A Business Icon�s Take on Success and Tough Economic Times By Adrienne Papp “None of the movies I’ve made would have been possible without somebody first believing in me. I really believe that being a mentor to talented newcomers is a very time-honored tradition,” said Steven Spielberg at the Golden Globes referring to former Universal Studios head Sidney Sheinberg, who helped him on the road to success.
Alex Kaufman, an orphaned holocaust survivor and celebrated American entrepreneur who started with nothing, yet built some of the biggest companies in American history, shares the same belief. Having developed thousands of exclusive products for the aircraft industry, building numerous companies from NutraSweet to fashion designs such as Jones of New York, creating thousands of jobs worldwide made him a celebrity in the business world.
As I sit down for a personal interview with this extraordinary man, the air fills with excitement and Alex starts cracking jokes revealing his charismatic and flamboyant personality, which helped carry him through the toughest times in his life. While sharing his story about what sheer willpower and determination can do, it is obvious that some of his biggest assets are his amusing wit, great sense of humor and unbreakable will.
In February of 1950, a very young Alex Kaufman arrived in New York with twenty-five cents to his name. But what he was carrying, in addition to a single quarter, was a steely determination to find out what he was made of. That determination turned out to be enough to make him one of the most successful men in the World.
With a degree in chemistry, Kaufman found his way to Hatco chemical company where his hard work and creativity made him President, ascending the ladder from dishwasher in a short time.
Later, Hatco was purchased by the W.R. Grace Company, a large multi-billion dollar American corporation and it was under the mentorship of CEO, Peter Grace that Kaufman�s business skills further developed. This resulted in him being named one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America. His is a classic story based on stable, old fashioned American principles of hard work meeting opportunity, the integrity that often gets forgotten in today�s speedy world of �get rich fast schemes,� which is one of the contributors to the current economic crises.
When W.R. Grace purchased Hatco, Kaufman was originally a production manager. �At a stockholder�s meeting at the Hilton in New York, I told Peter Grace that the only way I could do a great job was if I ran the company. I had enough self-reliance and knew that Peter respected my skills and commitment. And right there, on the spot, he made me the President of Hatco and announced it at the shareholder�s meeting,� Alex recalls.
Many successful men can point to someone who influenced their lives positively and mentored them, thus helping them fulfill their potential. And for Kaufman, it was Peter Grace, who helped shape his self-confidence and business instincts. But, he wasn�t the only one. �I don�t think in life you have only one mentor, �Alex says. �My first mentor was my father. He was a hard working, respected man and really was an example to me of how to live your life. Peter Grace taught me the nuts and bolts of running a business and his determination was something I felt in myself. It became a driving force. We had a good relationship because he had the business sense and I had the technical expertise for the products. Together we got things done.� An alchemy that is often forgotten in today�s rough and misunderstood approach to competition.
With a well developed sense of confidence and rock solid business acumen the once subservient employee purchased Hatco from Peter Grace just a few years later and turned it into one of the most successful chemical companies in the country.
Victor Frankel, another Holocaust survivor, wrote that �nothing is more likely to help a person overcome or endure troubles than the consciousness of having a task in life.� For Alex Kaufman that task has existed in one form or another all his life. �When I was young I just wanted to survive to see my family and to prove the Nazis wrong. In my business career, I was motivated by a fear of failure and also felt that my purpose was to be a provider for my family, to be successful so that my family would never have to suffer. Now, I feel my purpose is to pass along some lessons and help mentor others on how to be successful in this very tough world.�
As a humanitarian, Kaufman is passing along his life lessons to the next generation, and feels the need to share his business experience with young people just starting their careers.
�I was able to make it in life and business through a motivation that kept me going, a need to prove myself,� Kaufman says. �So, for those who want to be successful, learn to believe in yourself and find a mentor who will believe in you. It�s also important to educate yourself, to learn as much as you can from everyone around you and then strike out on your own. Find out what people want, produce to fulfill those needs and continue to focus. The other thing that is so important in these turbulent times is to be able to adapt to change. And you can always do that, as long as you believe in yourself and trust your instincts.�
When pointing out our current unstable financial times, Alex notes that the best way to avoid surprises is to diversify one�s portfolio and never allow any one company to invest more than 2% percent of one�s wealth. It�s a winning formula from a business genius who also knows what it�s like to lose everything.