Aaron Feuerstein, Malden Mills’ visionary leader and philanthropist, passed away recently at age 95. Values-in-Action Foundation is proud to continue his world-renowned legacy through the annual Malden Mills Corporate Kindness Award, which we have given to values-centered CEOs since 1999. Aaron’s story of courage, social responsibility and kindness has resonated with us and the 30 recipients of the Malden Mills Corporate Kindness Award. In June, 2022 the award will go to GO-JO/Purell.
In 1995, Malden Mills, then the largest textile mill in the United States, burned to the ground. Aaron was told of this tragedy at his 70th birthday party. It was just before Christmas and the Mill’s 3,000 employees didn’t have much hope the company would survive. When Aaron called a meeting at the local high school gymnasium the next day, they all expected to get their pink slips.
Why would an aging businessman trade off hundreds of millions in insurance money for their futures? But Aaron shocked them – and the world – by announcing they were like family (many in their third generation of work at the mill); the employees would be paid full wages and benefits during the rebuilding process. That Christmas, every parish in the Boston Catholic Diocese lit candles to “Saint Aaron who saved Christmas.” After the Mill was rebuilt, the employees returned Aaron’s kindness by tripling production.
I met Aaron in 1997 when he came to Cleveland for a speaking event. To him, speaking out across the country was one way of inspiring others. I was smitten by his vision and sincerity, especially by his culminating words (from the Prophet Micah): “What does God want of us? To love justice, do acts of kindness, and walk humbly with your Lord.”
Aaron felt an enormous sense of responsibility – a calling from God – to do the right thing. In one interview, he likened his calling to that of Abraham, who was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac. Aaron said that Abraham answered God by saying “Hineini, I am here;” and, so, Aaron said “Hineini,” as well, when the mill was destroyed.
I later approached Aaron and asked if we could name a corporate kindness award after Malden Mills. He said yes and came to our gala in 1997 when we gave the first Malden Mills Corporate Kindness Award to Ed Davidson and Cooperative Resource Services. At that same event, Aaron (along with King Hussein I of Jordan) received our Rescuer of Humanity Award.
Aaron was in many ways the father of the modern-day corporate social responsibility movement. But Aaron knew that corporate responsibility only goes so far – corporate kindness hits the mark that employees were seeking then and that employees are seeking today.
Thank you Aaron for setting a high bar, creating a legacy that continues to motivate, and striving for a world of kindness we have yet to achieve but which your example inspires us to reach.
Stuart Muszynski is the CEO and president of Values-in-Action Foundation in Mayfield.
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