From Jewish Orphan’s Home to success as leader of consulting firm

Robert E. Lefton

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

Robert E. Lefton spent his early life from the age of 5 in the Jewish Orphan’s Home near Oakland and Tamm avenues in Dogtown until he enrolled at the University of Illinois on a swimming scholarship. A few years later, Lefton completed his Ph.D. in psychology at Washington University. His thesis topic: “The Effects of Stress on Skin Cancer in Swiss Albino Rats.”

Today Lefton, 79, is a well-established advisor to corporate leaders and sales staff across the United States. His firm, Psychological Associates (, which he founded 53 years ago with V.R. Buzzotta, employs 55, many also with doctorates. Lefton does not disclose annual sales.

He and his wife, Marlene, have been married 57 years and live in Clayton. They have two sons and a daughter, all affiliated with the company. The senior Leftons are members of Temple Emanuel.

Lefton used to teach a course at Washington University on how effective American presidents have been and why. We began our conversation in his office in Clayton with his assessment of President Barack Obama.

You’re a moderate Republican, as I recall. Did you support Obama in 2008, and what do you think of him today?

I did support him. It was great at first to hear that Obama could pull people together in a collaborative way. But now I think he has to have his own way. He’s stubborn. I think he has an anger problem, but there’s no evidence for this. Abraham Lincoln took his rivals into his cabinet, and they learned to pull together.

Isn’t racism one issue Obama always has to face?

A certain percentage of the attacks on him are based on race. Some people want him to fail. But great leaders are supposed to rise above these things…I had hoped, since Obama is the first African-American president, he would take the high road. He has said some of the right things, but I am not sure his actions back those up.

Is there anyone out there you would like for the 2012 presidential race?

The one I prefer, who’s not picking up much traction, is Mitt Romney. He’s got great substance. He understands the economy. He understands business. He’s a very moral guy. But he doesn’t come across well in large settings. I know him. If people could just experience him in small groups…

You’ve been advising business leaders for more than 50 years. How has the workplace changed?

We have more knowledge of how to lead people. Look at the Henry Ford days, and look at how most companies are led today. The old autocratic style is out. Now companies are more humane, more team oriented.

Is this always true?

The group can be strong, if it’s the right group. You get better ideas. Synergy. I think it’s a mistake to say people are the most important resource. They have to be the right people.

What bothers me about the workplace today is that most CEOs and senior executives are making far more than their employees. The gap is getting bigger. It’s creating too many haves and have-nots. It bothers me when the average person can’t afford to take the kids to a baseball game, a basketball game, a hockey game. There’s something wrong with that.

Anything else?

I’m troubled that so many plants have moved overseas. Another thing that bothers me is the intractability of unions. They are not sitting down with management. Much of the disagreements revolve around work rules. The union leaders I’ve talked with look at the little problems. They don’t see the big picture.

How should unions and management work in the future?

I would like to see more collaboration. They should have common goals. They both should want to keep the business alive. Or keep it competitive. They should be asking what they can do to compete against China, India or wherever. Work rules make companies non-competitive.

When unions were founded, there was a great need. Workers were mistreated. At that point, the union cause was right. I know few companies today that abuse their people.

What about Wal-Mart?

How do you compete with a Wal-Mart? There’s a company in New York that’s trying to get a change in its work rules in a warehouse so it can compete with Wal-Mart. But the union has said it is willing to go out on strike to prevent that.

How’s Dierbergs going to compete against Wal-Mart? I wouldn’t be surprised in 10 years if there’s a Wal-Mart right here in Clayton. There has to be a change in attitude.

How are you handling succession in your company?

I want to work as long as I can. We brought in a non-family member, Dr. Ann Beatty, as president.

When you’re thinking of succession, you have two objectives: keeping harmony among the family members and maintaining the health of the business.

There are three keys to making this work. First, you have a board of directors and advisors to keep building the business. Second, you have a family counsel, to focus on how the kids can enter the family business. Third, a compensation committee. They should be outsiders. They make recommendations through the board on compensating executives.

Those three legs provide the mechanism for dialog and putting issues on the table.

Why were you in the Jewish Orphan’s Home?

I came from a broken home. My father deserted my mother. Most of the kids were there because one parent had tuberculosis. I was there with my late brother, Morris. They couldn’t send us to Southwest High School because there were so many German and Italian kids there. They would have beaten us up. My brother and I had to be very careful when we went anywhere. We usually took the alleys.

So we went to Soldan High School.

What are your memories of the orphan’s home?

They took good care of us. They were very compassionate. We went to Hebrew School four days a week. We were accountable for cleaning our rooms. I could get up a baseball game in 10 minutes.

The only bad thing was being from the home made us feel different. When we started dating girls and then met the parents and they found out we were from the home, we were not welcome any more.

You have turned out fine, and you have a strong, intact family, with children involved in your business.

I think being in the orphan’s home spawned an achievement drive in my brother and me. He was very successful with his Metal Exchange Corp. My father sold dresses out of the back of his car. The last time we saw him, he said, “If I hadn’t left, maybe you’d be selling dresses out of the back of a car.”

Psychological Associates is offering a two-day workshop Oct. 11-12 to help gift officers, advancement professionals and other fund-raisers to optimize their relationships with donors. Professional Relationship Skills will be held on the campus of Washington University. Tuition is $995 for two participants (part of a special two-for-one tuition promotion) instead of one. Enrollment limited to 16 participants. Contact Kathy Manche 314-862-9300 or [email protected] for more information