Ralph E. Ablon, pioneer of business conglomerates, dies at 105
Ralph E. Ablon, an unlikely business matchmaker who turned a family-owned junkyard business into a pioneering conglomerate that ultimately thrived by investing in the growing service economy, died Nov. 2 in Manhattan. He was 105 years old.
Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her granddaughter, Kim Ablon Whitney.
A scholar and graduate in pipe chemistry, Ablon entered the ferrous recycling business in 1939 after marrying the daughter of one of the owners of Luria Brothers in Reading, Pennsylvania.
When Luria was purchased by the Ogden Corporation of Manhattan in 1955 – a formerly bankrupt utility holding company controlled by Allen & Company – Mr. Ablon became President and CEO of Ogden in 1962 and Chairman in 1972.
It has acquired some 55 subsidiaries, turning the scrap metal processor into what Forbes magazine wrote “looked nothing like a corporate kitchen sink” filled with everything from shipbuilding to Italian food processing.
By giving Ogden the flexibility to weather economic upheavals in one industry or another, Mr. Ablon has invested in Avondale Shipyards of New Orleans and the nation’s largest stevedoring company; catering services such as Progresso soups and sauces and the Nedicks fast food chain; and even racetracks and water parks.
In 1991, Crains magazine cited him as “fighting the ubiquitous anti-woman bias” when he became “the rare CEO who appoints a woman as a senior executive.” He had appointed Maria Monet as Ogden’s chief financial officer the previous year. In 1966, he was instrumental in electing Tillie Lewis as the company’s first female director.
His buying frenzy ranged from large companies to smaller ones, as did his early successes and failures. In 1970, Mr. Ablon sought to buy the “21” Club in Manhattan, where he dined frequently, but the deal fell through when the price of Ogden’s stock fell. Another deal that went wrong was Ogden’s purchase of architectural design firm Charles Luckman.
He learned, he said, to choose future investments based on an “allowable risk threshold” – how big the loss would be if the whole business failed.
While his initial frenzy of diversification fizzled out, Mr. Ablon went on to “orchestrate one of the most comprehensive and successful corporate restructurings in recent times,” Forbes wrote in his profile of him. . In the mid-1980s, its purchase of Allied Maintenance helped completely convert Ogden into an office and industrial services company.
One of the reasons he had eluded success early on, Forbes suggested, was that Mr. Ablon was “not your typical open-talking industry manager.”
“He has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare while professingly blowing his pipe,” the magazine added. “His conceptualization sometimes makes him describe Ogden as if it were an artistic or intellectual creation rather than a conglomerate that sells spaghetti sauce, service vending machines and junk business.”
For someone who was instrumental in building conglomerates, he didn’t like the term. âI don’t know of any company that isn’t multi-manager,â he told the New York Times in 1968, âand the conglomerate has become synonymous with acquisition for its own good. “
âCentral management is focused on doing the right things,â he said, âand our branch managers, who also participate in central management, are left alone to do things right. “
He ceded the titles of President and CEO to his son R. Richard Ablon in 1990. In 2001, Ogden’s name was changed to Covanta.
Ralph Emil Ablon was born on October 26, 1916 in Tupelo, Mississippi, one of eight children of Zemore Ablon, a used car salesman, and Louise (Strauss) Ablon, a housewife.
The family moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1929, and Ralph attended high school there. Enrolled in Ohio State University, he majored in chemistry and was business manager for the football team before graduating in 1938. He served briefly as a graduate teaching assistant in English before marrying Sylvia Luria in 1939.
In addition to his granddaughter Kim, his wife survives him with their children, Steven, Patricia, Richard and Jennifer; five other grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Ablon served in the Navy and, since 1944, has lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He swam regularly at the New York Athletic Club, which he said he initially joined under a pseudonym (Mr. Conolly) because the club did not allow Jewish members at the time.
He recognized that part of his success was that he was in the right place at the right time. His entry into Ogden came from his chance meeting with Charles R. Allen Jr., the founder of the family investment bank, on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
While his focus was growth – “scalable adaptation is just as important to a business as it is to organizations,” he once said – Mr. Ablon had learned from his early years in high flight to change his ways. expectations. He loved to quote a Shakespeare sonnet that ends with “Rotten lilies smell a lot worse than weeds” – which was his way of saying that there’s a reason some companies look better than weeds. they really are.