1980 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Corporate leaders will always need to maintain an ethical anchor and a strong understanding of where to draw the moral line."
Michael Blumenthal was born in Oranienburg, Germany, in 1926. When he was 12, the Nazis arrived and burned all Jewish-owned stores, including Blumenthal's parents' dress shop. His father was taken to a concentration camp, and his mother sold the family's remaining possessions and bribed her husband's way out of Buchenwald. The family then escaped to China.
With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Blumenthals became trapped in China for eight years. They frequently did not have enough to eat and Blumenthal still remembers seeing corpses in the streets. He worked in a chemical factory for $1 a week to help feed his family. When the American troops entered Shanghai in 1945, Blumenthal got a job with the U. S. Air Force as a warehouseman. Two years later, at 21, he and his sister got visas and arrived in San Francisco with just $60 between them. Blumenthal says, "What counts is what comes from within you, your inner resources, not your name or your family, or what you inherited."
Blumenthal enrolled at San Francisco City College and worked at a host of odd jobs-truck driver, night elevator operator, busboy, and movie theater ticket-taker. He finished at the University of California at Berkeley and traveled east to take a scholarship at Princeton, where he earned two master's degrees and a Ph.D. in economics. He stayed on at Princeton and taught until 1957.
Soon after taking a position with Crown Cork International, Blumenthal became a vice president of the company. In 1961, he went to Washington, D. C., to serve as President Kennedy's deputy assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, and later became a U. S. Ambassador and chief U. S. negotiator at the Kennedy Round General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks in Geneva.
Blumenthal left government in 1967 to join the Bendix Corporation. Within five years, he had become chairman and CEO. Ten years later, Washington beckoned again, and Blumenthal returned under President Carter as the 64th Secretary of the Treasury. He served for more than two years, then resigned and returned to the corporate world as vice chairman of Burroughs Corporation, rapidly assuming the posts of CEO and chairman.
In 1986, Blumenthal masterminded the merger of Sperry Corporation into Burroughs to form UNISYS Corporation, a manufacturer of communications information systems, defense systems, and related services. At the time, the merger was the largest in the computer industry's history.
In 1990, Blumenthal retired from UNISYS and for the next five years was a limited partner of Lazard Freres & Co. He also spent several years writing a book, The Invisible Wall: German and Jews, A Personal Exploration, which was published in 1998. The story is organized around seven of Blumenthal's relatives, starting in the 17th century and ending with Blumenthal's father, who once served in the Kaiser's elite guards. In 1998, Blumenthal accepted an invitation from Berlin, the city from which he and his family had been forced to flee in 1939, to take charge of developing Europe's largest Jewish museum, dedicated to depicting 2,000 years of German-Jewish history.
In 1999, Blumenthal received the Grand Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He says his Horatio Alger Award remains one of his greatest honors.