There is, of course, no typical graduate of the Darden School of Business. But if there were, it would probably not be someone who:
- paid for his M.B.A. degree by making and selling sculpture
- after graduation developed a successful business in religious art
- is presently engaged in cheerfully giving away much of that business’ profit.
Rosenthal, 52, is a slender, almost elfin man with graying hair and a neatly trimmed mustache. At work, he wears khaki trousers and open-collared shirts. And though he manages a business with 30 employees, he still, on a regular basis, can be found with a welding torch in his hands, shaping metal.
It was a welder’s torch that gave him direction in life. A lapse of motivation in Rosenthal’s undergraduate studies at Cornell found him taking a hiatus from school and helping out in his father’s business, a stove and refrigerator repair shop in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. He learned how to operate a torch to melt and repair broken stove grates. “I lit a torch and took up a piece of broken cast iron and it’s been a love affair ever since,” Rosenthal recounts, sitting behind a battered desk in his small, cluttered office. “I love working with fire and I love creating things.”
He started making things and kept on doing it after he went back to Cornell, although he got no formal art training. “My roommate’s brother was an architect, and he said, ‘Gary, if you can’t make something good, make it big and people will think it’s neat.’ Someone else told me to make sure it looks good over someone’s sofa. So I followed that.”
He showed some of his early work to the late Jason Seley, a well-known sculptor who was on the faculty at Cornell. “He looked at my work and said, ‘Gary, you don’t have any sense of aesthetics, color, form, light or shape. But you know what? People are going to love your work and you’re going to sell like crazy.”
Rosenthal shrugs. “There’s no rocket science to what I do. I make things people like to buy. We try to make a lot of it.”
His first sculpture was a huge construction of welded nails that, indeed, looked impressive over a sofa and did, indeed, sell. He was selling about $100,000 worth of his work annually when he decided to go to the Darden School. Throughout his time there, he commuted to his studio in D.C. and made sculpture on the weekends, which he then sold to pay his expenses.
At Darden, Rosenthal recalls, “They opened their arms to me, even though I wasn’t a good fit because I’m a free spirit and basically unemployable. Darden is a great place to go to school, even for people like me.” Among the most important things he learned there? “How to separate the important from the unimportant and finish the job. That’s because they give you more work than you could physically do.”
At that moment, Rosenthal’s mother, Ann, who works in the firm as her son’s doorkeeper and “opens the envelopes with checks in them,” sticks her head in the door. “Getting an M.B.A. made a businessman out of him,” she says. “He does wonderful marketing.”
Soon after leaving Charlottesville, Rosenthal put those new skills to work developing a niche market. Late in the 1970s, he had made his first menorah, a candelabrum of glass and metal used in the celebration of Hanukkah. It sold immediately. He began making more. He branched into other traditional Jewish religious items, like the mezuzah that the devout place in doorframes. Rosenthal soon figured out that American Jews of an earlier generation, living in the shadow of the Holocaust, had tended to keep their religious articles in their closets. But the coming generation, feeling more secure, wanted to celebrate and display its faith. “Judaica became the hottest market segment of the 1990s in the crafts industry,” he says. He was at the center of it.
By the mid-1990s, the Gary Rosenthal Collection was perhaps the nation’s leading designer and purveyor of Judaica, selling in about 1,000 stores. Gross annual revenues began to approach $2 million. The firm, which also creates corporate gifts and awards from metal and glass, has done items presented to presidents and famous artists. (It recently did a menorah, with blue and orange glass, that the University’s Hillel Club presented to UVA President John T. Casteen III.)
Just as his business hit its stride, Rosenthal discovered something that excited him more than melting metal. He is not a devout man, in the formal sense. He says he chooses to “go through life as if there is a God, whether or not he or she exists.” He believes in the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, making the world a better place. He discovered that he truly enjoyed giving money away.
At first, philanthropy was almost an accident. Rosenthal was asked to help judge some fundraising efforts by campus Hillel groups. The project he liked best, involving a giant matzo ball and feeding the homeless, did not win the award. So, anonymously, he put up $10,000 to finance any campus Hillel chapter that would undertake the same project. Very quickly, his giving snowballed.
Rosenthal likes to enlist corporate partners in his charity projects. He decided a couple of years ago that he would like to fund a program to teach magician’s skills to inner-city kids. They would get a skill that might help them make some pocket money at birthday parties. They would put on shows for senior citizens. “It’s a win-win,” he says.
So he called the Theatre Lab of Washington, which teaches dramatic arts to at-risk city kids. He called the Calvert Group, a firm that specializes in “socially responsible” investments. He cut a deal in which he custom-made holiday gifts for Calvert’s clients and donated his share of the profits to the Theatre Lab for the summer program in magic.
“Gary is a visionary,” says Deb Gottesman, co-director of the Theatre Lab. “His vision was magic. It helped young people feel they had the answers.”
“He’s one of a kind,” echoes Barbara Krumsiek, CEO of the Calvert Group and chair-elect of the Washington Board of Trade. “Our community is very fortunate to have him.”
Nowadays, it’s hard to walk around Rosenthal’s shop without seeing mitz-vot. It begins with his people. Rosenthal has jobs for people with autism. He has jobs for émigrés from the former Soviet Union. It extends to dozens of philanthropic projects, large and small. At a table in the shop recently, a woman named Patricia Barrientos, recently arrived in the United States from El Salvador, sat learning how to make sheets of fused glass. Eventually, the sheets will become earrings that will be sold to raise funds for a program called Linkages to Learning, which helps the immigrant community in the schools of Montgomery County, Md. At a desk in Rosenthal’s office, a woman named Jennifer Polkes talks about her search for corporate partners in a Rosenthal endeavor called The Glass Ribbon, which helps victims of breast cancer. Rosenthal has sponsored concerts for the Jewish community in post-Katrina New Orleans. He makes grants to school libraries with the proceeds from bookmarks sold in craft stores.
If pressed, Rosenthal will estimate that he donates nearly a tenth of his company’s gross revenues either in cash or in kind. In fact, the company has been losing money for the past couple of years, and he recently sold the building in which it operates in Kensington, Md., to raise cash. “I don’t want to be a nonprofit,” Rosenthal says. “I need to make money.” He is hopeful that in the next few years he can both boost the company’s revenues and find partners to take some of its charitable programs nationwide.
But for this Darden graduate, profits are clearly secondary to the satisfaction of the mitzvot. “On a good day, this is like Camelot and you feel like you’re King Arthur and the people around you are the Knights of the Round Table,” Rosenthal says. “On a good day, you feel like you can do anything.”