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Issue: November/December 2010
Business Hall of Fame: Man of the People
The Fedeli Group may be one of the largest privately held insurance brokerages in Ohio, but as the company’s president and CEO, Umberto Fedeli’s business has always been relationships.
Seated in his corner office on the fifth floor of a Rockside Road high-rise, Umberto Fedeli can gaze north upon a 180-degree panorama of the city he loves. Cleveland’s the place where he was born and raised, the place he calls his favorite in the world, the place where he’s built a thriving insurance brokerage business.
But to Fedeli, the essence of Cleveland is its people. He’s a masterful networker who collects people the way some collect art, and his office is a gallery of masterpieces. Virtually every surface is adorned with photographs of high-profile friends, clients and family members, many of them taken at grand parties in the Fedelis’ Gates Mills home.
⊲ I’m a simple eater. I’m perceived as this person who loves gourmet food. But I’d rather have Hershey’s with almonds or candy or cookies or ice cream than any type of fancy gourmet foods. I have more of a peasant palate.
⊲ I’ve had the opportunity to visit many beautiful places in the world, but my favorite place is still Cleveland, Ohio. I think we have some of the nicest people, the warmest people, the most genuine people. Cleveland is real.
⊲ Sometimes people think, If I had this money, I could do this. Or, if I had this influence, I could do that. You’re always looking at what you could do “if” and “if.” In the meantime, you’ve missed all the opportunities to do things right then and there.
⊲ The way you achieve success or influence is to do as much good and serve others as much as you can. But it gets a little exhausting. It’s easy to talk about being a man for others, but doing it day to day gets challenging.
⊲ How do I deal with it? Get a good night’s rest and start all over again the next day. And eat some Hershey’s with almonds.
For nearly two decades, this office has been home base for The Fedeli Group and the epicenter of Fedeli’s sphere of influence. It’s the hub in a wheel through which Fedeli makes things happen. Charities get funded. Politicians get support. Civic partnerships are forged. Dotted lines are signed.
Fedeli reigns as host over this bustling nucleus of civic and commercial interaction, usually presiding over a family-style Italian meal, prepared by his own mother or sister, in the corporate dining room then sending off each guest with a golden box filled with Ferrero Rocher and Lindt chocolates.
“It’s like stepping back in time 40 years,” says longtime friend and Fedeli client Kenneth Ricci, chairman of Flight Options, of lunches at The Fedeli Group’s offices. “It’s not waiters in white serving everyone. It’s meant to be a casual environment conducive to talking. It’s like having my Sunday meal with my mom.”
Today, Fedeli relaxes into the corner of a butter yellow leather sectional sofa in his office to thumb through a leaf pile of photos on the coffee table. There’s Sarah Palin earlier this year in the Fedeli kitchen, in town for a Right-to-Life Rally. There’s little Piper Palin mugging with the Fedeli kids. There’s George W. Bush in a 2008 visit greeting the Fedelis in the family garage, the Secret Service-approved spot for the photo op.
More names roll off Fedeli’s tongue as smile-frozen faces blur past. Mal Mixon. Rob Portman. John Boehner. George and Janet Voinovich. Condoleezza Rice. Actor James Caviezel. Mayor Frank Jackson. Lee Iacocca.
Yes, insurance may be Umberto Fedeli’s business, but relationships are his stock in trade. “I get truly energized being around people,” Fedeli says. “Relationships with associates, clients, family and friends are what’s most important to me. I’m most comfortable [at the office] or at home because I enjoy being the host.”
Fedeli fell into the insurance business quite by accident in 1980 as a 19-year-old sophomore at John Carroll University. He wasn’t an enthusiastic student. “Education was a means to get to the next level,” recalls his high school sweetheart and now wife of 26 years, Maryellen. “He was always a very goal-oriented kind of guy.”
At the time, Fedeli’s father, Umberto Sr., was a contractor, and the man who issued bonds for his jobs recruited the younger Fedeli to sell insurance for him.
“Initially, I wasn’t interested in it, but I did really like business,” Fedeli says. “When I got to the point that I was insuring businesses, I figured, What better way to learn about business than by insuring businesses?”
Before graduating in 1982, Fedeli went into business with another insurance agent, a partnership that lasted six years.
“Anyone who knew him knew he’d be his own businessman,” Maryellen says. “He wouldn’t be a working-for-someone-else kind of guy.”
In 1988, at the tender age of 27, he bought out his partner to create The Fedeli Group, which he’s led as president and CEO ever since. “The ability to solve problems, add value, find ways to network, build relationships — those are skill sets I could have used in a lot of different businesses,” he says. “It just happened that this is the industry I got introduced to.”
Fedeli’s web was sticky from the start. Childhood friends like Ricci remain his clients to this day, and rarely does he forget a face or the personal and professional details to match.
“After his first visit to our cheese factory, he didn’t return for five or six years, but he had an accurate memory about the things we were doing and asked us questions about them,” recalls 25-year friend and client Joe Miceli, CEO of Miceli Dairy Products Co. “Once he has a friend, [that person] is always a friend.”
