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Develop Trust and Work at Keeping it

Power advice from Marvin Lender, former president of Lender's Bagels.

Marvin Lender and his brother Murray “bagelized” America, you might say. And they shared a bond beyond their surname. As kids, Murray, eleven years his senior, shot hoops with his little brother. Their father, Harry, a Polish immigrant, was not particularly fond of the American game but he was also far too busy running the bagel bakery he built in the garage behind their New Haven, Connecticut, home to stop them.

The brothers shared a room in the attic. Marvin would hear teenaged Murray come in late from a night of bagel making. Marvin worked too; he started sweeping the bakery floors around age 7. Their relationship of trust and shared values put them at an advantage when, during Marvin’s college years, the Lender brothers began pondering how to grow the family business. “There was respect coupled with love,” Marvin says. “That’s a formula where you almost can’t lose.”

In the beginning, they didn’t have detailed long-term strategies. Their main goal: sell more bagels. That they did. The Lender family revolutionized the nation’s relationship with bagels, transforming it from a Sunday food sold at Jewish delis and bakeries to a staple at American breakfast tables. They pioneered advances in freezing bagels and bagel production. That 1,200-square-foot backyard bakery in New Haven evolved into four plants with 700 employees.
 Marvin excelled in operations; Murray was a master of marketing. (Their father died in 1960 before the company’s explosive growth. Their older brother, Sam, retired from the business in 1970.)

Not everyone is blessed with a like-minded sibling to launch a market, but Marvin sees a lesson in the experience for entrepreneurs: Work with a trusted partner and invest in sustaining that close relationship. Even when Murray was on the road, the brothers strategized daily. “There’s a big difference when you have a partner you can trust who has skin in the game and you can also have someone to exchange business thoughts with that doesn’t have a vested interest besides the collective interest,” Marvin says.

The brothers’ shared values influenced company ethics.

“Both of us had a philosophy that we would never ask an employee to do something we wouldn’t or didn’t do,” Marvin says. At company parties, Marvin and Murray, as they were known to employees, danced with everyone from executives to janitors.

The brothers also ascribed to the same vision for their product: a consistently quality bagel sold through aggressive but light-hearted marketing. “You’re serious about doing it, but don’t take yourself too seriously,” Marvin says.

Bagels already had a “cute and funny” reputation, Marvin says, but the brothers pushed it further. In 1983, Murray offered bagels to the White House and miniature bagel likenesses to world leaders. Margaret Thatcher’s had pearl earrings. The stunt spurred international headlines.

When Marvin and Murray sold Lender’s Bagels to Kraft in 1984, the brothers illustrated the deal by escorting a massive bagel groom to his bride, an eight-foot-tall Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese package during a ceremony at a Tarpon Springs resort. The zany party was a publicity ploy and morale boost to the guests, mostly employees and food brokers who had contributed to their success. After selling to Kraft, Marvin and Murray dedicated themselves to philanthropy. “My brother and I felt we had lived the American dream,” Marvin says. It was time to give back. Their bond remained strong. Murray lost his ability to speak before his 2012 death. Marvin looked out for his brother as Murray once did for him when they were kids. “I became responsible for him until the day he died.” 

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