This story appeared in the RBJ’s Rochester Business Hall of Fame 2017 section. See more content from this section here.
The late William Levine had a kind of unusual hobby.
“He used to always say ‘My hobby is to make money and give it away,’” says Todd Levine, president and CEO of Alleson Athletic. William, Todd’s late grandfather, co-founded the Henrietta-based sports apparel company almost 85 years ago.
William appears to have thoroughly enjoyed that “hobby.” By the time he died in 2013, he had built Alleson Athletic into a brand known throughout the United States and Canada. Acting on his desire to “give it away,” William devoted a great deal of time, energy and money to helping local institutions serve the needs of the region’s children. He was also a dedicated family man who was married to his wife, Mildred, for nearly 60 years until her death in 2002.
William was born in Brooklyn, one of two children of Russian émigrés. The family moved to Rochester, where William obtained his diploma from Benjamin Franklin High School. He went on to graduate from Niagara University. One of his classmates was the late Robert Wegman, who made Wegmans Food Markets Inc., the envy of grocery chains worldwide before his death in 2006.
In 1933, in the midst of the Depression, William joined his father, Abe, to found Alleson of Rochester—the name is an amalgam of “Abe Levine and Son.” Day after day, the pair sewed men’s caps and apparel in the basement of a downtown Rochester warehouse. William was the firm’s first president.
“Abe was a cap-maker—he would sit at a machine and sew. Bill was really the person that had the business mind.” explains Todd, who began calling his grandfather “Bill” after joining the family-owned company.
Abe and William got their first break in 1935, when Champion Products, which was then a local company, hired their firm to make sports clothing.
The firm started its own sports apparel brand in about 1965, and now does business as Alleson Athletic.
Todd joined Alleson in 1994, and William took him under his wing. Todd jokes that the experience left him with “a million Bill-isms,” or sayings that his grandfather used.
“You have to be able to take care of your people. If you can’t take care of your people, get out of business,” Todd says, quoting William.
William’s prodigious business skills were also memorable.
“He had an unbelievable math mind,” Todd says. “He was notorious for being able to figure everything out in his head before anybody could do it on a calculator.”
Atop that, Todd’s grandfather brought a commonsense approach to his work.
“He saw through the difficult and confusing to see the main points,” Todd says.
Not content to limit his business activities, William also invested in Rochester-area real estate, and even became involved in banking.
“He started the First National Bank of Rochester,” Todd says. “He did it with a few friends and ended up taking it public.”
M & T Bank acquired First National in 1999.
At the same time, William sought to give back to his community—especially its children. In the 1980s, he created the William & Mildred Levine Foundation and began following his philanthropic aims with greater vigor.
“Bill’s foundation, over the last 20 years of his life, gave over $20 million to charities in the Rochester area,” Todd says.
Many well-known local nonprofits have benefited from that foundation’s largesse.
“He bought the original land for Camp Good Days for them,” says Todd, the foundation’s current president.
Camp Good Days and Special Times is a recreational facility for children who are suffering from cancer and their families. Year-after-year, they’ve come to the nonprofit’s Keuka Lake campus to enjoy the outdoors and rest up for combating the dread disease.
Another substantial contribution from the William and Mildred Levine Foundation helped create the William and Mildred Levine Pediatric Surgical Suite at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. The suite, which opened in 2006, is specifically designed to provide pre-and-post-operative care for children. Though Todd was unable to state the exact amount of the foundation’s donation as of press time, he says it “easily” came to $1 million.
More recently, $1 million of foundation funds supported the construction of the Golisano Children’s Hospital’s Neuromedicine and Behavioral Health Center. The three-story building houses a number of pediatric clinics, including the William and Mildred Levine Autism Clinic. Designed to accommodate autistic children, that clinic opened its doors this year.
From the way Todd speaks, such projects are just the beginning.
“My grandfather’s foundation will go on in perpetuity to continue the mission he started, which is to promote healthcare and well-being for children in our community,” Todd says.
Though William loved working, he and his wife also deeply enjoyed traveling the world—especially with their family. The couple took their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to such far-flung locales as Israel, Egypt, China and Thailand.
“Imagine about 20 of us trekking to all these places all over the world,” Todd says.
William continued to work at his family’s company into his early ’90s, when a fall left him unable to do so. He died in 2013, at the age of 94.
Alleson Athletic has come a long way from its origins in a Rochester basement. Over 1,250 are on the firm’s payroll worldwide—including over 250 in the Rochester area. Working at factories as far away as Haiti, those employees turn out team uniforms under the company’s own brand, and for such firms as Under Armour Inc., and New Balance Athletics Inc. The firm has warehouses in Henrietta, Memphis, Tennessee and McAllen. Texas, and sells its products throughout the United States and Canada.
Not that William Levine would have bragged about his accomplishments.
“He let his actions and his successes speak louder than his words,” Todd says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.