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Raymond G. Perelman, master investor and philanthropist, dies at 101

He was a master businessman who bought and sold companies with abandon. He also became one of the Philadelphia region’s greatest philanthropists, leaving his mark at the University of Pennsylvania and beyond.

Raymond and Ruth Perelman stand in the entrance way to the exhibition gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building.
Raymond and Ruth Perelman stand in the entrance way to the exhibition gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building.Read moreINQ BRYANT

Raymond G. Perelman, 101, who built a fortune buying and selling factories amid America’s industrial decline and gave more than $300 million to the University of Pennsylvania medical school and Philadelphia art and Jewish charities, died Monday at his residence in Philadelphia.

The son of immigrants, Mr. Perelman was a bold dealmaker who relished buying, stripping and selling or liquidating companies, including bankrupt enterprises, if he could turn a profit. His intensity barely seemed to slow over the years, though it culminated in a litigious family fight that remained unresolved at his death.

He also became one of the Philadelphia region’s greatest philanthropists, leaving his mark at Penn and beyond.

“All successful people are risk-takers. And I always wanted to be successful,” Mr. Perelman said after donating $15 million to what is now the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, which opened in 2007 in the former Reliance Standard insurance building on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Perelmans lent a piece of art from their collection for the opening: a bronze of a woman by the French sculptor Aristide Maillol.

"He was a do-er,” said Gail Harrity, president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Mr. Perelman served as a trustee for more than 40 years. The $15 million Perelman grant enabled the museum to grow beyond its iconic Parkway building “for the first time since 1928.” Given what Mr. Perelman did for Penn, Drexel University, and other institutions, “I think he loved Philadelphia,” she said.

His verve and influence made his death harder to bear, friends said. “Oh, I feel terrible,” said Bruce Toll, a founder of Toll Bros., the Horsham-based luxury house builder, and a family friend who spent many hours with the Perelman family at the former Ashbourne Country Club in Cheltenham (Mr. Perelman swam, but eschewed golf and tennis) and other Jewish institutions.

“He had intuition that was unbelievable. He said there was nothing the matter with buying a company out of bankruptcy if you can fix it,” advice Toll said he emulated.

Mr. Perelman “always gave great advice about personal business,” Toll added. “He figured out about [rogue investor Bernard] Madoff and stayed away." Reminded that Mr. Perelman had a reputation as a demanding boss, Toll said, "Whatever other people say, I found him one of the kindest, nicest, most generous people I know. And charitable, obviously. I don’t think he ever said no.”

Mr. Perelman continued to do business into his 90s from the modest Bala Cynwyd offices of his companies — RGP Holdings and Belmont Holdings, whose name recalls the former Belmont Iron Works in Eddystone, one of Mr. Perelman’s past properties.

He was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant who settled in Chester. His father had to learn to sign his name, Morris Perelman, before going into the scrap business and founding cardboard-tube maker American Paper Products Co., Mr. Perelman recounted in 2012. “If I wrote to God and asked for a father, I couldn’t get a better one," he added. The family later lived in Feltonville and Olney.

Mr. Perelman as a young man expanded the family business by adding a plant in the growing factory center of Greensboro, N.C.. to save on shipping charges, and met his wife, Ruth Caplan, there, he told Forbes magazine. She died in 2011 after they were married for 70 years.

After taking a degree at Penn’s Wharton School and serving as a flight officer in World War II — “we were ready to go to Okinawa" when the atomic bombs ended the war, he told the Inquirer — he returned to Philadelphia, invested in factory buildings, and raised his family in Elkins Park. He later had homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and on Rittenhouse Square. He also became a partner in the company that his father founded, expanding into the metals business through another company, Penn Galvanizing, which bought Belmont Iron, one of the largest steel-fabricating companies in the East Coast construction business, in 1960.

Over the decades, Mr. Perelman bought, grew, and sold dozens of companies. A few of the brands he owned are household names -- Champion auto parts, Bobcat construction vehicles. Many were in the industrial and mining sectors, companies like Dicalite, which digs, processes and sells common minerals used in the making of items ranging from blue jeans to beverages.

Of the companies he focused on, he said, “It didn’t make any difference, they were in trouble and I turned them around, and they were making money.” Or he would freeze pension funds and liquidate assets to at least make a profit from the pieces.

Mr. Perelman liquidated the Esslinger’s brewery on Callowhill Street, and in 1985 led a hostile takeover of Bala Cynwyd-based General Refractories, selling part of the company but holding onto its mining business until his death. He took General Refractories private, enabling him to keep details confidential.

For decades, he lived at the 1820 Rittenhouse Square apartment building he built after raising his family in Elkins Park. Condos in the tower became home to wealthy Philadelphians in his social circle. He and his wife used to occupy a 6,000 square foot suite on the top two floors. They spent at least half the year in Florida, at a 10,000-square-foot Palm Beach home.

Betsy Zubrow Cohen, matriarch of the Philadelphia banking, energy and real estate family, met Mr. Perelman when their families were among the first residents of 1820 Rittenhouse Square in the 1960s. “He had tremendous energy, tremendous curiosity,” she said. “When our kids were growing up, he would take them to the Eagles games. They would say, ‘It’s really hard to tell which is the kid and which is the adult!’"

