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A Father’s Day for Late Bloomers

Levenger wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my father, Len Leveen. His advice and money sustained Levenger through our early years. The odd thing is, I didn’t grow up with...

Jun 12, 2023

By Steve Leveen

Levenger wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for my father, Len Leveen. His advice and money sustained Levenger through our early years. The odd thing is, I didn’t grow up with my dad, or really know him at all, until I became an adult.
My parents divorced when I was six. Back in the 1960s, joint custody wasn’t the norm and my mother, wanting a fresh start, put my older sister and me in the back seat of her car and drove across the country, from Syracuse to San Diego, which is where we grew up. Consequently, Karen and I didn’t see our father when we were children or teens. Perhaps, that was partly a good thing.
My stepsister, Joli, who did grow up with my father in Syracuse, had a rough time of it. All of us have strengths and weaknesses. Being a wise and empathetic parent to a teenager was not one of my father’s strengths. He related to adults just fine, but teens, not so much.
I did see my father a few times while I was in high school. He would buy Karen and me airline tickets to come back to Syracuse for a week or two in the summer. But it wasn’t until I moved back East to go to grad school at Cornell, about an hour south of Syracuse, that my father and I got to know each other. I’d drive up every other weekend and stay with him and his wife.
He took me to some of his work meetings at a real estate development company where he was a partner. The morning meetings began at 6 am, six days a week, and it was there, where all the partners met to review their various projects, that I saw my father at his best. I could tell his fellow partners loved him and valued his sage counsel. I was astounded at all the joking around and laughing that went on, while they strategized about the daunting challenges they faced acquiring land, permits, anchor tenants, and loans. What a completely different world he lived in than anything I had known.
With degrees in biology and sociology, I was pursuing my plan to become a science writer, but those morning meetings opened my eyes to the possibilities of business. These guys were having so much fun! They were inventive, resourceful, persistent—and they were making money. As my father used to say about his young years as a poor kid in the Bronx, “If you had money you could do things. If you didn’t have money, you couldn’t do things.”
After serving in World War II, my dad attended CCNY on the GI Bill and got an accounting degree. He and some friends, also young CPAs, decided they’d have a better chance getting started in accounting if they moved north of New York City to a smaller market. So they drove to Syracuse to start their firm. One of their clients was a scrappy young business owner named Bob Congel. He had parlayed his ditch-digging contracts into buying his first piece of land, where he built a small retail center. He built several more, which was when he asked my father to join his firm as one of a few trusted partners.  Thus began a remarkable run of building and operating scores of regional shopping malls throughout upstate New York.
‘What does Lenny think?’
At those morning meetings, I sat quietly against the wall, watching and listening. My dad was the quiet one of the bunch. He was a bit older than the rest, and the one, eventually, they would turn to and ask, “What does Lenny think?” He was their consigliere. I could tell that his relationship with his partners, especially with Bob Congel, was a source of great fulfillment in his life, and also the source of his financial independence.
Ultimately, however, my father was the first to retire. He disagreed with the continued risks the company was taking—unnecessary risks, he felt. Bob Congel and my father remained friends but made no new deals together.
Now I know that his decision to retire early was the result of one of his strengths: my father knew the wisdom of moderation.
The point of being in business, he once told me, is not to make as much money as possible, but to earn yourself freedom to do what you want in life.
What my father wanted was to own a few racehorses with friends, which he did. And he wanted to live on a golf course in Florida, which he also did. He developed his own form of philanthropy, too. He was alert to the people he encountered in his life. If they needed money, he would give it to them and wish them luck. He wasn’t the big donor to an institution, preferring to shake someone’s hand and make moderate, but meaningful, cash gifts directly to them.
His moderation came through in his great passion for gambling. He loved to go to casinos and play blackjack, perfecting his skills through reading books and diligently practicing. He loved the challenge of keeping track of all the cards played in his head, the way he used to add numbers in his head as an accountant, the only one in his office who never used an adding machine. The point wasn’t to try to get rich gambling. He played for small stakes. The point was to enjoy the sport, to win, of course, but winning in moderation was enough.
His moderation came through in his drinking, too. After 5:00 he loved his ritual of two Chivas Regals on the rocks, but never drank more and never after dinner.
A father’s wisdom for his entrepreneur son
He was surprised when Lori and I started Levenger. I was 32 at the time, which he considered late to start being an entrepreneur. He called me his “late-blooming son.”
Some of his best business advice came in adages:
“Fast pay makes fast friends.”
“Overhead will kill anyone.”
“If you’re in business for long enough, you’ll run into hard times.”
He gave us our first line of credit for $50,000 when the banks wouldn’t consider lending to such a startup.
When we were about to sign our first five-year lease for a real office he said, “You should negotiate a go-dark clause.”
“What’s a go-dark clause?” I said.
“Chances are that within five years you’ll either go out of business or need more space,” he said. “Either way, you’ll want out of your lease.”
He was right, and fortunately for the latter reason: we soon needed more space. We exercised that go-dark clause.
Pride where it mattered most
My dad wasn’t much for showing emotion. But I know he was proud when Levenger became the eighth fastest-growing privately-held business on the Inc. 500 List. And he was proud when we built our 200,000 square foot warehouse and office. You can see it in his face in the photos from the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He sat on our board nearly until the end of his life. He died in 2018 at age 91.

(From left)  Leonard Leveen, Steve Leveen, Lori Leveen, Delray Beach Mayor
Tom Lynch and Levenger GM Russ Christie at opening of Levenger headquarters, 1995 

At his services, I repeated what he had said to me, “The best thing you and Lori ever did was Cal and Corey.” He marveled how our boys had become such fine young men, particularly since child-rearing skills seemed to elude him.
My dad wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t around to teach me how to throw a baseball (my friends did). He wasn’t around to give me advice on girls (my mother did). He wasn’t around to teach me how to tie a tie (illustrations in a magazine did that). But later in life, he was there for me, and for my wife, and for our first son who arrived on the scene the same year Levenger did. Concerned that we were driving his newborn grandson around in our crappy old car, he gave us his Cadillac. (We thanked him effusively, promptly sold it to help fund our startup, and continued driving his grandson around in our crappy car.)
On this Father’s Day, I raise my scotch to my imperfect dad, my late-blooming dad, who was there for me, after all.