Joel Labovitz spent much of his life cultivating Duluth’s economic development, the effects of which are still at work today through the national retail chain Maurices; Labovitz Enterprises and the Lion Hotel Group; and the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The entrepreneur, businessman and mentor died Feb. 13 at his home in La Jolla, California, at age 92.
“He was such an iconic entrepreneur, deeply embedded in Duluth and just cared tremendously about Duluth,” said Amy Hietapelto, dean of the Labovitz School of Business and Economics. “We are just so lucky that he wanted to have a top university and a top business school in the Duluth community.”
Born in Duluth to Maurice and Ella Labovitz on June 3, 1928, he attended Congdon Park Elementary, East Junior High and Central High schools. He graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1949 with a degree in business administration, and continued to keep education a major part of the rest of his life.
He took care to teach others about his business expertise by developing and teaching entrepreneurship and business ethics classes at UMD in the 1980s. Labovitz was named a distinguished alumnus and delivered the 1988 commencement speech. UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said many people in Duluth, including himself, considered Labovitz to be a mentor.
“He always had time to talk and share his experiences,” Black said in an interview last week. “I think the concept of mentoring expanded through our students, our faculty, our staff, as well as throughout the business community.”
Labovitz and his wife, Sharon, gave a $4.5 million gift to UMD to fund, in part, the Labovitz School of Business and Economics, which opened in 2008.
“I have a little experience with what can happen in Duluth," Labovitz said on the opening day of the school. "Labovitzes have been in Duluth since 1907. Today is maybe the greatest day."
Joel and Sharon created the Labovitz Family Scholarship and Labovitz Hospitality Scholarship funds at UMD, and established a $100,000 permanent scholarship fund in former Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin’s name.
In 1994, he created the Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards with UMD’s Center for Economic Development, which were awarded for 25 years to the region’s hardest-working businesspeople.
“When the awards were started 25 years ago, there was no recognition for people in business,” Elaine Hansen, former director of the Center for Economic Development, said in 2018. “Joel brought that to a group of people and the whole group decided that we should have these awards.”
Labovitz learned the skills of business through many years of dedicated work. He held various jobs — selling shoes, delivering magazines, shoveling snow and working on ore boats — before 1950, when he became manager of the third branch of his father’s clothing store, Maurices, in Virginia.
From its Duluth headquarters, Maurices grew to 175 stores across 18 states and 300 people in Duluth when it was sold in 1978 to the American Retail Group. Labovitz stayed on as president and chief executive officer for two years, adding another 100 stores before stepping down in 1981.
He then teamed up with his childhood friend, Monnie Goldfine, to invest in real estate and hotels with ZMC Hotels. In 1981, he created Labovitz Enterprises and the Lion Hotel Group with Bruce Stender. Today, his son, Mark Labovitz, is president and chief executive officer of the company, which owns six hotels, including the Holiday Inn & Suites and Holiday Inn Express in Duluth.
“Joel was certainly an example that with a lot of hard work and a lot of attention to detail you can accomplish great things,” Black said. “I hope all of our students see that and would aspire to reach the kind of heights that Joel reached.”
Labovitz published his memoir, “Living Life Forward: Memoirs of a Lucky Life,” in 2006, writing extensively about his business philosophies and the importance of hiring talented workers and empowering them to do their job.
“He felt that he was very lucky, which is interesting because he worked hard and was persistent and very successful,” Hietapelto said. “I would say that the luck was a direct result of the things that he did.”
Labovitz was also an advocate of the fine arts, donating paintings from his family's personal collection to decorate the business school and supporting UMD’s Tweed Museum of Art, where his daughter Anne’s art has been displayed.
Memorials for Labovitz are being directed to the Labovitz Scholarship Fund at UMD.
Labovitz is survived by his wife, Sharon; son, Mark; daughters, Anne Labovitz Gamble and Sarah Bauer; a sister, Shana Lowitz; and several grandchildren.