Mr. Perelman “saw opportunity where other people saw only risk," she said. “He was smart enough to manage the business to his own benefit. He was always eager to go into a new business.

“High energy was his hallmark his whole life” in U.S. and foreign investments, Cohen added. “He was a man of large appetites.”

While his business interests ranged far from Philadelphia, Perelman all his life cultivated close professional associations and friends in his hometown. “It was an honor to be chosen as his lawyer,” said Sandra Newman, the former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. “He was 30 years my senior, and both young and old adored him. He was my client, and my close friend, for many years.”

Perelman wanted to be remembered. In 1999 Perelman’s foundation cancelled plans for a $2 million donation to what was then Akiba Hebrew Academy after the school declined to rename itself in Perelman’s honor. (Akiba later accepted $5 million to rename itself for the late brother of another donor, lawyer Leonard Barrack.) The Perelman foundation later endowed the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Wynnewood.

“He wanted his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren to have a legacy in Philadelphia,” said Laura Goldman, who as a young broker pitched investments to Perelman. “He would say, ‘Will this be viewed as the next automobile or a horse and buggy?’" Goldman says she later visited Perelman at his home in Palm Beach, where Perelman was a member of the Mar-a-Lago club owned by President Trump, but preferred to breakfast in simpler places.

In 2011 Mr. Perelman donated $225 million to Penn’s medical school, which was renamed the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine. The money, Penn said, sped up research, increased student aid, and helped recruit faculty.

The couple also gave $25 million for the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, Penn’s outpatient facility. (Sons Ronald and Jeffrey also have been major donors to Penn; Ronald has also made large gifts to Columbia and Princeton.) Mr. Perelman’s gifts “helped advance Penn’s position as a global model for comprehensive academic medical centers,” Penn president Amy Gutmann said in celebrating Mr. Perelman’s 100th birthday in August 2017.

Other Perelman gifts include $6 million to the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Jewish Life and $5 million for the Raymond G. Perelman Plaza, both at Drexel, $5 million for the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, and more.

In politics, he tended to back Republicans, including 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Son Ronald, who works out of New York, is the head of the MacAndrews & Forbes conglomerate, which has included Revlon cosmetics and many other retail brands.

Beyond Mr. Perelman’s public works, “he was a mentor and a wonderful father, as well as a deeply loving grandfather and great-grandfather,” Ronald Perelman said in a statement.

Perelman sued his son Jeffrey in 2011 in a dispute over Ruth Perelman’s estate administration. " It’s a terrible thing, that a father sues his son and the son sues his father. What could be worse?" he told the Inquirer. He took consolation in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren by both sons.

“Our family, like most, can be complicated. But that doesn’t diminish what my grandfather accomplished in his 101 years." said Allison Perelman, a daughter of Jeffrey and his wife Marsha, on Wednesday. "He was the child of immigrants, and over the course of his life completely reoriented the the trajectory of our family. He loved Philadelphia, and I will forever be grateful for his commitment to this city. "

“He enjoyed what he did and didn’t ever want to let go of it,” said Lawrence McMichael, a partner at Dilworth Paxson LLP who represented Mr. Perelman for years. “He was a tough, tenacious guy to get where he got. When he believed he was right, he didn’t give up.”

McMichael treasured his time with Mr. Perelman, and the way incidents revealed the man. For dinner one night at the Flagler Steakhouse in Palm Beach, Mr. Perelman called for his Rolls-Royce. When an aide reported that the Rolls wouldn’t start, Mr. Perelman sent him for his other Rolls, which wouldn’t turn over either. “The batteries were dead.” Mr. Perelman laughed at the irony of acquiring fancy cars he thought he’d enjoy but didn’t get to use much. They drove to Flagler’s in McMichael’s rented Nissan.

When William K. Marimow was fired as editor of the Inquirer in 2010 by the hedge funds that had just taken over the newspaper, Mr. Perelman called to ask if the veteran editor was ready — immediately — to run a competing news outlet he wanted to create. “He was a little hard of hearing but sharp as a tack,” Marimow recalled of Mr. Perelman, then in his early 90s. “At that age he was so incredibly decisive.” Marimow declined the offer and later rejoined the Inquirer.

A year and a half later, Mr. Perelman briefly bankrolled a new political and business weekly. “The recent trend towards alternative forms of media has only heightened the need for a renewed focus on competent and credible investigative reporting,” Perelman told the Inquirer at the time. “My personal experience has taught me that the public deserves honest and complete reporting.”

Well into his 90s, “on business [Mr. Perelman’s] mind was a steel trap,” added lawyer Clifford Haines of Haines & Associates in Philadelphia, who represented him in the family litigation.

After laboring to review old events for the family case, “one day I asked him about some specifics on one of his mineral businesses. His eyes lit up and he started to talk in exquisite detail on what was involved. Boy, he could focus in,” Haines added. “I know he could be difficult. But he didn’t get where he was because he was a sweetheart all the time. He was a savvy and accomplished businessman. He did a lot of good things for the city of Philadelphia.”

In the end, "he did not like aging and the limitations it imposed,” Haines said. "I think Ray was ready.”

Services were private.

Staff writer Peter Dobrin contributed to this article, which includes material added after print publication.