlet mall shopping, and is still thriving as a destination for retail shopping.  The nearby Harmon Meadow development is a 500-acre mixed-use project that provides premier office real estate in the New Jersey Meadowlands, with highly desirable transportation and amenities for its tenants.[17]

Leonard’s real estate investment instincts weren’t based on familiarity with the New Jersey landscape, but driven strictly by financial considerations. “With a little money, you could build a little building in New Jersey,” he said. “With a little money, you can’t build any building in New York. So we went the poor man’s route.”[18]  Leonard maximized profitability wherever he could. In 1972, he took the company public, selling shares at $22.75 apiece. Seven years later, he took Hartz private again over objections from a minority of shareholders.  He shrewdly bought out the stockholders for $14.50 a share, folded Hartz Mountain into his privately owned real estate concern, and used his cash flow from pet wares to finance his vision of developing the Meadowlands.[19]

Leonard’s success in the Jersey swamps was considered a coup in the state’s booming real estate industry around Manhattan. The state’s vibrant economy in the 1980s spurred skyrocketing growth in the price of real estate and a rush to develop land that was reminiscent of the Florida land booms and the western gold strikes.  There was a rapid succession of projects to entice New York City companies and residents who were fed up with high costs, high rent, high taxes, shortages of space and power, and long commuting times.  Also helping to fuel New Jersey’s economic boom was an exodus of financial service jobs from Manhattan.  PaineWebber, Bankers Trust, and Peat Marwick were among the large firms that found it cheaper to locate back-of-office and computer operations to the other side of the river.  At the time, Leonard predicted that northern New Jersey’s communities close to New York City would see a gentrification and economic upturn and rebuilding.  He believed that whoever could play early in the game would profit immensely from a great economic miracle.

But New York fought back.  Then mayor Edward Koch posed for advertisements in which he was shown boarding up the Holland Tunnel to stop companies from fleeing to New Jersey.  The city aggressively promoted tax and other incentives to keep companies in the city’s outer boroughs and Manhattan.  But some of the suburban, life-style, and cost advantages of New Jersey could not be matched.[20]

In the mid-1980s, Hartz Mountain branched out into an unexpected direction yet again by acquiring the Carpet Magic Company, which rented carpet-cleaning machines to individual households. By designing and fabricating the carpet cleaning equipment in their own factories, Hartz grew this arm of the family enterprise to some twenty thousand rental centers in major U.S. retail spots.

Hartz was growing on a more global scale around the mid-1980s as well. They had a pet products headquarters in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, with regional branches in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary. International offices in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea provided purchasing support operations to Hartz’s worldwide marketing efforts. Expanding even further, Hartz acquired S.M. Cork, the leader in field service merchandising in the United Kingdom through a diverse array of non-food supermarket and convenience store items such as Hartz pet care, housewares, baby items, hair care, and cosmetics. By the end of the 1980s, Hartz had grown into a truly international company with enough products to ensure its position in the daily lives of millions and millions of consumers.[21]

Leonard’s talent for business diversification took another turn into unfamiliar territory when he first bought the iconic thirty-year-old weekly alternative newspaper, The Village Voice, in 1985. He was age forty-seven, and had been named by Forbes magazine as one of the 400 wealthiest Americans, with a net worth of more than $550 million.[22] At its headquarters in the East Village, the feisty weekly had been struggling with a clash of visions by the time Leonard acquired it.  The staff members differed on what the paper should be.  The decision by Murdoch to sell the paper prompted more infighting and uncertainty.  Once they learned that Leonard would be the new owner, eyebrows and questions were raised. Stern, the opinionated political conservative, seemed an unlikely candidate to lead the fiercely progressive weekly.

Leonard tried to assuage anxieties.  He said that he had always loved the paper and told the press that he was a liberal on civil rights and social issues and right of center on defense issues.  He said that his purchase of the publication, which did not require borrowing, was “not an extension of my ego or political beliefs but very much a business decision.” He did admit, however, that there was an element of wanting to conquer new vistas that drove his purchase. He said that, as a New Yorker, he enjoyed articles that were well-written presentations of differing opinions and new ideas. By responding “Why not?” to an intriguing business opportunity, he wanted to expand his opportunities in new directions. To those who questioned his political compatibility factor, Leonard cited his attraction to an unexpected opportunity to own a popular, profitable, “growing and respectable” publication. “Why not? I’m finally at the point where I have the money and the time to branch out from my other businesses.”[23]

