Melvyn J. Estrin dies; Washington businessman was also a Broadway investor

July 12

Melvyn J. Estrin, a financier and venture capitalist whose business interests encompassed real estate, hospitals, banks, training services for the federal government, and investments in movies and Broadway shows, died July 9 at a Washington hospital. He was 71.

The cause was leukemia, said a nephew, Keith Lemer.

In the late 1980s, the now-defunct Regardie’s business magazine listed Mr. Estrin among the 100 wealthiest people in Washington. He was a major donor to Republican presidential contenders and once flew then-candidate George W. Bush around in his personal Learjet.

Mr. Estrin, who once quipped that charitable groups seldom asked him to contribute less than $1 million, had homes in Washington, Aspen, Colo., Palm Beach, Fla., and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Although he grew up in privilege as the son of a prominent Washington businessman, Mr. Estrin amassed a fortune largely on his own. He returned to the District after graduating in 1964 from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business with the hope of joining his father’s wholesale drug business.


Melvyn Estrin, businessman and financier, in 1989. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

His father offered him an annual salary of $7,500, but Mr. Estrin held out for $10,000.

“You’re not worth it,” his father told him, according to a Washingtonian magazine profile.

Instead, Mr. Estrin and a partner cobbled together $16,000 to convert an old barbershop on Pennsylvania Avenue into a disco, Tomfoolery, that became a sensation during the era of the frug and watusi.

That was Mr. Estrin’s launching pad into subsequent investments in real estate and other ventures. In 1971, he acquired a $2 million stake in American Health Services, an operator of general hospitals, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes. Less than a decade later, he sold his interest for $36 million, according to The Washington Post.

Mr. Estrin also became board chairman of University Research Corp., which provides training and technical services to the government. By the late 1980s, URC was producing $27 million a year for a holding company called Estrin-Abod International, The Post reported. Charles Abod, an accountant, was Mr. Estrin’s longtime partner in managing his many business interests.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Estrin was a founder of the First Women’s Bank of Maryland, which led to board memberships with large financial institutions locally and nationally. Meanwhile, his realty corporation continued to develop private and commercial properties, and he remained active in the running of venture capital funds, with interests including medical devices, technology and retail.

Mr. Estrin and a frequent business partner, Abbey J. Butler of New York, made news for their corporate takeover in the early 1990s of National Intergroup Inc., a struggling Pittsburgh-based conglomerate reportedly valued at $5.5 billion. National Intergroup was essentially a holding company that included National Steel, one of the nation’s largest steelmakers, and the Foxmeyer wholesale pharmaceutical unit.

Mr. Estrin and Butler took control of the company from its chairman, Howard M. “Pete” Love, after a long battle for shareholder support — a riskier but less costly strategy than buying enormous quantities of stock.

The victory was Mr. Estrin’s first on the national dealmaking stage, The Washington Post reported, after an unsuccessful attempt in 1988 to gain control of Pennwalt Corp., a Philadelphia-based chemical company valued at more than $1.2 billion.

He and Butler, operating as Centaur Partners, made a $110-a-share bid for Pennwalt, but it was flatly rejected. Pennwalt was then sold to a French petroleum company for $132 a share. The Pennwalt effort was marked by a nastiness Mr. Estrin said he had seldom encountered before.

“It toughened me up,” he told The Post. It also brought Mr. Estrin and Butler $50 million in profits after selling their Pennwalt holdings.

He and Butler were co-chairmen and co-chief executives of the Phar-Mor discount pharmacy chain when it filed for bankruptcy in 2001, citing a slowing economy and increased competition.

Melvyn J. Estrin was born Aug. 14, 1942, in Washington. (His middle initial did not stand for anything, his nephew said.)

His late father, David Estrin, was founder and chief executive of Spectro Industries, one of the largest wholesale drug suppliers on the East Coast. It later became part of McKesson Corp.

Melvyn Estrin graduated in 1960 from the private Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, Pa. Besides his Wharton degree, he received a master’s degree in business administration from American University in 1969.

Outside the corporate boardrooms of Washington, Mr. Estrin made a mark as an investor in Tony Award-nominated Broadway shows. They included the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (1982); the Athol Fugard play “Blood Knot” (1985); and a 1996 revival of the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical “The King and I.”

His best-known film production was “K2” (1991), starring Michael Biehn and Matt Craven and based on Patrick Meyers’s play about two mountain climbers.

Mr. Estrin was a trustee of Ford’s Theatre in Washington and a trustee emeritus of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. He was also a formidable collector of modern art, including pieces by Andy Warhol.

He was a former commissioner of the National Capital Planning Commission and a director of Washington Gas Light Co. His memberships included Woodmont Country Club in Rockville and the Economic Club of Washington.

Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Suellen Goldstein Estrin of Washington; two children, Brandon Estrin of Venice, Calif., and Shannon Estrin Rosoff of Potomac, Md.; two sisters, Wilma Bernstein of Washington and Mickey Lemer of Chevy Chase, Md.; and five grandchildren.

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