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Hollander Family Donates Buildings In Hartford, But Have Low-Profile

The Entrepreneuring And Innovative Hollanders Donate Buildings In Downtown Hartford


June 25, 2011

A few years ago, Milton and Betty Ruth Hollander donated the 1920s building at 410 Asylum St., across from Bushnell Park in Hartford, to a nonprofit group that turned it into sorely needed mixed-income apartments. "The Hollander" is fully occupied and widely viewed as one of downtown's successes.

Then this spring, shortly after Betty Ruth Hollander died at 81, the family foundation donated a neighboring office building, long vacant, which is slated to be converted to similar apartments and bear the family's name as well.

The Hollanders didn't set out to be Hartford philanthropists, but were thwarted in redeveloping the commercial properties they had bought years earlier for $4 million. Regardless, city leaders are thrilled at their generosity, which has created a remarkable legacy downtown.

Now there's the nagging question: Who are Milton and Betty Ruth Hollander?

Virtually no one in Hartford can give you a good answer. In Fairfield County, however, the Hollanders are synonymous with entrepreneurship, innovation and philanthropy.

Betty Ruth Hollander founded Omega Engineering Inc in Stamford at her kitchen table in 1962. She broke new ground by marketing and distributing measurement and control instruments online and through catalog sales.

Omega grew from one product to a powerhouse, distributing over 100,000 items with an estimated $100 million in annual revenue and 700 employees, according to Inside View, a business information website.

Milton Hollander, 82, rose from a young laboratory engineer to become chief technology officer for two large companies, American Standard Corp. and Gulf + Western Industries, personally securing over 200 patents. Today, there are 15 companies in the U.S. and Europe affiliated with the original Omega Engineering name and Milton Hollander led at least one of them, Newport Electronics.

"They seemed to complement each other well," said Ernie DeMattia, president of the Ferguson Library in Stamford, which the Hollanders have supported with significant donations. "Betty was the management portion of it. Milton was the engineering side."

Milton and other members of the Hollander family declined to be interviewed for this story. A son, Aaron Hollander, cited concerns over the family's privacy.

Those who knew and worked with the Hollanders in the community and in Stamford Republican politics said the family has sometimes shunned the limelight of awards that would have drawn attention to their philanthropy. But that, they said, did not render the couple aloof.

They showed a consistent commitment to civic improvement, said Rosannne Haggerty, founder of Common Ground, which redeveloped 410 Asylum. Haggerty noted that at Betty Hollander's recent memorial service, a family member pointed out that she worked to help people "get better."

"Betty was vibrant, versatile, friendly and interactive," DeMattia said. "When you got a hug and kiss from Betty Hollander, you knew it was for real. She was very elegant in that regard."

He added, "Milton was always there to support her. He was the inventor."

Unassuming And Powerful

Thirty years ago, it was unusual for a woman to lead a manufacturing company in Connecticut, or anywhere else. In a rare interview with Industry Week, a trade magazine, in 1985, Betty Ruth Hollander said she would have never made it in a traditional corporate environment.

"I wouldn't want to be confined to the structures of the standard corporate world," she said. "I wouldn't stay."

She added: "It has nothing to do with country clubs, restaurants, or silly little things like that. It has to do with decision-making and the mind-set involved in that." It was different in the entrepreneurial world in which "no matter what the size of the company, everyone has to know everything. You have to know the pulse. It's exciting."

Betty Hollander, who began Omega when her four children were still young, won the respect of her peers and soon grew to be influential in the business community.

In the 1990s when office building janitors were on strike in Fairfield County, Betty Hollander agreed to meet at her factory with David Pudlin, then state House majority leader, and a union official.

It had become clear that People's United Bank, then People's Bank, with its soaring new headquarters tower in Bridgeport and its financing ties to local office developers, was the linchpin in resolving the dispute.

Her willingness to get involved was not surprising, given her interest in dealing fairly with workers. What Pudlin didn't know when a mutual friend helped set up the meeting was that Betty Hollander was on the board of People's Bank.

"She said, 'I might know someone at the bank,' " Pudlin recalls.

Five minutes after the meeting ended, Pudlin and the union official were pulling out of the parking lot at Omega's headquarters in River Bend Center when the official's cellphone rang. It was a bank executive wanting to set up a meeting with the union, a move that helped end the strike.

"It was sort of a magic trick," Pudlin said. "She was modest, unassuming and very powerful."

David E.A. Carson, the retired chairman and chief executive of People's Bank, said Betty Hollander was among the early wave of women elected to boards of directors.

"At the time I joined the bank, People's was still very much an old boys' club in Bridgeport, and she broke through that," Carson said. "She brought a broad-based concern about how you treated employees and what was fair. But you had to maintain costs at the same time. She had a very inventive mind. She was a problem-solver."

Betty Hollander sat on a range of boards, including Yale-New Haven Hospital and Dayton Hudson, the forerunner of the Target department store chain.