While some wondered how Leonard’s conservative political leanings would mesh with The Village Voice’s brash, liberal voice and diverse range of readers, and if his legendary involvement at every level of his businesses would alienate the staff, he kept his promise to maintain a hands-off management style. Under his stewardship, the newspaper was improved by “snappier graphics, whiter newsprint and more colorful covers.”[24]

The Village Voice was Leonard’s second stab at the newspaper business. In 1984, he bought the East Side Express, a trendy weekly newspaper, for the price of its liabilities. He made the purchase in a single hour, hoping to prevent it from closing down. In a departure from his hands-on style, Leonard bought the seller’s business plan, and promised to invest $1 million in the first year to cover the business’ losses. After calculating the financial projects for himself, Stern was startled to have projected a likely deficit of more than $11 million in three years. Weeks later, Leonard laid off the staff and sold the name of the newspaper for a mere $50,000.

The late 1980s saw further media ventures.  Leonard launched Stern Publishing, buying similar publications around the country, including The LA Weekly, City Pages, Seattle Weekly, Long Island Voice, Cleveland Free Press, and City Pages in Minneapolis, growing to a weekly circulation that topped 900,000 to become the largest publisher of alternative weekly newspapers in the United States.[25]  The Harmon Publishing Division of Hartz grew into free local residential real estate advertising magazines in 175 major markets, reaching some two million potential home buyers every two weeks through distribution in supermarkets, banks, hotels, motels, restaurants, and corporate relocation company offices.[26]

In 1999, Stern put TheVillage Voice up for sale.  Its circulation had fallen from 151,109 in 1984 to 118,361 in 1995.  The paper began to lose its near monopoly on weekly cultural news and entertainment listings in the mid-1980s, with the arrival of The Observer, New York Press, and Time Out.  At the same time, many baby boomers who formed the Voice’s core audiences moved to the suburbs, leaving the paper behind.  In 1995, the paper responded to its circulation decline by eliminating the cover price for New York City readers.  Some observers saw the switch to free distribution as a sign that The Village Voice was losing franchise strength and the ability to fight off competitors. But publisher David Schneiderman, perhaps taking his cue from Stern, argued that the move went beyond a commitment to being free.  He said the paper wanted to deliver the best journalism and the maximum in market penetration for readers and advertisers.  By 1998, the circulation had risen from 118,361 three years earlier to 250,961, including 23,232 paid copies mailed outside the city.  Stern said that his decision to sell the paper became clear when none of his three children wanted to manage this part of the family business.[27] In January 2000, Leonard sold The Village Voice to a group of investors, including The Village Voice’s publisher, in a deal that included six additional alternative weekly newspapers for a rumored $150 million.[28]

Never abandoning its core pet-related ventures, in 1994, the Hartz Group acquired Wardley, which was at that time the biggest manufactured line of aquatic foods and remedies, with upwards of two hundred formulations for the serious aquatic hobbyist market, as well as outdoor pond products that moved Hartz into that growing market. It was during this time that Hartz also acquired the Pet Products Rawhide Company, which made dog treats, and the L&M Pet Company, which manufactured foods for small animals.[29]  With an eye toward product innovation, Hartz grew its research-and-development muscle when it built a state-of-the-art laboratory and research facility next to the company’s major manufacturing complex in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in 1995. Next, they added a Life Science Center to their tropical fish distribution facility in Tampa, Florida.

Continuing the Family Business

Around the time that Leonard divorced his children’s mother Judith in the mid-1980s, the patriarch gave his sons and daughter a golden opportunity, informing them that, “The business is here if you want it. If not, I’m selling it off.”  They accepted his offer “instantly,” Leonard told The New York Times.[30] He started them off with limited responsibilities, not wanting them to be spoiled by a sense of familial entitlement.  Emanuel began working in the retail real estate division, and today the first-born is president and chief operating officer of Hartz Mountain Industries, Inc., with responsibility for and oversight of the company’s many development projects in New York and northern New Jersey, including the SoHo Grand Hotel and other buildings in New York and New Jersey. Edward began at Spy magazine, and then graduated to running the pet-food division. Andrea seemed interested in communications. After working in several positions at The Village Voice newspaper while under family ownership, she founded The Long Island Village Voice, a Village Voice offshoot. When The New York Times inquired whether Leonard was giving Emanuel and Edward better positions in the family business than Andrea, he explained that she had just married (in 1997) and was deciding whether to focus on family or business. She agreed with her father’s assessment, saying in the article that she is “just as driven and ambitious as my brothers are. My time clock is just different.”[31]

