Rudolph Hurwich — entrepreneur and mentor, international businessman, inventor, philanthropist, investor and a behind-the-scenes supporter of numerous liberal causes and creative endeavors – died peacefully at his Oakland home on August 2. He was 92.
The self-effacing, MIT-trained mechanical engineer was the founder and longtime CEO and Chairman of Dymo Industries, best known for its hand-held device that stamped out adhesive strips of embossed labels with a rotating wheel. It was used in homes and businesses in more than 100 countries to label shelves, drawers, possessions and spare parts and was manufactured for use in more than 20 languages. Founded in Berkeley in 1958, with headquarters in San Francisco for many years, the diversified multinational firm was listed on the New York stock exchange until it was bought out in 1978 in a hostile takeover by the Swedish conglomerate Esselte, which sold it to Newell Rubbermaid in 2005.
From the early 1990s until recent health problems slowed him down, he served as the co-founder, initial-round fundraiser and six-day-a-week President, CFO and CEO of Berkeley's PolyPlus Battery Company, which has developed a versatile breakthrough battery technology with unprecedented energy density that Time magazine selected as one of the 50 Best Inventions of 2011. Rudy, as he was commonly called, was the management genius who transformed the discoveries of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists Lutgard De Jonghe and Steven J. Visco into a promising business.
He was widely admired by business leaders and fellow entrepreneurs for his expertise as a business officer, partner, counselor, negotiator and advisor and the calm demeanor he brought to all challenges. Rudy's friend and colleague, Leo B. Helzel, who was instrumental in the founding of Dymo and was initially involved in its executive operations, said, "What made Dymo succeed was Rudy's brilliance and character … but brilliant people do not always get the affection of their colleagues and employees; Rudy did. People really liked him … everyone from the night watchman to secretaries and executives … they all felt as if Rudy was their friend."
Visco, current CEO of PolyPlus as well as CTO and co-founder, relates that the Berkeley startup once engaged in months of due-diligence and hard-nosed negotiations with the major multinational company Monsanto. The contract that emerged from those negotiations contained an unconventional clause demanded by Monsanto: that Rudy tutor their executives in the art of negotiation.
Rudy and his beloved wife Janet met in 1974 as she was getting off an elevator at the Dymo headquarters in San Francisco. Instead of getting on the elevator, Rudy returned to his office and called the receptionist to ask who the visitor in the long blue suede coat was and whom she was visiting. A short while later he had arranged to have drinks with her that evening. They became inseparable partners in love, family business investments and philanthropy for 40 years.
He has been profiled in Time magazine, Money magazine and numerous other publications, but among the career highlights that were celebrated by family and friends but weren't generally listed in official bios, was his bit part as the stern prison warden in the 1973 madcap counterculture comedy "Steelyard Blues," starring Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda and Peter Boyle. Rudy came to that role through his support of The Committee, the popular San Francisco improv comedy troupe that was instrumental in the movie's development.
The Committee was among many nonprofit social and artistic ventures Rudy supported with management, mentoring or financial assistance. Other beneficiaries of his guidance ranged from late artist and jewelry-maker Laurel Burch and Marin-based Folkwear clothing patterns to the Zen Center of San Francisco. At various times over the past six decades, Rudy was a board member of many organizations that shared his values, among them the Pacifica Foundation and the Fort Mason Foundation. In 1979, he played a key role in founding and bringing to Fort Mason the Zen Center's celebrated vegetarian restaurant Greens. The New York Times has called Greens "The restaurant that brought vegetarian food out from sprout-infested health food stores and established it as a cuisine in America."
Greens was not the only San Francisco eatery in which he played an important role. In the 60s and 70s, he was the owner of the popular Coffee Cantata café and gallery on Union Street that achieved a level of national attention as a backdrop in TV shows and movies, most notably in the legendary 1968 action film "Bullitt," starring Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and Jacqueline Bisset.
Rudy's business career began as an after-school clerk at his parents' neighborhood department store in Chicago's Southside, called Hurwich's. His parents' management style was the model for the respect for customers and employees he brought to all his businesses, and he was credited with hiring managers who shared his respect for employees' well-being, creating a corporate atmosphere of kindness and thoughtfulness. One long-time Dymo employee said, "If CEOs and politicians in this day and age could follow in this man's footsteps, the world would be a better place."
