NEW YORK — Samson Bitensky, former chairman and chief executive officer of Fab Industries, a major knitting company, died Wednesday at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 86.
For many years, Fab was a leading producer of tricot and circular knits, raschel laces and fabrics and laminated and bonded fabrics. It also had operations for dyeing and finishing.
Over several decades, Fab introduced a series of proprietary fabrics that resulted from original finishing techniques developed in collaboration with major yarn companies. The most well known was probably Supersuede, which was introduced in the Seventies and is still being made.
Bitensky was born on Jan. 6, 1920, in the small town of Maytchet in what was then Poland and is now Belarus. He immigrated to the U.S. at age 18 without knowing a word of English. In New York, he learned English at night and attended City College, where he continued the engineering and math studies he had begun at the Vilna Technion, a technical school in Vilna, Poland.
When the U.S. entered World War II, he went to his local Army recruiter to volunteer and was told noncitizens could not do so.
“So, can you draft me?” was his response, he later recalled. He was drafted the next day and eventually shipped out to Italy. He spent 14 months overseas, first in Africa and then as part of the invasion of Italy at Salerno, where he led a five-soldier team of forward observers in a chemical battalion.
Bitensky returned to New York after the war and, in 1949, married Halina Zobler, also from Poland. In 1955, he started Fab-Lace Inc. It was a success from the start. Soon he began to acquire textile mills. In 1966, John D. MacArthur, owner of Bankers Life & Casualty, asked Bitensky to turn around a mill that had been foreclosed upon. Instead, Bitensky reorganized Fab-Lace as Fab Industries Inc., with the mill among its assets. Two years later, the company went public.
Bitensky described himself as an enthusiastic craps player during his time in the U.S. Army. But he was far from a gambler when it came to business.
That became clear in December 2001. At a time when many major U.S. textile mills were filing for bankruptcy because they could no longer cover their debts, Bitensky revealed that Fab Industries Inc. was sitting on a $93 million pile of cash. He explained at the time that he’d amassed the money so that the company would be in a position to make acquisitions if the right deal came along.
But, he said, “Frankly, there’s nothing that looks like it makes sense to buy today.” He said he’d looked at a number of knitting mills overseas, but concluded they were all “too risky.”
So Bitensky put the company on the block and Fab started paying out the cash reserves to its shareholders in hefty dividends. While the company downsized its operations, Bitensky passionately argued that it would remain as a going concern — and made that a condition of the proposed sale.
That move came a year after Bitensky, who, at the time, owned almost 30 percent of the publicly traded company, fought off a proposal by an investor with a far smaller stake to liquidate the company. At the May 2000 annual meeting, where shareholders voted the proposal down, Bitensky took the stockholder Ralph A. Young, of Harrison, N.Y., to task.
“I’m a larger stockholder than you are, Mr. Young, and I started this company,” he said. “I treat it as a business, not a game, and building a business takes time. I’ve had people working hard in this company for over 30 years and I realize in a business you have your ups and downs.”
At its peak in 1996, Fab had some 1,800 employees and almost $190 million in revenues. Beginning in the late Nineties, with the company caught in the drastic contraction of the domestic textile industry, Bitensky downsized the business. In 2001, after cutting its workforce by about 1,000 people, Fab slipped $8 million into the red on $80 million in sales and was then sold to a group of senior managers.
Bitensky was the subject of “The Company My Father Built” (Sands Point Press, 2003), written by his daughter, Susan Bitensky Lerner, who worked at Fab for more than 10 years. Bitensky was a member of the board of trustees of Yeshiva University, Beth Israel Hospital and Shenkar College of Engineering & Design in Ramat-Gan, Israel.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Bitensky is survived by another daughter, Beth Myers, and three grandchildren.
A funeral service is scheduled for noon on Sunday at Riverside-North Nassau Chapel, 55 North Station Plaza, Great Neck, N.Y.