‘Rags-to-Riches’ story told in local autobiography

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Ben Fixman’s literal rise from rags to riches is the stuff of legends, and St. Louis readers are fortunate that he has just published “The Ben Fixman Story: From the Ghetto to the Gold,” (Artful Tale, $24.95) as told to his longtime associate and friend Donald Roth.

With the help of Roth, Fixman, now 85, vividly details his humble beginnings in the Kerry Patch neighborhood in downtown St. Louis, his hard-scrabble childhood fighting off neighborhood bullies and gangs and his rise to astonishing success as chairman of Diversified Metals, a business that grew to have revenues in the hundreds of millions.

In a recent interview in Clayton, Fixman said he was born in St. Louis to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. His father, Baruch (Bernard) Fixman, drove a horse-drawn scrap iron truck through the streets of downtown St. Louis. He suddenly died when Ben was only 18 months old, leaving his mother, Rose Fixman, alone to work hard and raise him and his four siblings.

“To make it in those days, we all had to work,” Fixman said. He started selling newspapers at the age of 7, and recalls that to defend himself from the different ethnic gangs and individual bullies, he had to learn to duke it out at that tender age. “I made a name for myself as a duker, a kid you didn’t want to challenge or f— with. In all my ghetto fights, I never lost one.”


Throughout his colorful life and business career, Fixman combined toughness and a strong drive to succeed, a genius for seeing opportunities in adversity and a fierce loyalty to his friends and associates. “To me, a handshake between friends is a binding contract,” he said.

Because of the pressures of growing up in the Great Depression, “education became a luxury we could not afford,” Fixman said. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and got a job as a janitor in a ladies’ ready-to-wear chain, working his way up to assistant to the president before joining the U.S. Army.

On his return from the Army, Fixman began working 16-hour days in the scrap metal business. “Early on, I learned the science and art of Jewish engineering,” Fixman said. “With Jewish engineering, you either solve the problem or you starve to death.”

At age 26, Fixman bought a scrap yard, and after his years of punishing work he developed a unique “cold process” for extracting valuable and reusable metals from scrap. He built Diversified Metals into Diversified Industries, a New York Stock Exchange-traded company with revenues of $330 million.

Fixman credits his “Jewish engineering” to the resourcefulness of the Jewish people. “For hundreds of years everything was taken away from us. We literally had nothing. But Jews had the good sense to see rags on pushcarts and transform them into dry goods stores and later the great department stores. And we saw metal that others regarded as useless scrap and found a way to restore its usefulness and value.”

In the book, there is a reproduction of a St. Louis Post-Dispatch profile of Fixman by Gerald J. Meyer under the headline, “Junkman to Captain of Industry.” Asked by close friends if he was offended by the headline calling him a “junkman,” Fixman replied, “Absolutely not. That’s how I made my fortune.”

Fixman, who has been described as a “Jewish Horatio Alger,” retired from Diversified in 1991. He continues to serve as a consultant to Kataman Metals, a metals trading business he founded in 1993 by with his late friend and business partner, Shig Katayama. The company was later sold.

Because of his personal struggles to achieve his amazing business success and his pride in being Jewish, Fixman accepted the invitation of the late Melvin Dubinsky and the late Morris Shenker, both past presidents of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, to become General Chairman of the 1970 Jewish Federation and Israel Emergency Fund Campaign. Under this leadership, which is recalled for its dynamism, the Federation campaign exceeded all previous local records.

On various trips to Israel, Fixman had the opportunity to meet and befriend a number of prominent Israeli leaders including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban, which he details in his colorful style in chapter eight of his book entitled, “Hello, Golda, Moshe and Abba.”

In St. Louis, Fixman was a co-founder of the Jewish Community Center’s Camp Sabra on the Lake of the Ozarks. He notes that he wanted all Jewish children to have the camping opportunities he and his family could not afford when he was a child.

“I am very grateful to the United States of America, which is truly the land of opportunity so that someone from an immigrant Jewish parentage and poverty-stricken background could become successful. And I am grateful for the State of Israel, which has achieved so much for the Jewish people, for science and for the Middle East and the entire world,” Fixman said.

Fixman also shares with his readers how he met and fell in love with Marilyn Schneider in 1944. “I fell in love the first time I laid eyes on her,” he recalls. They had three daughters before Marilyn was struck with breast cancer, which she battled for more than 14 years, before her untimely death in 1980.

In Marilyn Fixman’s memory, Fixman founded the Marilyn Fixman Cancer Center Endowment Fund at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which supports free education and services for cancer patients.

Fixman also writes lovingly of his second marriage to Elaine “Cookie” Blumoff Fixman. During the interview, Fixman grew teary-eyed reflecting on his family, noting that all of his brothers and sisters have passed away, and how the book was part of what he wanted to pass along to the younger generation.

Fixman hopes that young people especially, when they enter the business or professional worlds, and when they start their families and make friends, that they learn from his example of being loyal, willing to take risks and “never forget your roots, no matter how humble they might have been.”