In 1997, after handing control of the family business over to his children, Leonard approved Emanuel’s $10 million dollar purchase of a single acre of waterfront property, a record high in New Jersey land sales. The waterfront property on New Jersey’s Hudson River, which had suffered from changing demographics, economic instability and political shifts, was becoming viewed as fertile business ground once again. With baby boomers trading in empty suburban nests for more urban downsizing, rents in Manhattan driving many to the fringes of the city, and Wall Street businesses looking to grow, the area was primed for a major growth spurt. Investment funds were becoming more easily available, interest rates had dropped, and banks sought local borrowers. While many were driven from the area in the late 1980s and early 1990s recession, those developers who were able to hang on had what it took to profit big-time. On a tour of the company properties along the Hudson, Emanuel Stern shared his vision of building “multi-thousands of residential units and large amounts of commercial real estate, and this will become the sixth borough [of New York City].”[32] Though Lord Abbettt & Co. moved from Donald Trump’s General Motors building into the twelve-story, 420,000-square-foot property at 90 Hudson Street, Emanuel admitted that, with Wall Street layoffs and abundant inventory available on the New Jersey waterfront, it was a challenging time to have made such a high-priced purchase.[33]

The company’s commitment to business diversification took another turn when it expanded its hospitality division, which had begun with the Hartz Hilton Inn in 1980. In 1996 it constructed the ultra-luxurious SoHo Grand Hotel, the area’s first hotel built in more than one hundred years, with 367 rooms in downtown New York. Next came the Tribeca Grand Hotel for $50 million, and several hotels in suburban New Jersey, bringing the total of Hartz-owned hospitality properties to eleven. “I have my vision and I take my risks,” Leonard told the Wall Street Journal.[34] By 1998, the Hartz Group’s assets were said to total more than $3 billion. Leonard structured the business around the core principal of retaining sufficient cash flow to finance its own ventures, remaining independent of bank financing.[35]

In 1998, Tribeca hadn’t yet been developed by actor Robert DeNiro and associates into the trendy, luxury neighborhood that it is today. Leonard viewed it as “the backwater of Wall Street,” but his friend, Bernard Goldberg, chairman of the Hospitality Group, encouraged the enterprise with blunt advice: “Don’t be stupid.” Leonard heeded his advice, purchased a 10,000-square-foot triangle at the intersection of Avenue of the Americas and White, Walker, and Church streets, and built a 203-room hotel for a cool $62 million, which included the land. His vision was to “take the loneliness out of travel” with special architectural features.[36]

Second son Edward, nicknamed “Eddie,” earned a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Haverford College in 1987, where the head of the classics department begged Leonard not to “tempt Eddie to go into the business world. He said he was the brightest student he ever taught.”[37]  Edward won a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study fiction writing in Italy, writing under a pen name, Julius Lowenthal. Back home, he wrote for Spy magazine, then worked as business manager for TheVillage Voice, which Leonard had purchased in 1985. Eventually he began working at Hartz Mountain, where he became president and chief executive officer of The Hartz Mountain Corporation, spearheading the successful reorganization of what had grown into America’s largest pet supply manufacturer and distributor.

Edward’s philanthropic service includes serving on the board of directors of The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, the board of Trustees of Columbia Grammar School and The Gateway School, and on the investment committee of UJA Federation.[38]  The whip-thin, brooding, and brilliant second son was credited with leading one of the family’s most significant business deals: the sale of Hartz Mountain pet supply business interests to a fund under the management of the Boston-based private equity firm JW Child Associates, resulting in liquid assets of more than $100 million for the Stern family. This enabled Edward to invest in his dream of running a hedge fund, which provided private investment opportunities for the wealthy. After using family funds for small-scale trading for two years, Edward dove wholeheartedly into Canary Capital Partners and its management company, Canary Investment Management.

