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Aramark chairman quietly calls it a career

When he came to America, alone, on a ship, as a boy of 14, Joseph Neubauer knew only the English he'd learned from watching John Wayne movies.

Joseph Neubauer. (Alan Kolc)
Joseph Neubauer. (Alan Kolc)Read more

When he came to America, alone, on a ship, as a boy of 14, Joseph Neubauer knew only the English he'd learned from watching John Wayne movies.

He could say "Yep" and "Pardner" and "Yes, ma'am."

His American aunt and uncle gave him a job in their garden shop, where this son of Israel earned his keep selling lawn ornaments of the Virgin Mary.

From that beginning, Neubauer rose to shape and run Aramark, the $15 billion, worldwide hospitality company based in Philadelphia. And on Tuesday evening, in a quiet announcement made after the stock market closed, he called it a career, saying he would step down after 30 years as chairman with plans to devote more time to the philanthropy that has improved cities, colleges, and lives from Philadelphia to Chicago.

"We've built a great organization, and I'm proud of the people who helped build it," said Neubauer, 73, who will pass the chairmanship to protégé Eric Foss in February. "Now it's time for the next generation to take it forward."

As to his future, he said, "I just retired from running the company, not from life," and friends said they were certain of Neubauer's continued involvement in good works.

"He may be stepping down as chair of Aramark, but he's still going to be a civic leader, no ifs, ands, or buts," former Gov. Ed Rendell said Tuesday night, describing Neubauer as a force who helped create the National Constitution Center and the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and in the Barnes Foundation's move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"He's a tough, hard-as-nails businessman. But that helps him get things done that benefit the city and benefit the citizens of the city," Rendell said. "A good person and a caring person, someone who cares deeply about the city and its populace."

Some corporate leaders write big checks, Rendell said. Neubauer writes the check - and gives his time, energy, and leadership. Recently, Neubauer worked to help persuade Pope Francis to come to Philadelphia, a visit now confirmed for next September.

On Tuesday night, friends spoke not only of his huge donations, or his service as the head of the Barnes' governing board, or on the board of Macy's Inc., but of his abiding interest in scholarships and education, and of his casual goodwill.

"Very approachable," said Rabbi Ira Stone, who leads Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City. "Very 'regular guy' is the way to put it. He came here as a young man with nothing but his brains and his willingness to work."

For the last four or five years, Stone has led a monthly study season at Neubauer's home, a spare Rittenhouse Square apartment with gorgeous art on the walls. Neubauer and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, host a small group of friends interested in serious discussions of Jewish life.

"He's a fine human being," Stone said. "I think his involvement in a variety of Philadelphia philanthropic causes speaks to that."

Neubauer has earned and given away millions.

In 2002, for instance, the University of Chicago received $10 million from the Neubauer Family Foundation to help attract the finest faculty and students in business and in the humanities. Neubauer is leading the university's capital campaign to raise $4.5 billion.

Neubauer received his M.B.A. from the university in 1965, after being awarded a full scholarship. He had worked his way through Tufts University, where he earned his undergraduate degree, by waiting tables.

When Neubauer and his wife married in 1996, guests who asked where they were registered were told, "the University of Chicago," according to the school. The Neubauers then matched those gifts.

As chairman of the board of Aramark, a leading provider of food, hospitality, and uniform services, he is responsible for 270,000 employees in 22 countries. He joined the firm in 1979 as executive vice president of finance and development. He was elected president in 1981, CEO in 1983, and chairman in 1984.

Neubauer was both chairman and CEO until 2012, when Foss was named president and chief executive officer as part of a planned transition.

On Tuesday night, Foss sent a note to all Aramark employees saying he wanted "to recognize Joe for the legacy he created by building one of the most respected companies in the world. Thanks to Joe, we are part of a global powerhouse poised for new greatness."

Neubauer's personal story is as compelling as his business achievement, and his early life was on his mind Tuesday.

He was born in Israel to parents who fled Nazi Germany after Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the series of coordinated attacks against Jews. When he was 14, his parents sent him to the United States, wanting him to have a chance at a better education.

He had a little money in his pocket, and some more sewn into his coat. An aunt and uncle near Boston had promised to house and help him. He arrived in New York Harbor at dusk, the Statue of Liberty shining in twilight.

"I was frightened to death, but I was excited at the same time," Neubauer told Widener University in a videotaped conversation in 2011. "As a young boy, what you're trying to do is survive."

Last night he reflected:

"There's no other country in the world that somebody who is an immigrant, a teenager without speaking the language, can achieve the success I've achieved. . . . It stays with you all the time, and it motivates me to give back, to my country, to my community."

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage