Profile in Leadership: George Gellert ’60, MBA ’62, JD ’63

By: Jeffrey Gangemi MBA '09
Profile in Leadership: George Gellert ’60, MBA ’62, JD ’63

Bringing a “Benevolent Competitiveness” to Family Business

When Superstorm Sandy hit the Gellert Global Group’s Elizabeth, N.J., warehouse, offices, and shipping facility in October 2012, it left behind eight feet of standing water and over $15 million in damage. Chairman and CEO George Gellert was in Paris at a food show when the storm made landfall, and his son, Andy Gellert ’89, was in Chile.

But that didn’t stop his entire team, including his other son, Tom Gellert ’94, MBA ’99, JD ’00, and other top management from hauling generators and shoveling waterlogged garbage to save the facility — and the company. In fact, Gellert’s IT, shipping, food safety, administrative, and executive teams prevented any lost business, and not a single employee was laid off as a result of the storm.

What could have spelled the demise of the largest private food importer in the United States quickly transformed into one of its proudest moments. When he finally got back to survey the scene, Gellert says the facility “looked like World War II.” But just two weeks later, the company was back in operation. “Everyone was there shoveling. To see all of those employees come and help rebuild the company, I thought that was a very happy moment,” he says.

Gellert’s long-time friends, colleagues, and business partners say it’s no coincidence that his team went to bat for him like they did. They say Gellert lives his life with a sort of high-energy benevolent competitiveness, and that he expects the same level of commitment and dedication from those he leads. “[Gellert] has a kind of never-stop-fighting mentality that has reached down into the entire organization,” says Steve O’Mara, President of J.F. Braun and Sons, the dried fruit and nut division of Gellert Global Group.

Superstorm Sandy wasn’t the only recent adversity that Gellert has overcome more quickly than anticipated. Even after being diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2011 and a 50-50 chance of beating it, Gellert stayed active with the company. Doctors at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York quickly administered the experimental drug azacitidine in July 2011, followed by six chemotherapy treatments. Gellert says he was skiing again by January 2012.

At 78, Gellert still plays tennis or works out every morning at six o’clock and is the first person at the office every morning. When he had cancer, “his attitude was ‘this is never going to get me down.’ With Sandy, it was the same mentality. It was very motivational,” O’Mara says.

The Power of Relationships

Thanks to his network of incredibly strong relationships, it wasn’t just people within the company that rallied around Gellert in Sandy’s aftermath. Where they could easily have taken their business to a competitor, long-time customers and suppliers patiently waited for the company to get back on its feet. “The thing about our business,” says Gellert, “is that our customers are personal friends. Our employees are personal friends. People we buy from are our friends. Our bankers are our friends. Our whole universe — even though it’s business — we all socialize, and it’s one big happy family,” he says.

Indeed, despite growing to encompass ten component companies with over $1 billion in total annual revenue, Gellert works to maintain an intimate, family atmosphere. For him, trust is built over meals, not through lawyers. Each quarter, the group holds a meeting with about 20 top executives from across its divisions. “We have the meeting at our house, not in a boardroom, and my mother cooks for everyone,” says Andy Gellert, who, like his brother Tom runs several divisions of Gellert Global Group. “My father always entertains the suppliers at the house, too. He considers these people friends, not just business associates,” he says.

It’s the same in his side businesses. Gellert works closely with some of the biggest players in the New York business and real estate worlds, and they often remark on his forthrightness and honesty. “‘His word is his bond,’ — it’s a cliché written for George Gellert,” says Charles Kushner, principal of the Kushner Companies, a New York real estate development firm. “We’ve done many billions of dollars of business together, and everything is always on a handshake. He’s never read a legal document I’ve given him, and it’s the same with me.”

Values and the Keys to Success

George Gellert says he developed his sense of loyalty, respect for people of all levels and backgrounds, and an indefatigable work ethic from growing up on Pine Lane Poultry Farm in Hillsdale, N.Y., a rural town in the Berkshires. As a kid, he had to walk almost a mile to the school bus every day with his three brothers. If he arrived even a minute late, he’d miss an entire day of school. “What I knew growing up was that we would have chores when we came home. We also played sports, so we had to make the best use of our time,” Gellert says. “Respect for people’s time is still something I pay a lot of attention to.”