Edward’s practice of mutual-fund timing, which was commonly practiced in the world of hedge funds, led to a 110 percent return in 1999. By 2000, he was accepting outside money from eager investors with deep pockets. By the start of 2001, Edward was managing $184 million, and by the end of that year, the sum had multiplied to $400 million. He maintained a small staff—just five employees in 2001—and a high fee structure, charging his investors 1.5 percent of the managed funds, and 25 percent of the profits. His fund’s return for 2001 decreased to 28.5 percent, outperforming the major stock indexes. Its assets grew to $30 million the following year, and that year, Canary had to give 15 percent, minus fees, to investors.[39]

The youngest of Mr. Stern’s children, Andrea, earned a degree with honors from Brown University. She is the one who focused most strongly on working in various capacities in publishing since 1996, saying, “I’ve loved working at The Village Voice.Running a publishing business was never what I aspired to do as my life’s work even though it has been a tremendous experience.”[40] Today Andrea is an accomplished photographer.[41]

Legal Controversies

In 2003, Edward’s financial dealings brought controversy to the hugely successful Stern family business when he was the subject of a major investigation into the mutual fund industry after he paid $40 million to settle charges of illegal trading with the office of the New York State Attorney General. His hedge fund was alleged to have taken advantage of special trading opportunities with prominent mutual fund families by promising to invest heavily in funds managed by several companies such as Bank of America Corp’s Nations Funds, Bank One Corp, Strong Capital Management Inc., and Janus Capital Group.

Leonard came to his son’s defense. “Eddie at no time knew that he was doing something illegal,” he told Business Week. “I know this because I asked and he told me. He’s an outstanding young man. I can’t remember one time when he told me an untruth … I brought my sons into the business to extend my working life, so I could keep my hand in the business. I have put them behind the eight ball,” Leonard said. “The thought that I might, at some time, have to at the very least correct their mistakes is very, very stressful. But I haven’t. And I never would have brought them in if I hadn’t believed in them 100 percent—their ability, their intelligence, and above all…their integrity.”[42]

Canary Capital Partners released a statement stating that it opted for the settlement to “avoid protracted and complex litigation,” admitting no wrongdoing, and neither admitting nor denying guilt, and shelling out $30 million “in restitution of profits” and another $10 million in fines. Edward Stern also said he would not trade any mutual funds or manage public investment funds for a period of ten years.[43]

That wasn’t the first controversy to hit the Stern family’s growing business empire. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the pet supplies arm of Hartz endured a turbulent decade marked by conflict with the government, unions, and competitors.  The Sterns paid $42.5 million to the A.H. Robins Company, who makes Sergeant’s pet supplies, settling a lawsuit that charged them with commercial bribery, perjury, and antitrust violations.  Hartz was accused with cornering the pet supplies market through illegal deals.  The Federal Trade Commission and several supply companies and distributors alleged that Hartz, despite a commanding market share in many pet supply categories, seemed determined to drive all competitors out of its markets.  Additionally, Hartz was documented as hiring prostitutes to entertain their customers at trade shows, destroying documents, and clandestinely taping executives as a business practice. In 1984, Hartz pleaded guilty to federal charges including obstruction of justice, perjury and suborning perjury, and was fined $20,000.[44]

Business Week noted that “There is an uncanny parallel with his son Eddie’s current tribulations.”[45]  Leonard Stern was not personally implicated in the scandal. Judge Merhige, Jr., of the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond, complained that government lawyers had been too soft on Hartz executives in the plea bargain agreement, calling the process “a miscarriage of justice.” In response, Leonard argued that Judge Merhige’s complaints were based on testimony in related cases from two vice presidents of sales—Walter Albuquerque and George Spencer—who were taped by a fellow executive conversing about violating antitrust laws and committing perjury. Leonard said that because the company pleaded guilty prior to the completion of grand jury deliberations, the case was never tried, and the Hartz company never got to have its say in court. It was his contention that the plea did not represent guilt on the company’s part, but rather served as an admission that while some of its corporate executives had engaged in illegal conduct, Hartz’s top executives were not touched by the scandal. The vice presidents of sales—George Spencer and Walter Albuquerque—were convicted of perjury and served very brief jail terms, along with sales executive Fern Caron, who was not heard on the tapes.

In the wake of this scandal, Leonard maintained that the company had “reaffirmed in writing its policy against bribery, kickbacks and perjury.”[46] Some familiar with Hartz’s business practices expressed their skepticism that the illegal activities weren’t more widespread than reported, and that Leonard Stern, with his notorious reputation as an aggressive, hands-on leader, had likely been very much aware of and in touch with what was going on in his company.

