How an Immigrant With Just a Few Canaries Builds a Vast Fortune

In the 1920’s Germany was in tatters. The formerly great empire was dismantled, the powerful army humiliated by its defeat in World War I and the population starved, cold and living in despair. Businesses that had been successful before the war were decimated by the outcome. There was no way to earn a living. For many Germans the only reasonable option available to pursue a better life was to immigrate to America.

Before the outbreak of World War I, Max Stern had operated a successful textile business. The ravages of war left him with no factories, no customers and no financial options for cobbling his vast pre-war operations back together. Joining thousands of others, Mr. Stern fled post-war Weimar Republic Germany in the early 1920’s. He landed in New York City, virtually penniless, but with a plan that was already operational for rebuilding his fortunes.

Stern was not about to feel sorry for his plight. He was down, but only temporarily, because he brought more to America than dreams. He also presciently brought over 2000 canaries. At the time he was considered a bit eccentric, having spent passage monies for a flock of tiny birds. No one would have predicted that this stock would become the base for building one of America’s greatest family fortunes.

Max Stern immediately began selling canaries to pet shops and eventually the giant Woolworth chain of dime stores. The birds needed to be housed so he also sold cages. They needed to be fed so he sourced and sold bird food. Over the next 30 years he built his Company, Hartz Mountain, into the dominant pet supply business in the country. By the time of his death in the 1980’s, Hartz Mountain Corporation controlled over 80% of the pet product market.

Max Stern’s son, Leonard Stern, joined the family business and has been instrumental in vastly expanding the firm’s tentacles into real estate, finance, hotels and publishing. In order to concentrate on this huge basket of assets, the Stern Family sold the pet products business in 2000.

Today, Hartz Mountain Industries (HMI), the Stern family holding company, is one of the largest privately held real estate owners in the United States. HMI has earned spectacular returns from investing and developing the swampy Meadowlands region of Northern New Jersey into huge industrial parks. The company had developed vast swaths of the Hudson River waterfront in New Jersey. Office towers in New York City, charging some of the highest commercial rents in the country, as added jewels in the HMI crown.

Leonard Stern built Stern Publishing from nothing into one of the largest publishers of weekly city magazines, owners of The Village Voice, Cleveland Free Press and Harmon Homes, real estate guides. This business was sold in 2000.

Leonard Stern is regularly listed as one of the richest men in America. He inherited great wealth from his immigrant father Max, however, his drive and ambition has greatly leveraged those resources and expanded the Stern families wealth to staggering levels. All of this has occurred because Max had the foresight to undertake the fateful move to a distant new country with a bold plan of action.

That a small inventory of itinerant German canaries could be the starting point for a world-wide business empire, still thriving after 90 years, is testimony to the genius of the American system of capitalism, and one particular immigrant’s courage and willingness to use that system to his advantage. A version of this story has been repeated endless times, with many varying degrees of success over the history of the United States. Waves of immigrants arrive here every year only seeking the “right to pursue happiness”.

Not all succeed, but all have the opportunity pet transportation to pursue their particular dream. Very few people will ever enjoy the unbridled commercial success that the Stern family has experienced. However, millions and millions of immigrants arrive in this country, appreciate the opportunities it provides and avail themselves of the endless possibilities available to them by becoming immersed in America and it’s economic bounty.

Today, we are experiencing a serious economic hiccup. It will pass. We will rebound. The opportunities to be had in this country have never been greater. Immigrants, and foreigners that dream of immigrating to America, know there is no place better than this country to pursue happiness. They seem to appreciate what this country has to offer more than some of us who have been so blessed to be born here. We should never take the greatness of America for granted.

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.


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