A. Alfred Taubman, the visionary developer and founder of Taubman Centers, died Friday night after suffering a heart attack at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Taubman was 91.
“Just last month he was in Puerto Rico to celebrate with us the grand opening of the Mall of San Juan,” said Robert Taubman, president and chief executive officer of Taubman Centers, and one of Alfred Taubman’s three children. “He was so proud of what this wonderful company he founded 65 years ago has accomplished.”
This story first appeared in the April 20, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
After dinner Friday night, “a heart attack took him from us, ending what was a full extraordinary life that touched so many people in so many wonderful ways around the world. Right now it is difficult for me to express our sadness,” said Robert Taubman.
“Our father was really our inspiration, and the culture of the company and our values are really based on him,” added William Taubman, chief operating officer of Taubman Centers, and Alfred’s other son.
The tall and gregarious Alfred Taubman took his family-run shopping-center business on a path of growth through the development of traditional malls that were selectively merchandised rather than just filled with tenants willing to pay the most rent. With an education in architecture, Taubman had a sensitivity to aesthetics and an attention to detail unlike other developers and builders. “He loved great form, simple great modernist form, but integrity in every way was important to him,” William said.
Taubman pioneered regional, upscale centers with skylights, terrazzo floors, brass railings, landscaping and split-level parking as well as food courts and movie theaters. Carpeting the malls just didn’t do it for him, believing that carpeting caused friction and tired the feet of shoppers. He convinced retailers to build big branch stores to serve as anchors and luxury brands to enter malls when previously they only considered high streets. And he foresaw how the nation’s burgeoning highway system would draw people to the suburbs and believed that mall development should follow the population migration.
He could be daring. In 1971, Taubman, anticipating the great growth that would come to the northwest suburbs of Chicago, opened the mega two-million-square-foot Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Ill., which at the time had a population of only 18,000. The mall is now owned by the Simon Property Group.
Among some of Taubman’s other successful upscale properties are the Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey, the Beverly Center in Los Angeles and Cherry Creek in Denver. The portfolio of regional and superregional malls remains highly productive, generating $809 in average sales per square foot last year. Taubman Centers operates 19 mall properties in the U.S., has another expected to open next year in Honolulu called International Marketplace, and has two projects under construction in South Korea and China.
“He was a tall, strong, outgoing guy with a very strong personality,” said Burt Tansky, the former chairman and ceo of Neiman Marcus Group. “He leaves behind a legacy of establishing some of the best malls in the country.”
“He didn’t just love the architecture of what he was building. He loved the merchandise and had a feel for the way the customer shopped and how the merchandise should flow,” said Michael Gould, the former Bloomingdale’s chairman and ceo, who knew Taubman for more than 30 years. “His malls were always of a classy nature, but what he gave back to the community, to schools, to all sorts of organizations, represents a far greater legacy than his malls.”
The billionaire Taubman was as recognized for his philanthropy as for his malls, supporting stem-cell research at the University of Michigan. During his lifetime, he donated $160 million to the University of Michigan, establishing its Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and the Taubman Medical Library. He also donated more than $35 million for the Taubman Center for domestic public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, and established The A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Taubman wrote “Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer,” in which he coined the phrase “threshold resistance” to describe the psychological and physical barriers that keep shoppers from entering a store.
Several who knew Taubman described him as a larger-than-life figure, highly visual in social circles attending black ties and fund-raisers with his wife Judy. Each year he would take friends on a fishing trip to Iceland and stay in a cabin. He also collected art, played golf, loved eating and had a personal chef.
Born in 1924 in Pontiac, Mich., to Jewish immigrants who came to the U.S. from Białystok, Poland, Taubman grew up through the Great Depression, and started working at age 11 as a stock boy in a Sims department store. He served in the Air Force during World War II and afterward studied architecture at the University of Michigan and Lawrence Technological University but did not graduate from those schools. He did work for a time at an architectural firm, but in 1950, he saw the explosive growth of the suburbs coming and decided to start a retail real estate development firm, which began by building a bridal shop and progressed into shopping centers.
Taubman’s personal investments included at different times, the former Woodward & Lothrop and Wanamaker’s department stores. In 1983, Taubman bought the Sotheby’s auction house, a deal that would end up tarnishing his reputation. In the early Aughts, he and the-then head of Sotheby’s, Diana Brooks, were charged with running a six-year price-fixing scheme with fellow auction house Christie’s. Taubman was found guilty, forced to resign as Sotheby’s chairman, fined $7.5 million and sentenced to a year and a day in prison, but he ended up serving about nine months. He always professed his innocence.
In business, he had a reputation of sometimes being uncompromising, tough with tenants, and micromanaging, yet continuously striving for the best. Taubman would prefer that any space in the mall stayed vacant until he found what he thought would be the right tenant.
“I considered Alfred a mentor,” said Ken Walker, a retail architect, brand-builder and currently, an operating partner at Marvin Traub Associates.
Walker, who had lunch with Taubman earlier this month, recalled that decades ago, when he was involved in designing Burdines stores, among others, he received several surprise phone calls from retailers. “They would say, ‘I’m in one of Taubman’s centers and he won’t renew the lease and he told me to call you’” to improve the store design. “I never even met Taubman yet I was getting these calls from retailers,” told by Taubman to get their stores redesigned or get out of his mall.
“I figured maybe I should know who this guy Taubman is,” Walker said. “I called him and he invited me up to his offices in New York and we sat and talked for an hour about architecture and design. That became the start of a very long and very personal relationship — 40 years….He liked people immensely. He was friendly with the janitor or the president. He was so wealthy that he was not impressed by wealth. It was what you did with your wealth.”
“Al had a great sense of architecture and scale, and always took it a step up,” said Sydney Forbes, founder and partner of Forbes Co., which partnered with Taubman Centers in creating the Mall at Millenia in Orlando and Waterside Shops in Naples, Fla., and is partnering with Taubman on the planned Mall at Miami Worldcenter, a 765,000-square-foot center to be anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s.
“He created an atmosphere that attracted shoppers, that made them feel comfortable,” Forbes said. “You walked in and you felt good. He took the big first step forward in terms of design and aesthetics and he was concerned about the tenants, and knew what they were doing and who could do the business.” Not long ago, Taubman told Forbes that he wanted to be around to see the opening of Miami Worldcenter. “He always said that he wanted to plant another tree even though he wouldn’t necessarily be there to sit under it.”
Three weeks ago, Alfred attended the grand opening at the Mall of San Juan in Puerto Rico, another Taubman Centers project. “We walked him through and together we looked at the architecture and the merchandising,” said his son William.
“He had the chance to experience that and he loved it. He did say the ceiling could have been 10 feet lower and that maybe we wasted a little money on the volume of space. But he agreed it was very dramatic. What was great about my father was that he was very analytical. He was very direct. He would give you his opinion, and he also understood that unless you were going to be there to execute, you had to let the person executing make the decision.”
When the Sotheby’s situation erupted, Alfred had to turn over the reins of the business to his sons. “He was willing to let go,” William said. “He never stopped giving us his advice, but he was smart enough to know he had to let us make our own decisions.”
The funeral service will be held Tuesday morning at the Shaarey Zedek synagogue, 27375 Bell Road, Southfield, Mich. In addition to his two sons, Alfred Taubman is survived by his wife, Judith; his daughter, Gayle; a stepdaughter Tiffany, a stepson Christopher, nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.