An October 1984 issue of American Lawyer magazine published a lengthy journalistic indictment of Leonard Stern, titled “The Hartz Mountain Corporate Officers’ Guide to Committing Perjury, Suborning Perjury, Obstructing Justice, Locking up the Market, and Paying a $20,000 fine.”[47]  These controversies became even more relevant and public when, after building a $500 million fortune and bringing the forlorn northern New Jersey swamplands to life, Leonard Stern further expanded his family dynasty into the realm of media.

The mogul who was driven to prodigious diversification and expansion by his desire to be “first the youngest of the rich and then the richest of the rich,” built a reputation as a super-tough, aggressive businessman whose allegiance to money first and foremost allowed him access to elite power circles far above partisan politics and rules that apply to the little guy, but not to him.[48]  In 2009, Forbes once again named Leonard Stern as number 84 of the 400 Richest Americans, with a net worth around $3.6 billion, and the sources of his wealth as “real estate” and “self-made.”[49]  The business that began with birdseed and made a German-Jewish immigrant’s dream of “Only in America” come spectacularly true is still breaking ground.

At the beginning of 2011, Hartz Mountain Industries announced that it was the region’s first commercial real estate developer to introduce an iPhone Web Application that lets users “conveniently access Hartz’s available property information from their iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad device.” “As long as technology continues to heighten and enrich the relationships we form with our existing tenants, prospective tenants, brokers and other industry professionals, we will continue to invest,” Emanuel said.[50]

Philanthropy

Leonard is very active with his philanthropic efforts, proving that he is as devoted to donating money to pet causes as he has been to building and expanding a family dynasty. In 1985 he became painfully aware of the plight of homeless persons in New York City.  While driving a visiting friend past City Hall, he was struck by the number of people sleeping on benches. When he asked a nearby police officer about it, the officer explained that the homeless were safer in the park under his watch than in the shelters. Leonard visited welfare hotels and gymnasiums to see for himself. Struck by the high rate of mental deterioration among the residents, Stern went to work creating a plan to build garden apartment-like buildings in the vacant lots in the city’s outer boroughs, financed through bond issues, reasoning that this would cost the government less than they were currently paying for substandard solutions to what was clearly a growing crisis.[51] He formed that program, “Homes for the Homeless,” which provides support services and temporary housing for families with young children, in 1986. Additional initiatives provide literacy training, tutoring, and a program to build employee readiness. He has invested millions in Homes for the Homeless, making the nonprofit “the largest provider of transition housing, including shelters, for NYC’s homeless families for over 20 years.”[52]

Carrying on his father Max’s devotion to education, Leonard donated $30 million to his alma mater, New York University, in 1988. The university subsequently named its business school after him, in recognition of that gift and Stern’s twenty years of services as a university trustee. Leonard’s gift was the largest donation in the history of the then 157-year-old NYU, the largest private school in the nation. Part of the gift was used to build a 200,000-square foot building to consolidate the business school activities, which had been scattered at different sites. He had previously made a $3 million gift to NYU in 1986.[53]

Leonard’s commitment to what he calls “participatory philanthropy” led to his latest initiative, “Milk From the Heart,” which he formed in 2011 to provide free milk to low-income families in New York City. A van with coolers travels around the city on weekdays, near housing developments, schools, and community centers, to give two quarts of 1 percent milk to people who heard about the service through their local community organizations. They are asked to answer a few quick questions—anonymously—and that data is shared with other nonprofits. Leonard was determined to prove that reaching his goal of distributing about a million quarts of free milk in 2011 was “workable. I just don’t understand how we can have this kind of poverty in this city.”[54]  In creating Milk From the Heart, Leonard wanted to ensure that the program wasn’t hurting the profits of local food stores. “We wanted to find out if the stores’ milk sales had been hurt and we found out, no effect. A little inductive reasoning and you assume these children had not been receiving milk recently.”[55]

With the same vision and heartfelt fervor that expanded his late father Max’s business empire into a modern dynasty, Leonard wants to grow Homes for the Homeless, which receives support at the city, state, and federal levels, “because we provide a proven service with proven success to address a proven need,” he said. “We want to do the same with Milk from the Heart, and I think other cities in the U.S. will adopt it. We think this could be an example of something that could be really scalable.”[56]

Yet, some saw his charity as window dressing.  Small business owners, city officials, and low income residents were displaced by his development projects and vision of gentrification in north Jersey, which ushered in a rise of homelessness, poor Hispanics being forced out of Hoboken, and historic buildings being razed.[57]

