This story appears in the May 25, 2015 issue of Forbes.
On Apr. 17 Alfred Taubman, who made a $3.1 billion fortune building malls across America, died of a heart attack at age 91. Taubman famously turned around the auction house Sotheby’s but served ten months in prison after he was convicted in a price-fixing scheme. His friend, tenant and fellow billionaire Les Wexner, owner of Victoria’s Secret, reflects on a life.
By Les Wexner (As told to Dan Alexander)
I first got to know Alfred Taubman because I thought his company was ripping me off. It was about 1970, and I made a handshake deal with one of Al’s leasing agents to open The Limited’s seventh store in a Milwaukee mall. When I got the official agreement, the rent was twice as expensive. I phoned Mr. Taubman, as I called him back then. “I think the guy made a mistake,” Al told me. “But if somebody speaks on behalf of my company and you believed it, I’ll stick with it.” A nice first impression, but Al wasn’t always so polite. Three years later he summoned me to his office in Detroit. We hopped on a helicopter and walked through a few of his malls. As I trailed him like a duck following a massive animal, he did not acknowledge me. After lunch he broke his silence: “You saw your stores?” he asked. “They’re the ugliest stores I’ve ever seen. You’d better fix them or I’m going to have them torn down.” Then he walked out of the restaurant.
That was Al. Tough, honest and, most of the time, correct. My wood-and-brick storefronts were horrible. We made them more stylish, and in 1982 he called me up. “Les,” he said, “I just saw your Beverly Center store.” Here he goes again, I thought. “And I wanted to tell you it’s the best store I’ve ever seen.” Then he hung up. At least one of my stores is now in every single shopping mall he owned.
Al had so many interests, such intense curiosity. At his house in Palm Beach I saw excellent artwork in a home for the first time. He talked about charter schools 20 years ago. The same with stem cell research.
When he went to jail, he put me on the shortlist of people allowed to visit. My wife, Abigail, and I went up there once a month. We brought a sleeve of quarters–the only thing you could bring inside–to buy White Castle burgers at the vending machine. In my opinion he was innocent. But Al didn’t dwell on that. He just counted the months until he could see his grandchildren again.
His giving to Michigan inspired me to give to Ohio State. He was just as generous with friends. About 25 years ago I found a big box in my garage and pulled out a beautiful piece of artwork, one I had admired in Al’s house. I told him I couldn’t accept it. “A deal is a deal,” he told me. “We never know what the future is, and I want you to have something to remember me by.”
As I sit at my desk right now, that painting hangs above my head.