“In the great scheme of things, what matters is not how long you live, but why you live, what you stand for, and what you are willing to die for.” — Paul Watson
“We either stand for something or we fall for anything.”
When I first heard these words from textile CEO Nathan Cohen 30 years ago, I thought of Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As newly appointed U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith, he stands up against the political graft of the big-business, big-media machine of Jim Taylor in what many assumed would be a lost cause. It wasn’t. And in any case, lost causes are sometimes “the only causes worth fighting for.”
As I got older, Nathan Cohen’s quote invoked less dramatic thoughts of business, brand, and employees. Nathan Cohen built his own personal brand based on a brand of business seemingly forgotten and discarded some time ago. His brand stood for a kind of trust, a kind of promise of the return you’d get from doing business with him or his company.
“In matters of taste, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” — Thomas Jefferson
Nathan Cohen was the steward of an old-economy stalwart: Suffolk Knitting, which had one 1,000,000-square-foot mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, and a second in Bennington, Vermont. Founded around the turn of the 20th Century by his Lithuanian immigrant father, these massive mills incorporated thousands of family lives and became the equivalent of whole towns. The Cohen family understood that the company and its community were one — that the mills served as tributaries to the families and suppliers that sustained them.
Suffolk Knitting produced well-made textile products at a fair price. The company met competition head on, but with respect. As Malden Mills president, Aaron Feuerstein, told me: “Suffolk Knitting and the Cohens were nightly topics of conversation at our dinner table. They were a primary competitor but they were our brethren, too.”
Nathan Cohen was raised in a well-to-do Jewish household that provided him an MIT education and the discipline of hard work. He spoke straight and clear, with a razor-sharp mind, a quick wit, and a giving heart. Nathan’s life was the mills, his wife, his two daughters, and his philanthropy — notably his role as a founding trustee and benefactor of Brandeis University.
Nathan built a thriving company. He made weekly commutes on old roads and flat tires in order to work at the mills and spend time with him family. He worked hard to support his family and to ensure he could help friends, relatives, and good causes.
“Anyone can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.” — Alice Walker
Nathan was known for his unfailing sense of humor. Always a quipster, always ready for a good joke, he was equally known for his unimpeachable integrity. His word, his handshake, were better than any contract. In one instance, he agreed verbally to the price for a large order of wool yarn, but before he received the contract, the market price plunged 20 percent. So the suppliers sent him a contract with the new, lower price. Nathan signed the contract, but changed the price back to the original, higher price.
Nathan Cohen also had a great respect for his employees, many of whom came from the same villages in Russian and Eastern Europe. Several generations worked in his family’s mills. Many were children, even grandchildren, of immigrant parents who had worked at the mill. Others were relatives or friends. But business changed in the 1960s. National economics dictated that most mills move South. Nearly all did. The Cohens stayed. They could not abandon their hometown community, friends, or the families that relied on them.
The unwritten word: Employees, the community, are an inseparable part of the business family.
“I am because we are.” — African aphorism
Some of Nathan’s friends and relatives considered him “soft,” unable to make the harsh decisions needed to keep the mills profitable. That’s what I was told. But I saw something else: a man who acted at work as he did at home.
I thought Nathan was simply unwilling to stand up to Anne, his strong-willed wife, who did not want to move. I assumed he was too “weak” to be a “good” businessman. I didn’t learn the truth until after he passed away.
The truth was that he refused to walk out on his employees. In these mill towns, if the factory moved, many people would be left without work for years to come. . Nathan Cohen was clear: He was not Suffolk Knitting. Everyone who worked there was. And they were all in business together.
He never talked of leaving. By the early 1970s, the business went into bankruptcy.
“There are people who have money and people who are rich.” — Coco Chanel
By the Cohen family’s definition, Suffolk Knitting was a success. It employed several thousand people for a dozen years after other mills went South. Thousands of families were able to stay together long enough to find other work.
Nathan Cohen died in 1979. Given his past wealth, he left a modest estate — a few hundred thousand dollars. But his legacy has paid off handsomely.
For one, it enabled his daughter, Leni Joyce, to build her own textile business with a homey atmosphere reminiscent of her father’s mills. She can still literally smell those mills and often awakens in the night, hearing her father’s advice: “Whatever you do,” he said before he died, “make it beautiful.” He wanted to make sure she too stood for something special.
“Try not to become a man of success but a man of value.” — Albert Einstein
Brand Lifeline: Build Your Brand on Deep-Seated Personal Values
“If the things we believe are different than the things we do, there can be no true happiness.” — David O. McKay
At the end of the day, ask yourself: What values governed my day? Are they the values I want to be living? Are they the values I want to be remembered for?
Nathan Cohen was ultimately known for his word — a word of inclusion and fairness, not of competition or ego. It was a word that shone like gold; you could take it to the bank.
To this day, more than 20 years after his death, I still run into people who knew him, who did business with him. They range from big business executives to independent contractors to the man who ran the local butcher shop..
When they learn that I am his grandson, impromptu, the stories begin. Each is a variation on the same theme: his integrity, his heart, and his talent for buying wool! “Nathan Cohen, your grandfather. Let me tell you what he did for me.”
“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.” — Simone Weil
To read more about Nathan Cohen, see ML2 E-Newsletter #45. His life story is discussed in Chapter 12, the life story of his daughter, Leni Joyce, of my New York Times best-selling book, Making a Life, Making a Living.
Copyright © 2000 Dr. Mark S. Albion. All rights reserved.