Social Status

After his divorce from Judith in the mid-1980s, Leonard “dated widely,” according to New York Magazine, even throwing singles' parties for friends to meet new potential mates. In his late forties, Stern had a style that differed markedly from the reserved, buttoned-down senior executives of his generation.  He liked cigars, good food, and dance.  He lived in a townhouse on New York City’s Fifth Avenue and didn’t allow business to get in the way of his social life after his divorce. “I’m not a playboy but I do like to have a good time,” he said.[58]

In 1987 Leonard married Allison Maher Stern, a former model (who appeared on the poster for the movie Jaws) and Emmy Award-winning television producer.  Allison, who told Business Week that she grew up “dirt-poor” in Kentucky, is described by friends of the couple as having a “really romantic” relationship with Leonard, unlike many society couples.”[59]  

Shortly after their marriage, they were invited to cocktails at the Bronx Zoo, run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Allison was inspired to become a trained tour guide of the society’s Central Park Zoo. In 1992, she became a trustee. When a naming opportunity for a new exhibit dedicated to the endangered snow leopards became available in 1996, “Mr. Stern decided to surprise his wife by giving the money in her name.”[60]

Friends told the Wall Street Journal that Allison had a mellowing effect on Leonard, inspiring him to entertain on his 126-foot yacht, formerly owned by Malcolm Forbes, and named Lady Allison in her honor. The couple lives primarily in one of New York’s only freestanding mansions, on Fifth Avenue, filled with the art that Leonard loves. “He’s particularly knowledgeable about Greco-Roman art and has a very extensive collection” that includes the art of Van Gogh and Modigliani, among others, said his longtime friend Wilbur Ross.[61]

While a hard-driving businessman, Leonard is described as projecting a “cultivated image,” with a “personal style [that] is warm and sometimes witty.” His hobbies include art collecting, riding horses, wine-tasting, and skiing.”[62] One thing is clear: Leonard N. Stern’s sense of priorities and family values. When asked what kind of legacy he hopes to leave, he replied, “The only thing that endures is the kids. Nothing else lasts.”[63]

Conclusion

The multi-generational success of the Stern family is rooted in the classic tale of a European immigrant who came to America with nothing more than a dollar and a dream (and, in Max’s case, five thousand singing birds), and who, through grit, ingenuity, and unstoppable chutzpah, created a successful business enterprise.

Max’s realization that the economic conditions in his native Germany were not conducive to the life he wanted demonstrates the economic awareness and business savvy inherited by his son, Leonard, and Leonard’s sons, Emanuel and Edward. Like many of his fellow Jews who fled hard times with the hope of something better, Max Stern found New York City, the economic capital of the United States, to be fertile ground. The networks these Jewish immigrants formed through their religion, communities, and culture served as a strong foundation for many of their entrepreneurial undertakings. By supporting each other economically, they planted the seed for a strong foundation that continues to undergird the Jewish community in America today.

The Sterns have proven to be leaders in developing new forms of business along prosaic lines—pet foods, real estate, media—by diversifying in the late twentieth century. They have been leaders in innovation, creating jobs for thousands of people and leading other entrepreneurs onto new ground.

One key to the Stern’s family achievements was their recognition of the importance of education to business success. While Max might have been self-taught, his philanthropic focus on supporting higher education demonstrated his conviction that a learned person is best prepared to take the reins of the family business and move it onward and upward. Max’s second son, Leonard, certainly proved this theory to be true, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees at a very young age. Moreover, in combining the value of his business education with his talent for envisioning and recognizing new opportunities, Leonard is a classic example of an immigrant parent’s dream. 

Like so many Jewish immigrants, the Sterns have long been committed to upward mobility. Like millions of others who built new lives in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, they came with dreams and a willingness to Americanize their thinking and take risks. Many were able to rise to economic security within little more than a single generation. What did Jewish immigrants like Max Stern do differently than the many Americans who never achieved economic success? Perhaps the answer lies in the immigrants’ willingness to remain inventive, flexible, and to not only take advantage of existing opportunities, but to envision and create new ones even when, like Leonard, they have long passed the point of needing to work for money.

Max, like many immigrants, mastered the process of reinvention. Building upon whatever education, experience, and skills these newcomers brought across the ocean, they never restricted their vision of what was possible in America. They knew—and taught their children and children’s children—that working for others was not the road to a strong, secure future. Therefore, they created their own opportunities, fueled by a sense that America was truly a land of unlimited opportunity for them and their families, and the knowledge that entrepreneurship was where their fortunes would lie. As part of creating new lives and futures, these entrepreneurial immigrants also invested heavily in steering their children onto the same path.

