Ralph E. Ablon, Pioneer of Corporate Conglomerates, Dies at 105

Ralph E. Ablon, an improbable corporate matchmaker who expanded a family scrap metal company into a pioneering conglomerate that eventually thrived by investing in the growing service economy, died on Nov. 2 in Manhattan. He was 105.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by his granddaughter Kim Ablon Whitney.

An erudite, pipe-puffing chemistry major, Mr. Ablon entered the ferrous recycling business in 1939 after he married a daughter of one of the owners of the Luria Brothers company in Reading, Pa.

Luria was bought in 1955 by the Ogden Corporation of Manhattan — a formerly bankrupt utility holding company controlled by Allen & Company — and Mr. Ablon went on to become chairman and chief executive of Ogden in 1962 and president in 1972.

He acquired some 55 subsidiaries, transforming the scrap metal processor into what Forbes magazine said “resembled nothing so much as a corporate kitchen sink,” filled with everything from shipbuilding to the processing of Italian food.

Buffering Ogden with the flexibility to weather economic upheavals in one sector or another, Mr. Ablon invested in Avondale Shipyards of New Orleans and the nation’s largest stevedoring company; food services like Progresso soups and sauces and the Nedick’s fast-food chain; and even racetracks and water parks.

In 1991, Crain’s magazine cited Mr. Ablon, who had named Maria Monet Ogden’s chief financial officer the year before, for “bucking the pervasive anti-woman bias” when he became “the rare C.E.O. who appoints a woman as a top executive.” In 1966, he was instrumental in the election of Tillie Lewis as the company’s first female director.

His buying spree ranged from big companies to smaller ones, as did his early successes and failures. In 1970, Mr. Ablon sought to buy the “21” Club in Manhattan, where he dined frequently, but the deal fell through when the price of Ogden’s stock declined. Another deal gone awry was Ogden’s purchase of the Charles Luckman architectural design firm.

He learned, he said, to choose future investments according to an “admissible risk threshold” — how big the loss would be if the entire venture failed.

While his early frenzy of diversification fizzled, Mr. Ablon subsequently “orchestrated one of the most complete and successful business restructurings of recent times,” Forbes wrote in its profile of him. By the mid-1980s, his purchase of Allied Maintenance helped completely convert Ogden into an offices and industrial service company.

One reason success had eluded him early on, Forbes suggested, was that Mr. Ablon was “not your typical blunt-talking industrial manager.”

“He has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare while puffing professorially on his pipe,” the magazine added. “His conceptualizing sometimes makes him describe Ogden as if it were an artistic or intellectual creation rather than a conglomerate that sells spaghetti sauce, services vending machines and deals in scrap metals.”

For someone who was instrumental in creating conglomerates, Mr. Ablon disliked the term. “I don’t know of any company that is not multimanagement,” he told The New York Times in 1968, “and conglomerate has become to mean acquisition for its own sake.”

“Central management concentrates on doing the right things,” he said, “and our subsidiary heads, who also participate in central management, are left alone to do things right.”

He relinquished the titles of president and chief executive to his son R. Richard Ablon in 1990. In 2001, Ogden’s name was changed to Covanta.

Ralph Emil Ablon was born on Oct. 26, 1916, in Tupelo, Miss., one of eight children of Zemore Ablon, a used-car salesman, and Louise (Strauss) Ablon, a homemaker.

The family moved to Dayton, Ohio, in 1929, and Ralph attended high school there. He majored in chemistry at the Ohio State University and was the business manager of the football team before graduating in 1938. He was briefly a graduate teaching assistant in English before marrying Sylvia Luria in 1939. He also served in the Navy.

In addition to Ms. Whitney, his granddaughter, he is survived by his wife; their children, Steven, Patricia, Richard and Jennifer; five other grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Ablon had lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan since 1944. He regularly swam at the New York Athletic Club, which, he said, he had originally joined under a pseudonym (Mr. Conolly) because the club didn’t allow Jewish members at the time.

He acknowledged that some of his success resulted from being in the right place at the right time. His entree to Ogden came from meeting Charles R. Allen Jr., the founder of the family investment bank, by chance on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

While his goal was growth — “evolutionary adaptation is just as important for a company as it is for organisms,” he once said — Mr. Ablon had learned from his early high-flying years to modify his expectations. He liked to quote a sonnet from Shakespeare that ends, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds” — which was his way of saying that there’s a reason that some companies look better than they turn out to be.

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