Fedeli’s 28-year-old company has grown steadily, popping up frequently on the annual Weatherhead 100 list of Northeast Ohio’s fastest growing companies. He’s tight-lipped about the particulars, sharing only that The Fedeli Group is one of the largest privately held insurance brokerages in Ohio with 125 employees serving a few thousand clients in dozens of states. In recent years, Fedeli has also invested in private equity and financial institutions such as Park View Federal, where he’s currently a shareholder and director.
But charm and a good memory aren’t the only factors that have fueled Fedeli’s success. “His special gift is to immerse himself in what he can do to benefit your business,” Ricci says. “What he does for us is not sell us insurance but [identify] connections he can make that will benefit our business.”
Fedeli’s impact on the region can be seen most readily in the ways he’s used those connections to benefit not just clients but also charities, political candidates or civic initiatives he believes in.
“[Fedeli’s support] is a huge boost,” says Congressman Steve LaTourette, who’s been the beneficiary of several major fundraising events at the Fedeli home. “An invitation to Umberto’s house for a meal is not something you turn down. You get invited, you go.”
Fedeli is fond of reciting a quote by his friend, the late Monsignor John Carroll-Abbing, who cared for children orphaned after World War II in his Boys’ and Girls’ Towns of Italy: “He said, ‘In life, the secret of happiness is to love, and the essence of love is to serve,’ ” Fedeli says. “If you want to be in leadership, you have to understand it’s ultimately about service.”
Fedeli estimates he’s opened his 16,000-square-foot home to 15,000 to 20,000 people over the past decade for charity functions, political fundraisers and other events.
“Everything works around breaking bread,” Maryellen says. “We’re never going to be the china-and-crystal kind of people. We’re more about gathering around the kitchen table and having great conversation.”
Fedeli’s office receives 40 to 50 requests a week from nonprofits and candidates asking for his support. He can’t help them all.
“My nature is to do as much for as many as I possibly can,” Fedeli says. “We sit down and say, can we make a difference here? Can we have an impact? Do we share common values?”
As a host, he’s impeccable. Those who don’t know Fedeli well assume the party planning details fall to Maryellen or to one of Fedeli’s two assistants. But Fedeli himself takes a hands-on role in planning menus and managing catering staff — sometimes even rolling up his sleeves to cook and serve — and it’s a role he relishes.
“I don’t have any interest in golf or fishing or boating. How is being on a beach fun?” he says. “I’m more comfortable serving lunch [at the office] or having people at my home for an event, being with my friends and clients, working in the community. Those are the things I like to do.”
Fedeli’s strong Catholic faith also drives his commitment to service. He starts each day at 6:30 a.m. Mass and takes seriously the Jesuit instruction to live as a “man for others” that he received at St. Joseph High School and John Carroll University.
“He is committed to his faith, his family and family values and is very pro-life,” says retired Bishop Anthony Pilla. “He has always been very generous to a number
of causes and to Catholic education in particular.”
Fedeli’s fingerprints are on countless civic and charitable organizations throughout Northeast Ohio. As his greatest sources of pride he points out his positions on the boards of his alma mater, John Carroll University, and of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, where he set fundraising goals in recent years as chair of the Children’s Hospital HeartThrob Ball.
There was a time when Fedeli was always the youngest guy in the room. Now 50, that’s no longer the case. “In my mind I’m still 15 or 20 years younger,” he says. “Now I have more years in business than I think I am old.”
The idea of retirement ranks right up there with golf and fishing for Fedeli, so his network of influence won’t be going away any time soon. On the contrary, passing the half-century mark gave this civic workhorse a kick in the flank.
“Where did all the time go?” Fedeli says. “I have so much more to get done. I need to get moving.”
1960 Born in Collinwood to Italian immigrants Umberto Sr. and Lucia. He would spend most of his childhood in South Euclid.
1977 Met wife Maryellen at the Harvest House Cafeteria at Richmond Mall. “He was the cook, the baker and the salad-maker, and I was the cashier,” recalls Maryellen. “He didn’t like being in sanitation, so he came in on his own time to learn to cook.”
1980 Fell into the insurance business “by accident” as a 19-year-old sophomore at John Carroll University.
1982 Formed his first insurance agency, Cavaluchi, Fedeli & Associates, with partner John Cavaluchi while still a college senior.
1984 Married Maryellen; the couple would go on to have five children, who now range in age from 25 to 10.
1988 Bought out his partner to form The Fedeli Group, installing himself as president and CEO.
1991 Appointed to a six-year term as chairman of the Ohio Turnpike Commission by then-Gov. George Voinovich.
1995 Recognized by John Carroll University’s Boler School of Business as one of its “Fifty Finest.”
2000 Named to the board of directors of the Cleveland Clinic, which Fedeli calls “the finest health institution in the world.”
2003 Awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations.
2008 Underwent bariatric surgery that helped him lose 130 pounds: “It was a big deal because I had to set the example for my family and our associates that wellness and prevention … are ultimately the best way to save money on health care,” he says. “But I’m still challenged by it because I love to eat.”
2008 Hosted President George W. Bush in his home for a Republican fundraiser, a highlight for Fedeli: “I feel honored to have had the President of the United States come visit our home, and invited us several times to visit his home.”
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