‘Towering ambassador’ for Duluth business Joel Labovitz dies at 92

DULUTH – Joel Labovitz left a big stamp on the Duluth business community — one that officials and colleagues said was a powerful and positive force.

He grew the family business, Maurices, into a national retail chain.

He founded Labovitz Enterprises, which owns the Holiday Center in downtown Duluth and a collection of hotels around the country.

Through a generous gift to the University of Minnesota Duluth, he is the namesake of the Labovitz School of Business and Economics.

“Joel Labovitz was a towering ambassador for our local businesses as well as for his own,” said Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce CEO David Ross. “I think his time here and what he has done for our community will be well remembered.”

Labovitz died on Saturday at his home in La Jolla, Calif., after a long illness. He was 92.

A tireless advocate for entrepreneurs and the potential to positively shape the world through commerce, he was remembered by his family as “a generous teacher, mentor and true friend.”

“Joel made the world better through his treatment of people, curious encouragement for well-judged risk-taking and optimistic belief in American opportunity,” they wrote in his obituary. “We feel a great loss and miss him dearly already.”

Labovitz was born in Duluth on June 3, 1928, to Ella and Maurice Labovitz. He attended Duluth Central High School and graduated from UMD in 1949.

After graduation — with jobs ranging from magazine delivery, shoe sales and a stint on ore boats already under his belt — Labovitz joined the women’s clothing business his father had started in 1931. In 1950, he started managing the third Maurices store in Virginia, Minn., and by 1955 he was in charge of the company.

In 1978, when Labovitz sold the business to the Brenninkmeyer family’s American Retail Group, Maurices had grown to 175 stores in 18 states and had 300 employees in Duluth, where the company remains headquartered.

Labovitz then invested in real estate and hotels with longtime friend Monnie Goldfine, and in 1981 he launched Labovitz Enterprises and Lion Hotel Group with Bruce Stender.

Labovitz wrote in a memoir published in 2006, “Living Life Forward: Memories of a Lucky Life,” that success in business can be found “through the intelligent use of our assets, imagination, know-how, management skills and the cash and credit to use them.”

The job of business leaders, he wrote, “is to locate, identify, hire, train and motivate people of ability, talent and moxie; find the responsibilities with which they are entrusted; give them the authority to carry out those responsibilities; and get the hell out of the way.”

Labovitz taught some of the first entrepreneurship courses at UMD in the 1980s. In 2003, he and his wife, Sharon, gave $4.5 million to help build the business school’s current facility.

“He felt truly committed to Duluth, the Twin Ports and the business school,” said Amy Hietapelto, dean of the Labovitz School of Business and Economics. “We cannot thank him enough for his generosity and all he has given. It truly will live on in the lives of the students he has directly impacted and those he will continue to impact.”

Hietapelto recalled a quote that she said captured the responsibility Labovitz felt for his hometown and alma mater: “UMD and Duluth are our garden, and we are lucky we can tend to our garden.”

Labovitz was long involved with the business school and remained a member emeritus of the dean’s business advisory council at the time of his death. He is survived by his wife; his sister, Shana Lowitz; his daughters Anne Labovitz Gamble and Sarah Bauer and son, Mark; and nine grandchildren.

“In addition to being a caring and giving person, Joel was a model entrepreneur, and he shared his expertise with many students, faculty and staff at UMD,” said UMD Chancellor Lendley Black.

Labovitz was eager to recognize others’ success as well. The Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards began in 1993 and were awarded annually for 25 years by UMD’s Center for Economic Development.

A recipient of numerous awards and accolades himself, he said in an interview before the 2017 event that he had always wanted to “recognize entrepreneurs for the personal risks they took and for their importance in the community.”

At the final ceremony, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson recognized him by proclaiming April 26, 2017, as Joel Labovitz Day.

“Joel Labovitz has been one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Duluth’s history,” the proclamation read.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496

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