Obituary: Alex Manoogian

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Alex Manoogian was perhaps the world's richest Armenian. An exile from his native land, which he left at the time of the genocide of the Armenians under the Ottoman Turks, he built up a Fortune 500 company in the United States and amassed a multi-million-dollar fortune, becoming the leading philanthropist of Armenian causes. Despite his huge charitable donations he was a modest, private man who resented having to spend money needlessly on himself.

Manoogian was born in Kasaba, near Smyrna (now Izmir), in the Ottoman Empire, in 1901, the son of a wealthy Armenian grain and raisin trader. As a young boy he served as an altar-server in the local church and wanted to be a priest. But life was to be different. These were turbulent times for the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire.

The Young Turks had begun their campaign to deport or exterminate the large Armenian community from their midst. More than 1 million Armenians are believed to have been murdered or died in harrowing circumstances in 1915-18 in this century's first genocide. The Armenian community all but disappeared from Anatolia, those who survived barely managing to drag themselves on forced marches through the desert and into Syria and Palestine.

Manoogian was lucky. His home town was near an international port and was thus spared extermination or deportation. Alex's father, Takvor, apparently maintained good relations with the local Turkish authorities even as the killings were going on elsewhere. After completing school the young Manoogian, at the age of 17, borrowed money from his father and set up his own trading company. But, uncertain of the future in the troubled region, Manoogian decided that his best chances lay elsewhere.

He set sail for the United States and arrived like countless other immigrants at Ellis Island, on 20 May 1920, with two suitcases and just $50 in his pocket. Although he knew five languages, English was not one of them. He worked for a succession of Armenian bosses, once polishing spoons in a silver shop, and taught Armenian in evening classes.

He soon met Harry Ajamian, who taught him the essentials of tooling screws and bolts. Ajamian became his brother-in-law and also a partner in Manoogian's first company, Masco, set up in the Detroit suburb of Taylor in 1928 on the eve of the stockmarket crash. When Manoogian's two partners left the company, Manoogian was on his own as chairman, president and chief executive. By hard work the company prospered and, when it went public in 1936, was the first Armenian-owned company to be listed on the stock exchange, first in Detroit and later in New York.

Masco's big break came when the Ford Motor Company suddenly needed a part within 24 hours for the launch of a new model. No other firm in Detroit was prepared to take on the job at such short notice. Manoogian produced the part with an hour to spare, reportedly earning the praise of Henry Ford: "Young man, you're going places."

Manoogian later decided to reduce his dependence on the Detroit car companies and branched out into other areas. If Ford provided his first big break his fortune was made with the mixer tap. In 1952 he was approached by acquaintances who tried to interest him in their invention; a ball valve joint that would allow a tap to run hot and cold water together. Manoogian was enthusiastic. "Why wouldn't people want to do something with one hand rather than two?"

Together they put the tap into production and, when plumbing shops said there would be no market for it, Masco decided to market it himself. The fortune was made. By last year the company had sales of $3bn in home furnishings and building products. Nearly $700m of this still comes from taps. Manoogian was to run the company until 1985.

Manoogian was a private man who set great store by family life. In 1931 he married a musician, Marie Tatian, in New York, and they had two children, a daughter Louise and a son Richard. Richard was gradually brought into the company, becoming Masco president, and later chairman as well.

However, it was Manoogian's philanthropic activity that brought him respect and even reverence from the world-wide Armenian community. He joined the Armenian General Benevolent Union (a charity founded in Cairo in 1906) in the 1930s. As his donations increased his stature in the organisation increased. In 1953 he was elected to the AGBU central board, becoming international president. After 37 years at the helm, it was to his daughter Louise that he handed on the presidency.

It is estimated that Manoogian gave about $80m to charitable causes. Some $50m went to support Armenian schools throughout the world, from Iran to Latin America, $15m to churches and monasteries and at least $10m to artists, musicians and scholars. It was Manoogian who stepped in to save the Armenian Catholic monastery at San Lazzaro in Venice after it faced ruin in the wake of a swindle. He gave large sums to the now independent Armenian Republic which, towards the end of the Soviet era, suffered a devastating earthquake and terrible poverty after war broke out with Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Schools and streets are named after him in Armenia and other countries around the world.

The independent Armenian state soon recognised Manoogian's contributions. In 1994 he became the first diaspora Armenian to receive the award Hero of the Armenian Nation and he was granted honorary citizenship.

Alex Manoogian, industrialist and philanthropist: born Kasaba, Ottoman Empire 1901; married 1931 Marie Tatian (died 1992; one son, one daughter); died Detroit 10 July 1996.