Aaron M. Feuerstein, former chief executive officer of Malden Mills Industries, died Thursday night at his home in Brookline, Mass., after falling ill earlier in the week, according to the Associated Press. Feuerstein was known for his tenacity and drive to innovate as well as his commitment to his employees and to the community of Lawrence, Mass., where the textile mill was located.
Feuerstein was married to Marika, who died in 1984, and later to Louise, who passed away in 2013. Feuerstein was born on Dec. 11, 1925, in Brookline.
It was on Dec. 11, 1995, that a devasting explosion and fire at the Lawrence facility sent 24 workers to the hospital, according to WWD reports, which also noted that Feuerstein vowed to not only get production up and running quickly, but to continue to pay its workers. At the time of the fire, Malden Mills was gearing up for a $20 million expansion to help fuel the success of its Polartec fabric.
On Dec. 19, 1995, WWD noted that despite the fire, the company restarted a small portion of its Polartec production and that Feuerstein promised to pay all of its 3,200 workers, including the 2,400 impacted by the fire, for the next 30 days while extending health insurance for the next 90 days.
Feuerstein ended up continuing to pay all his workers beyond the initial 30 days promised until the plant was fully operational. In the 90th anniversary issue of WWD in July of 2001, Feuerstein was named one of several “Textile Titans” by WWD.
Feuerstein attended the Boston Latin School and then Yeshiva University, where he majored in English and philosophy. He graduated in 1947. It was at Yeshiva University where he studied the Talmud and learned about the importance of having responsibility for his workers as well as for the community. Feuerstein was also far ahead of other business leaders in regard to corporate responsibility, which is now called corporate social responsibility, or CSR. He would often speak about the role of business and its responsibilities to workers and the communities in which they’re located.
In 1997, for example, during a Brown University public affairs forum, Feuerstein found himself on a panel with Mark Green, the public advocate of the City of New York, William Reilly, a former administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, among others, discussing “Corporate Citizenship: What Does It Mean?”
Malden Mills was founded in 1906 by Henry Feuerstein, Aaron’s grandfather. The company offered specialized fabrics and wool apparel. The elder Feuerstein built the company by offering various innovations and also bending with the times. During the peak of the Great Depression, the company was forced to drop the price of its famed worsted swimwear from $8.50 to $7. The company also played a key role in fabric production during World War II.
Long before Polartec fleece hit the market, Malden Mills delivered U.S. patents pending fabrics to the knitwear market. In 1934, the company ran ads in WWD for its Flan-O-Tweed and Repla-Twist fabrics. But it was in 1979 that Malden Mills became world-renown for its Polartec fleece when the company teamed up with Patagonia to develop “Synchilla” — a synthetic chinchilla fabric.
In November 1995, a month before the devasting fire, Aaron Feuerstein told WWD that he expected the Polartec business to generate $1 billion in sales by 2003. In November 2001, the company found itself in bankruptcy. The company submitted a reorganization plan and emerged from Chapter 11.
In June 2004, Feuerstein left the company. In July of that year, Malden Mills named Michael Spillane, a former Tommy Hilfiger executive, as president and CEO. Then in 2007, Malden Mills was in trouble again and the company filed for bankruptcy. A new company, Polartec LLC, which is owned by Versa Capital Management, was formed and bought the assets of Malden Mills.
In 2019, Milliken & Co. bought Polartec from Versa for an undisclosed sum. “Versa acquired the assets of the former Malden Mills in 2007 through the then 101-year-old textile manufacturer’s third reorganization,” Milliken said in a statement at the time of the deal. “Working with management, the business was transformed, renaming the company Polartec, reorienting it toward a technology- and innovation-led growth strategy, and revamping the company’s leadership, operations, manufacturing footprint and customer relationships.”
Today, customers of Polartec fabric include Patagonia, The North Face, Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, L.L. Bean, Outdoor Research, and Cabela’s, among other brands, as well as each branch of the U.S. military.