Ex-Timberland CEO Swartz now promotes Jewish causes

As CEO of Timberland, Jeff Swartz bolstered the bottom line of one of America’s best-known footwear and apparel companies. But he has other talents: among them, he can quote Napoleon, Bruce Springsteen and the Talmud in a single conversation and have it all make sense.

In 2011, Swartz sold Timberland for $2 billion, leaving the business world behind to devote himself to the Jewish community in his hometown of Boston and helping broaden economic opportunity in Israel, where the 56-year-old now spends more than half his time.

Swartz will share his insights at this year’s Day of Philanthropy, a day-long event sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation on Thursday, Sept. 22 in San Francisco. Swartz will give the keynote speech and participate in a workshop, “Building a Shared Society in Israel.”

“We get the leaders we deserve,” Swartz told J. “The Jews of San Francisco deserve the best leaders, and there are dynamic leaders in the Bay Area.”

Jeff Swartz

For 15 years, he led Timberland, a Boston-based footwear company founded by his grandfather in 1952. During Swartz’s tenure as CEO, he expanded the company’s commitment to environmental responsibility and fair treatment of its workers. That drew the attention of then-President George W. Bush, who invited Swartz to a White House roundtable with the nation’s top CEOs.

Most were household names. His was not.

“Everyone in the room was famous but me and the guards,” Swartz recalled. “[Bush] says to them, ‘That boy from the Hampshires’ — meaning me — ‘he gives all his employees paid time to volunteer in the community. You know what he gets for that? Derision.’”

The derision didn’t last. Swartz’s directive that employees get paid time off to serve their communities helped spur Timberland’s positive brand awareness. The company maintains that tradition to this day.

Swartz also was active in his Jewish community, having served on the boards of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts, as well as Boston’s Jewish federation and the executive board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Today, he chairs Maoz, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes leadership in Israeli society.

But Swartz has not been a complacent participant. He has detected fault lines in the Jewish community and is not shy about saying so.

“I don’t think that institutional Jewish forces in America have good models,” he said. Despite “heroic efforts” by organizations — he cited the Wexner Foundation as one — and “dramatic investments” by organizations like the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, he said, the results aren’t that promising.

As evidence, he cited statistics that show increasing rates of intermarriage, decreasing rates of communal affiliation and disconnection from Israel on the part of young American Jews.

“But if Jews were marked on efforts, we’d get the honor roll,” he added.

And that’s where Napoleon comes in. Swartz recounted the famed French emperor’s 1798 declaration liberating the Jews of France, but with the caveat that they must choose to be either Frenchmen or Jews.

“The vast majority made that choice,” he said, noting that many chose to be secular French citizens. “I don’t decry it, I mourn it. In my generation, people made the same choice. My grandfather came from Russia and was told, ‘Give up your name, your language, your culture,’ and he said, ‘Deal!’”

In his case, Swartz grew up in a proudly Jewish home, with his mother playing the role of “values keeper in the family. She had me in Israel Independence [Day] marches at age 7.”

After retiring in 2012, Swartz and his wife, Debbie, essentially relocated to Tel Aviv (though they maintain their Boston home). “I wanted to sell the business because I wanted to get shorn of all of the entourage,” he recalled. “I wanted to get  naked. [Maimonides] is clear: One of the things you can do is change your name and exile yourself. There’s nothing like the immigrant experience.”

He says he tries to incorporate practices in his Jewish community and nonprofit work similar to those he instituted at Timberland.

“That is my principal work method in Israel,” Swartz said. “I go to Arabs, Haredim, settlers, and I say, ‘I don’t know anything. You be the CEO and tell me what I need to know.’ Part of the reason I went to Israel is to deepen this process of searching for identity. I believe the Jewish people still have something to say to the world, and I want to do my small part.”

Because of his devotion to philanthropy and social change, Swartz says he is acutely aware of his good fortune in life and his obligation to give back.

And that’s where the Boss comes in.

“In Bruce Springsteen terms,” he says, “I’ve got debts no honest man could pay.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.