Rudy supported or ran numerous businesses as founder, officer, board member, consultant or principal investor. He was an avid small-plane pilot whose investment ventures included Hibbard Aviation, an airplane brokerage based at Oakland International Airport, and a Short Takeoff and Landing air taxi service that operated between Oakland and Bear Valley, established in 1968. His other business involvements ranged from magazines (Mix Magazine, a Berkeley-based trade publication for the recording and sound technology industry) to furniture (Metropolitan Furniture Company, a high-end San Francisco home and office furniture design and manufacturing company later sold to Steelcase).
Other companies included R. Hurwich Company, Ion Systems, Interphase Technologies, Optical Sciences Group and International Plant Research Institute. He also owned, managed or invested in commercial real estate properties in the East Bay and elsewhere in Northern California.
The Abiding Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, Ed Sattizahn, notes that "Rudy exemplified the ideals of a Buddhist life – wisdom and compassion skillfully expressed in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life."
He was a member of the Board of Trustees of the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) for 13 years, during which time he helped the institution overcome financial and management challenges. He was awarded an honorary doctorate from the school. CSPP later merged with Alliant International University, and the Hurwich Library, named in Rudy's honor, was re-established at its San Francisco campus. Rudy and his wife Janet also funded the Hurwich Scholarship at Alliant in memory of their granddaughters Georgette Judith Alouf-Schulman and Basia Mimi Alouf-Schulman.
Rudy also gave substance to his personal values with financial support for social-advocacy and humanitarian organizations, including – among many others – the ACLU, MoveOn, Planned Parenthood and the Union of Concerned Scientists. He supported the political careers of a number of local and national progressive politicians, among them both influential Representative George Miller III and his father, George Miller Jr.
For all of his business and philanthropic accomplishments, Rudy used to say that his proudest achievement was his listing on President Nixon's "enemies list." Although the Nixon administration never announced the rationale for this exclusive honor, Rudy's name likely made the list because of his leadership role in a national organization of business executives opposed to the Vietnam War.
Asked in an early interview whether he wasn't afraid of being branded a Communist because of some of his political involvements, he is said to have flashed his trademark wry grin and replied that, as a successful capitalist, it would be hard to label him a Communist. Rudy often said that he made money so that he could give it away to organizations and people of his choosing and improve community where government "wasn't doing its job."
The mentoring so valued by corporate and nonprofit organizations extended to friends and acquaintances to whom he provided level-headed counseling through financial, career and personal difficulties. He was unfailingly generous and polite – but also, when needed, forthright and even blunt – with the untold numbers of people who came to him over the years with ideas, business plans, dreams and troubles. David Schwartz, formerly with Mix Publications wrote, "Working with Rudy was like having a business safety net; he made you want to try your most daring ideas and you knew there was a safe landing below if necessary."
Rudy was born in 1921 in Chicago. Rudy's father had emigrated from near Vilnius, Lithuania, from where both sides of his family originated. Graduating high school early at age 16, Rudy was the first in his family to receive a college degree (in engineering) from MIT, where he would later establish a scholarship fund in his name.
Following his World War II service in the South Pacific as a naval officer on the USS Intrepid, he married Cecelia (Cec) Hurwich, a fellow officer he had met in the service. Shortly after their first child was born, Rudy and Cec moved their family out west in 1948, settling in Berkeley after a short spell in San Francisco. He later moved to Oakland to share a home with his second wife, Janet Hurwich.
In addition to his wife Janet, Rudy is survived by his children, Barbara (BJ) Hurwich, Gregory (Robbie) Hurwich, Evelyn (Lyn) Hurwich and Nommi Alouf; his grandchildren Jon Robin Nichols, Eliana Hurwich-Reiss and Theodore Schulman; his great-granddaughter Alana Nichols; his first cousin MeraLee Goldman; his niece and nephew Linda Hurwich Mendelson and Daniel Hurwich; and five great nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by two younger brothers, David and Saul Hurwich.