north of neutral dialog

October 9, 2009

by anne lueneburger

Ronald Lauder, President World Jewish Congress, New York

On the 42nd floor of the GM building, Ronald S. Lauder’s office flight is a light-filled, welcoming space. Everywhere you look there are original works by artists, including Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Joseph Beuys, Georg Baselitz or Gerhard Richter, set off by expansive windows that offer stunning views of Manhattan and Central Park. Across from me, in a classic leather club chair, sits Lauder, ready for our conversation.

The context

Ronald Lauder’s parents are Joseph and Estée Lauder, who launched a small skin-cream operation in 1946 from her kitchen sink. Today, it is a global cosmetics empire, worth $8 billion. He studied at the universities of Paris and Brussels and  obtained a B.A. in International Business from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. After 41 years of serving on Estée Lauder’s board of directors, he stepped down this year from the company where he has worked since he was 20, to — as he explained to me — ”make room for the next generation”. However, his portfolio of responsibilities remains extensive and true to a constant theme: making an impact.


Lauder took hold of many of his passions early in life, greatly shaping his future commitments.

A profound appreciation of beauty is part of his genetic make-up.  Lauder’s eyes light up when he talks about how, in his teens, he spent his bar mitzvah money on acquiring his first major piece of art, a drawing by the Austrian figurative painter Egon Schiele.

This was the start of Ronald Lauder’s extraordinary personal collection, which includes Klimt’s famous oeuvre “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” that he acquired for a reported $135 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting at the time.

Throughout his life, Ronald Lauder made it his lifelong objective to give back. Klimt’s portrait of Bloch-Bauer is the centerpiece of Lauder’s Neue Gallerie. Founded in 2001, this eclectic New York museum showcases early 20th-century German and Austrian art, including numerous pieces of his personal collection. As honorary chairman of MoMA, Lauder continues to play a key role in recapturing art confiscated from Jewish owners under the Nazi regime.

As president of the World Jewish Congress, Lauder is known as an avid supporter of Jewish causes. His contributions are numerous, including the launch of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. Operating in Central and Eastern Europe, the foundation promotes rebuilding Jewish culture and traditions and providing opportunities for Jewish education. It also offers a platform for cross-cultural tolerance and learning.

However, it wasn’t until high school that Lauder started to feel strongly connected to his Judaic heritage. Drawn to German culture, he spent a year as an exchange student in the Bavarian town of Bad Reichenhall when he was 16. It was on a class trip to Dachau that his world irrevocably changed. Faced with the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, he swore to himself that he would work diligently to support Judaism and the dream of Israel. “I was never the same,” he reflects thoughtfully, “this moment changed me forever.”

His interest in politics stemmed from that singular moment. ”When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, I realized that I was truly helpless, that I had no one I could call to help.” Thus, Lauder entered politics. In 1984, he was named deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy at The Pentagon. Two years later, he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Austria by Ronald Reagan. In 1989, he made a bid to become mayor of New York and continues to be deeply embedded in the city’s political fabric.

Committed to free-market investment and political transparency, Ronald is chairman and primary stockholder of Central European Media Enterprises, Ltd., a company he helped grow into a leading television broadcaster in the region, with stations in seven countries reaching 100 million people.

The payoff

For Ronald Lauder, borders between the professional and the personal blend, and his life comes together in a mosaic of professional and philanthropic pursuits that reach around the world. He clearly seeks meaning in all that he does and continues to take on new roles and challenges.

As we discuss the power of rituals, Ronald reveals one of his own: “Every decade I start a new chapter.” When I ask him where he is in this decade, he doesn’t miss a beat: “Year one.” Some of the new ventures on his agenda are writing his autobiography (which you likely will never see as he is planning a minute run of 10 copies — just for close family and friends), furthering Israel’s acceptance in the world community, and finally, launching a company to focus on water, a scarce resource that he sees as defining to the century.

Making an impact

Success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal.” —Earl Nightingale

You can inherit wealth, but you have to work for meaning. Ronald Lauder has — throughout his life — dedicated his energy, time and influence to making a difference. Combine passion, commitment and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone, and you have a potent cocktail for a purposeful journey.

Lauder’s attitude is not surprising given his mother’s. Estée Lauder was the only female ranked among Time magazine’s 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century. She was quoted as saying: “I didn’t get there by wishing for it or hoping for it, but by working for it.”

Ronald Lauder’s courage to make a cause his own and apply his resources without reserve has greatly benefited both business and charitable endeavors. Playing it safe is not an option: He continually presses forward to turn visions into reality as witnessed by his breakneck travel schedule. You might see him on Monday in New York, Tuesday in London, Wednesday in Tel Aviv and Friday in Beijing. At the age of 65, time permitting, he prefers kick-boxing to the comforts of the spa.

As our conversation draws to an end, he points out that, “In order to find success and meaning, you have to push yourself, both mentally and physically.” Upon reflection, you might conclude — like Ron — that there is really no other viable alternative.

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