He made impressive use of his own time at Cornell. Gellert is a “triple-red” who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and JD degrees in seven years. He also completed Cornell’s ROTC program, ran track, and played football for Big Red. “When I got to Cornell, there were a lot of guys a lot smarter than I was, but they were out drinking and partying. I had football and worked my way through school, so I always tried to utilize my time in an efficient manner,” he says.

If his time management and work ethic came from working on the family egg farm, then George’s life-long entrepreneurial streak was born in Ithaca. Gellert counts stationery, gifts, and cake businesses among the ten moneymaking ventures he ran with his younger and older brothers during his years on and around campus.

After post-Cornell stints at the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Pentagon with the U.S. Department of Defense, George joined his father-in-law’s food importing business, Atalanta, which primarily imported canned hams from Poland. In 1971, he helped take the company public to spur growth. Gellert officially took over in 1976, and he took the company private again in 1980, enabling him to build one of the most successful family-owned businesses in the country.

Growth — both organic and through acquisition — has been consistent throughout the years since Gellert took over from his father-in-law. He says one of his biggest breaks and best decisions came about 16 years ago, when he led the successful acquisition and integration of two companies from ConAgra Foods. “What I’ve learned is not to change the existing model,” says Gellert. “I try to let the people who were running the company before continue to run the business, and we give them some direction, rather than doing a wholesale change,” he says.

Leadership Lessons

Leading big changes seems to come easily to Gellert, but he says he draws on lessons he learned from Cornell professors, like the late Earl Brooks (1914–1994), professor of personnel management, and L. Joseph Thomas, Johnson dean emeritus and professor of operations management.

Professional mentors modeled the softer skills that have made Gellert so successful. At the Pentagon, Gellert reported to a “master networker” named Colonel Salisbury. “This guy taught me how to operate,” he says. “The Pentagon is a bureaucracy, and someone who knows how to network can really get things done.”

To this day, Gellert attends industry events and networks endlessly, helping friends, business associates, and family members connect with people and opportunities. “He’s really smart and has an amazing memory,” says Alan Le Vine, vice president and senior credit officer, Executive Loan Committee at First Republic Bank. “He remembers people’s names and things about their family. He’s always trying to connect people,” says Le Vine, who originally met Gellert when working as his private banker at Citi.

But it’s not for personal benefit. Le Vine says Gellert expresses genuine interest and concern for people whom he has met only a few times, as when he sent an incredible assortment of cheeses and nuts and called Le Vine to express sympathy after his mother-in-law died. Moreover, Le Vine adds, Gellert always calls family members on their birthdays.

In terms of management and leadership style, Gellert recognized a kindred spirit in Fidel Castro, whom he met in 1978 when Gellert was one of the first American business people to travel to post-revolutionary Cuba. Instead of remaining disconnected from mundane details of business in his country, Gellert says Castro asked him about very specific techniques for exporting Central American lobster tails. “Of all the world leaders I’ve met, he was really on top of things — really involved in the details,” says Gellert.

Seeing Castro operate galvanized his resolve to attain a deep understanding of all aspects of his business. “I sort of pay a lot of attention to details. I have an excellent team, but I am constantly asking about what’s going on — so I stay really involved,” says Gellert.

Earning the Respect of His Peers

Gellert’s ability to integrate lessons from mentors and role models has earned him tremendous respect from his peers. “In my view, management is keeping the status quo and maintaining the organization; leaders change and build, and George Gellert is the consummate leader,” says Howard Abner, MBA ’61, chairman of asset management firm Abner Herrman & Brock. Abner earned his MBA just a year before Gellert, and the two have been friends since their business school days.

For all the accolades, Gellert stays remarkably humble. “You’d think he’d be the one flying first class on an overseas trip. Not a chance. He’s sitting next to you in economy,” says O’Mara of J. F. Braun, adding that Gellert not only gave him his cellphone number even as a middle manager, but that he’d pick up nearly every time he called. “There’s never been a real hierarchy to get to him,” O’Mara says.

Gellert’s combination of tenacity and kindness typifies his approach to life and work. “He’s the hardest-working person,” says Kushner. “He’s a tough, smart businessman, but he’s also one of the kindest, gentlest, and most giving people you’d ever find.” In tough times, that combination of attributes has drawn friends, family, and colleagues to George Gellert’s side, ready to return the respect and generosity he’s always shown them.