"We think about it less today," Carson said, "but a young woman starting a business 40 years ago and in manufacturing, that took inner drive and intelligence."

'Everyone's Mother'

Betty Hollander's instrumentation enterprise grew significantly while she was a director at People's, expanding globally as she established operations abroad. Despite that reach, Betty Hollander kept close ties with the factory floor.

"She gave me the factory tour," Carson said. "When she walked out on the assembly line, you could tell it was not an unusual thing for her to be out there."

Last week, workers at the factory at River Bend in Stamford's Springdale section told similar stories of a CEO who regularly mingled with her employees.

"She always asked how you were," said one worker, who asked not be named. "She wasn't like most CEOs. She walked around wearing a smock just like us. She blended in."

The worker, with 30 years in the company, said it was not unusual for Betty Hollander to give a hug to workers. Unlike many companies where workers put their heads down and bear down on work when the big boss walks through, employees stopped to talked to Betty Hollander, something she encouraged.

"Mrs. H, she was the greatest," the worker said.

Another worker said Betty Hollander took a real interest in the lives of her employees, evidence of what Carson described as an ease in her relationship to people and a curiosity about them.

"She would know your wife's name, your kid's name," the worker said. "She was like everyone's mother."

The worker recalled that Betty and Milton Hollander typically arrived at work together, ate lunch together, and left together at the end of the day.

"They were joined at the hip," the worker said.

The Inventor

Milton Hollander earned his doctoral degree at night while working on missile development at Bendix Corp. in the 1950s. According to a biography on the website of Purdue University, where he earned his undergraduate degree and received an honorary degree in 2009, he later rose to lead AMF Corp.'s research laboratories.

In the course of his career, Milton Hollander pioneered advances in welding, energy storage, automation and process measurement and control. "His invention of flywheel-based friction welding sustains drilling rigs miles below the earth's surface as his advance[s] in infrared temperature measure operate on probes millions of miles away in space," according to the Purdue biography.

Milton Hollander also headed up the real estate development arm of Omega. The holdings include 40-acre River Bend Executive Park, two medical and professional office buildings in downtown Stamford, development sites in Oxford and Middlebury plus building projects in Manchester, England, where Omega has its European headquarters, according to the Omega website.

Omega products are showcased in the lobby of the company's administrative office building at River Bend. Two lifelike sculptures of men dressed in suits and tie are positioned behind the security desk. One, seated near a couch, peers into the screen of a temperature monitor; the other dips a probe into the reservoir of a water fountain.

The Hollanders' philanthropy has benefited Hartford plus myriad projects, including a $300,000 donation that renovated and expanded a library branch in Stamford, about a mile from their company headquarters, and a healing garden at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

But the Hollanders also had a hard-nosed approach to business.

In 1989, Milton Hollander launched a bid for control of Newport Electronics Inc., a California precision instrument maker, four months after Newport had agreed to be acquired by another Silicon Valley company.

Milton Hollander, who owned 13 percent of Newport's common stock, offered $9.50 a share for enough stock to raise his stake in the company to 48 percent.

After Newport's board turned down Hollander's offer, he increased the price to $11 a share, or $4.3 million enough to entice the CEO and other former executives to sell their shares and give him control of the company. Soon afterward, Milton Hollander ousted the top management and assumed the roles of chairman and chief executive.

Battling Hartford

When the Hollanders first purchased 370 Asylum St., the six-story, Capitol Center building, they were intent on establishing themselves as developers in downtown Hartford. They soon found, however, that there wasn't enough parking for their vision.

So they purchased the then-rundown 410 Asylum St., emptied it of commercial tenants and attempted to demolish it to use the site for parking. City officials and historic preservationists pressed to stop the demolition of the 1920s-era, six-story structure. The Hollanders responded with lawsuits.

Then, in a surprise move, the Hollanders donated the building in 2003 to Common Ground, the nonprofit founded by West Hartford native Rosanne Haggerty, who had won national acclaim transforming rundown properties in New York City for housing for low-income and former homeless people.

Initially, the plan was to house the homeless and working poor in the building but that drew stiff opposition from city leaders who had envisioned luxury apartments or condominiums on the park. Eventually, a compromise of mixed-income housing was reached.

The Hollanders occasionally brought visitors to "The Hollander" during renovations. And even though their name graced a prominent building near the park, the couple never worked to raise their profile in the city.

Still, Haggerty said, they were highly engaged. "They visited our buildings in New York, and we had many discussions about how stable housing and work were essential for people trying to improve their lives."

The nearby Capitol Center, also overlooking Bushnell Park, remained vacant for nearly a decade until the family foundation gave it two months ago to another housing group founded by Haggerty. Betty Hollander was too ill to participate in that donation, but Haggerty believes it fits with the themes of her efforts to improve people's lives.

"Mrs. Hollander, in particular, was very familiar with Horace Bushnell, and the history of Bushnell Park as a civic project," Haggerty said. "She was very pleased that 410 Asylum St., overlookong the park, would also serve a civic purpose."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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