Philanthropist, shopping mall developer A. Alfred Taubman dies at 91
A. Alfred Taubman, the selfmade Michigan billionaire whose philanthropy and business success — including weaving the enclosed shopping mall into American culture — was clouded by a criminal conviction late in his career, has died. He was 91.
Taubman, who donated hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars to universities, hospitals and museums, died Friday night at his home of a heart attack, according to son Robert S. Taubman, president and CEO of Taubman Centers, Inc.
“This company and all that you stand for were among the greatest joys of his life,” Robert S. Taubman wrote in a message to the company's employees. “He was so proud of what this wonderful company he founded 65 years ago has accomplished.”
Taubman's business success spanned from real estate and art auction houses to the hot dogserving A&W restaurant chain, for which he traveled to Hungary to figure out why the country's sausage was so good. He also became a major backer of stem-cell research.
But it was his rearrangement of how people shop — parking lot in front, several stores in one stop close to home — that left a mark on American culture. Taubman Centers, a subsidiary of his Taubman Co., founded in 1950, currently owns and manages 19 regional shopping centers nationwide.
“Everything that excited me that I got interested in, I did,” Taubman told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview.
Born Jan. 31, 1924, in Pontiac, Michigan, to German-Jewish immigrants, Taubman worked at a department store after school near his family's home, which was among the custom houses and commercial buildings developed in the area by his father.
He was a freshman at the University of Michigan when he left to serve in World War II, around the time he stopped using his first name, Adolph. He returned to Ann Arbor to study art and architecture, and then transferred to Lawrence Technological University near Detroit to take night classes while working at an architectural firm as a junior draftsman.
Recognizing the booming postwar growth of the middle class, he launched his first real estate development company in 1950. His first project was a freestanding bridal shop in Detroit — but he had his eyes on something bigger. He'd noticed shoppers responding to the convenience of a “one-stop comparison shopping opportunity,” he wrote in his autobiography.
So when a friend suggested a shopping plaza in Flint, Taubman's company did something radical for the time: stores were pushed to the back of the lot and parking spaces were put up front. It was a success, his young company took on larger-scale developments in Michigan, California and elsewhere in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
Taubman served as chairman of Sotheby's Holdings, Inc., parent company of Sotheby's art auction house, from 1983 to 2000, and was a partner in the international real estate firm The Athena Group before he was tangled in a pricefixing scheme. He was convicted in 2001 of conspiring with Anthony Tennant, former chairman of Christie's International, to fix the commissions the auction giants charged. Prosecutors alleged sellers were defrauded of as much as US$400 million (NT$12.42 billion) in commissions.
Taubman was fined US$7.5 million and spent about a year in a low-security prison in Rochester, Minnesota, but long insisted he was innocent and expressed regret for not testifying in his own defense.
“I had lost a chunk of my life, my good name and around 27 pounds (12 kilograms),” he recalled in his book, saying he was forced to take the fall for others.
The case cast a shadow over Taubman's accomplishments, but it diminished over the years — and his philanthropy continued unabated. He pledged US$ 100 million to the University of Michigan's A. Alfred Taubman Medical Research Institute and its stemcell research. He also financed public-policy programs at Harvard, Brown University and the University of Michigan.
Taubman “had one of the biggest hearts in America,” former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer told WWJ-AM.
On Wednesday, two days before his death, Taubman smiled and lifted his hat during a groundbreaking in Ann Arbor for a campus building project.
Taubman donated millions and spoke passionately in support of the 2008 ballot initiative in Michigan that eased restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research and enabled his namesake institute to conduct major research for diseases — including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.
After turning over control of Taubman Centers to his two sons, Taubman made sustaining the Detroit Institute of Arts a priority. He helped guide the DIA as president of the Detroit Arts Commission through chronic financial problems.
Real estate mogul and Michigan billionaire A. Alfred Taubman is shown in his office in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in this April 4, 2007 file photo.