From Max, a failed businessman who crossed an ocean with little more than thousands of singing birds and the sense that he had everything to gain and little to lose, to his son’s genius at solidifying the family fortune through ongoing innovation, to the son’s sons taking the family legacy to the next level, the legendary Stern family is a classic example of taking risks, accepting the responsibility of leadership, and remaining grounded in the traditions that enable growth, progress, and the creation of a multi-generational legacy.

Leonard Stern, in particular, is an entrepreneurial success because of his relentless drive to expand and diversify into a number of diverse businesses at a time when such unrelated diversification (pets, real estate, news weeklies, hedge funds) had become increasingly illegitimate as a business strategy.  While there was a lot of pressure on firms, particularly public companies, to focus more on core competencies and divest themselves of unrelated businesses, Stern swam against this tide, which is a reflection of his personality and the fact the Hartz empire was a family business and hence not subject to the pressure of outside investors.  Leonard Stern’s story speaks to the persistence and importance of closely held family businesses and their ability to challenge prevailing wisdom. 

Notes


[1] Winston Williams, “Birds and Words: Leonard Stern; Moving Hartz Mountain Into Media,” New York Times, July 7, 1985.

[2] See http://www.667madison.com/index.htm (accessed July 19, 2012).

[3] Thomas J. Lueck, “Jersey Realty Coup by Hartz,” New York Times, August 8, 1987.

[4] Rodger Ricklefs, “And Gerbils and Guppies and Puppy Shampoo: How Hartz Mountain Corp. Makes a Bundle . . . ,” Wall Street Journal, June 21, 1973.

[5] The Hartz Group History (accessed July 19, 2012).

[6] “Pet Industry Has More Customers Than It Can Satisfy; Dogs Cost More Than Twice Pre-War Price; Food, Equipment Hard to Buy,” Wall Street Journal, April 10, 1944.

[7] “Max Stern, Fund Raiser, Active in Jewish Affairs,” Boston Globe, May 21, 1982.

[8] Walter H. Waggoner, “Max Stern, Hartz Mountain Founder and Patron of Education, Dies,” New York Times, May 21, 1982.

[9] Gigi Mahon, “Hartz Content: The Good Life of Leonard Stern,” New York Magazine, May 5, 1986, 45.

[10] Sally Beatty, “Gift of the Week: Pet Project,” Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2007.

[11] Emanuel married Elizabeth Egan, a Manhattan schoolteacher and animal lover from Southern California, in June 1992 in a traditional Jewish ceremony held in the Central Park Zoo (Lois Smith Brady, “Vows; Elizabeth Egan and Emanuel Stern,” New York Times, June 28, 1992 (accessed July 19, 2012)). Edward married Stephanie Rein, a doctor, on June 6, 1991 (“Edward J. Stern Wed to Ms. Rein,” New York Times, June 7, 1991). Andrea married Adam Pelzman, an attorney, in a traditional Jewish ceremony on September 7, 1997 (“Andrea Stern and Adam Pelzman,” New York Times, September 7, 1997 (accessed July 19, 2012)).

[12] The Hartz Group History (accessed July 19, 2012).

[13] Mahon, 45.

[14] Alexander R. Hammer, “Affluence Is Fueling Pet Industry Growth,” New York Times, September 2, 1969.

[15] Mark Robichaux, “Hartz Faces Mounting Safety Questions Over Its Blockade Flea and Tick Spray,” Wall Street Journal, September 3, 1987.

[16] Lueck, “Jersey Realty Coup.”

[17] Hartz Group History (accessed July 19, 2012).

[18] Mahon, 46.

[19] Mahon, 45.

[20] Robert Guenther, “New Jersey Rides the Tide of an Economic Upswing,” Wall Street Journal, August 6, 1987.

[21] Hartz Group History (accessed July 19, 2012).

[22] Richard W. Stevenson, “Village Voice is Bought by Chairman of Hartz,” New York Times, June 21, 1985.

[23] Williams, “Birds and Words.”

[24] Mahon, 44.

[25] Hartz Group History (accessed July 19, 2012).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ivan Peterson, “Village Voice, Circulation Down, to Be Free to Manhattan Readers, New York Times, February 8, 1996; Felicity Barringer, “Ending Era of Stability, The Voice Is Put Up for Sale,” New York Times, September 23, 1999.

[28] “Village Voice Sold to Investor Group,” New York Daily News, January 5, 2000.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Monique P. Yazigi, “Bringing a Son Up Right,” New York Times, June 21, 1998.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Andrea Kannapell, “On the Waterfront,” New York Times, February 15, 1998.

[33] Hartz had paid its company dues. When the economy was iffy, Gene Heller, Hartz’s president of real estate, wanted to build, build, build. Leonard, as company president, preferred to lie low until times improved. This spawned a huge rift that was a staple of real estate gossip for many years. Gene Heller left Hartz after twenty-five years to gamble on his own entrepreneurial instincts, founding Edgewater Commons, the first shopping center on River Road, with his son, Tod—a project that is said to have sparked the waterfront revival.

[34] Linda Sandler, “Call This Business a Family Affair—Developer Leonard Stern Loosens Purse Strings as Sons Rise in Firm,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1998.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Elaine Louie, “Forget the Architecture, the Fun’s Inside,” New York Times, May 11, 2000.

[37] Marcia Vickers, “Dynasty in Distress,” Business Week, February 8, 2004 (accessed July 19, 2012).

[38] Senior Executive Profile: Edward Stern (accessed July 19, 2012).

[39] The Wall Street Journal reported that, “In the first five months of [2003], however, the fund registered only a 1.5 percent gain and [Edward] Stern returned money to the outside investors. In a May 2 notes to investors, [he] wrote, ‘We hope that you considered the ride to be a good one, and thank you again for your support.’ See Robert Frank, “Now, Mutual Funds Under Fire: Charges Against Canary Capital Cast a Spotlight on the Sterns; A Journey from Hartz to Hedge,” Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2003.

[40] Felicity Barringer, “Ending Era of Stability, The Voice is Put Up for Sale,” New York Times, September 23, 1999.

[41] See her website at http://www.andreasternphotography.com (accessed July 19, 2012).

[42] Vickers, “Dynasty in Distress.”

[43] Meg Richards, “Canary Capital Agrees to Pay $40 Million,” Associated Press, September 4, 2003 (accessed July 28, 2012.)

[44] Paul Blustein, “Hartz Owner Made a Prime Target of a Big Grand Jury Investigation,” Wall Street Journal, January 17, 1983; “Hartz Mountain Pleads Guilty in Perjury Case; Probe of Officials Ends,” Wall Street Journal, March 30, 1984.

[45] Vickers, “Dynasty in Distress.”

[46] Ibid.

[47] Mahon, 44.

[48] Williams, “Birds and Words.”

[49]The Forbes 400 Richest Americans 2009,” September 30, 2009 (accessed July 19, 2012).

[51] Mahon, 48.

[52] Julia Stears, “NYC’s Billionaire Milkman, Greatest Person of the Day,” The Huffington Post, May 25, 2011 (accessed July 19, 2012).

[53] Robert D. McFadden, “Entrepreneur Plans to Donate About $25 Million to N.Y.U.,” New York Times, September 19,1988.

[54] Melanie Grayce West, “Heard & Scene—Donor of the Day: Real-Estate Titan’s Milk Drops,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2011 (accessed July 19, 2012).

[55] Stears, “NYC’s Billionaire Milkman.”

[56] Ibid.

[57] Michael Winerip, “Beseeching Help From a Giant For Jersey’s Poor,” New York Times, October 23, 1987.

[58] Lueck, “Jersey Realty Coup.”

[59] Vickers, “Dynasty in Distress.”

[60] Beatty, “Gift of the Week.”

[61] Vickers, “Dynasty in Distress.”

[62] Williams, “Birds and Words.”

[63] Lisa Sandler, “Call This Business a Family Affair—Developer Leonard Stern Loosens Purse Strings as Sons Rise in Firm,” Wall Street Journal, November 18, 1998.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Leonard N. Stern." (2014) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved August 28, 2014, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=121Immigrant

Chicago Style

Patton, Stacey. "Leonard N. Stern." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 5, edited by R. Daniel Wadhwani. German Historical Institute. Last modified October 17, 2013. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=121Immigrant

MLA Style

"Leonard N. Stern," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2014, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 28 Aug 2014 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=121Immigrant>

Leonard Stern at the Wildlife Conservation Society Gala, 2003

  • Leonard Stern Portrait, 1991
  • Stern School of Business, New York University
TOP