Edward John DeBartolo, (1919-1994), was a real estate developer whose firm, the Edward J. De Bartolo Corporation, specialized in large regional malls. His son, Edward John DeBartolo, Jr. (born 1946), was company president and also the owner of the San Francisco 49'ers football team.
Edward John DeBartolo was born in Youngstown, Ohio, on May 17, 1919, the son of two Italian immigrants, Rose and Anthony Paonessa. His father died several months before his birth; his mother remarried, and Edward took the name of his stepfather, Michael DeBartolo, who raised him. Michael DeBartolo was a mason and general contractor in Youngstown, and during Edward's teens he worked on paving jobs and sometimes wrote the contracting bids for his Italian-speaking father. At his mother's urging he attended college at the University of Notre Dame, graduating in 1941 with a degree in civil engineering. In 1944 he married Maria Montani, and during World War II he served in the Army Corps of Engineers.
After the war DeBartolo returned to Youngstown and became president of his father's construction company. In 1948, however, he founded his own firm, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation. DeBartolo foresaw important developments in postwar America. As service people returned home, the suburbs expanded and the "baby boom" took off; retailing and commercial real estate development also changed. Traditional shopping centers were downtown, often along "Main Street," with one central area oriented toward public transportation. Now with cars and suburban growth, businesses moved to plaza or strip centers, usually a straight line of convenience stores (the "strip"). The first strip plazas served primarily as neighborhood centers, but in the 1950s the strip malls grew in size and complexity and became more regional in scope; the DeBartolo Corporation was at the forefront of these developments.
DeBartolo opened his first strip center, the Boardman Plaza, in 1951, in suburban Youngstown; Boardman remained a focus for DeBartolo in the 1990s, for both his home and corporate headquarters were located there. In the next 15 years DeBartolo opened some 45 strip centers across the country. Many were anchored by major department stores, which opened their first suburban branches in the 1950s. By 1960 retailing executives realized that two major stores in one center were complementary rather than competitive, and even larger regional centers proliferated.
The 1960s also saw the emergence of the enclosed mall as the typical regional shopping center. These large enclosed malls were not just places to shop, but centers for eating, browsing, socializing, exercise, and entertainment. DeBartolo was again a leader of the new pattern. According to one story, DeBartolo bought an airplane and flew over Midwest cornfields, choosing his mall sites close to major highway intersections. The story may be apocryphal, but it illustrates DeBartolo's conviction that the regional mall was retailing's future. In the 1960s and 1970s the developer opened four or five new malls a year; his Randall Park Mall outside Cleveland, with over 2.2 million square feet, was the largest mall in the world when it opened in 1976. By 1990 the corporation owned some 60 regional malls across the country, nearly a tenth of the nation's total mall retail space. The DeBartolo Corporation also developed office buildings, hotels, theaters, and condominiums. These holdings were nationwide, but DeBartolo had a particular cluster of malls in Florida. Again anticipating future developments, he bought huge plots of land in Florida in the 1960s at low prices; he gambled on population growth in the Sunbelt and the success of Disney World, and both trends contributed to his long-term success there.
Despite its size, the DeBartolo Corporation remained a closely controlled family business, with all the stock held by DeBartolo and his two children. DeBartolo's personal fortune was estimated at over $1.4 billion. He was the chair of the board and chief executive officer in 1990. Son Edward J. DeBartolo, Jr., was the president and chief administrative officer of the company; daughter Marie Denise York was executive vice-president of personnel and public relations. "Mr. D.," as DeBartolo Senior was known to his employees, remained firmly in command. He arrived at his office every day at 5:30 a.m. and worked until 6:30 or 7:00 at night; he was tough and exacting, with a mind for the details of each project. The corporation was a vertical one, controlling each aspect of a real estate project from planning and land purchase through architecture and construction and finally leasing, marketing, and promotion.
Although the rapid building of the 1960s and 1970s had slowed by 1990, the DeBartolo Corporation continued to plan new malls and to expand and renovate existing malls to capitalize on its prime retail locations. New projects included updated strip centers built adjacent to the larger regional malls, and DeBartolo also experimented with a few urban malls.
In the late 1980s DeBartolo Senior became more involved in the world of Wall Street finance. In 1986 he bid on Allied Stores, a large retail chain which included Jordan Marsh and Brooks Brothers, to help forestall a takeover by Toronto real estate developer Robert Campeau. He lost that bidding war, but in 1988 he loaned Campeau $480 million toward his purchase of the Federated department store chain, including successful and trendy Bloomingdales. That loan also involved a proposal to build up to ten new De-Bartolo malls a year, to be anchored by the Federated stores. Campeau and Federated later filed for bankruptcy, but the DeBartolo loans were secured. In late 1988 DeBartolo formed a partnership with Dillard Department Stores to purchase the Cleveland-based Higbee Company; despite Campeau's failure, DeBartolo believed that retailing and development could be successful complements.
Besides business, the DeBartolo family's other major interest is sports. DeBartolo Senior owned three race tracks, in Ohio, Louisiana, and Oklahoma, and he owned the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, of which his daughter, Marie, was the president. In 1980 he attempted to purchase the Chicago White Sox baseball team, but was voted down by the American League owners, under pressure from commissioner Bowie Kuhn. The ostensible reasons included his absentee ownership and his race track involvement, but many believed the unspoken objection was his reputed link to organized crime. A series of innuendoes followed DeBartolo beginning in the 1950s when there was a rash of bombings at his properties in Youngstown, where organized crime was strong, but FBI and Treasury Department investigations turned up no evidence. Nonetheless, his foray into baseball was rebuffed.
Not so his family's venture into football, which was the most successful of their sports ventures. In 1977 DeBartolo bought the San Francisco 49'ers for his son, Edward. Under his ownership the 49'ers won four Super Bowl championships, in 1982, 1985, 1989, and 1990, with star quarterback Joe Montana leading the team in each victory. In 1995, the 49'ers won their fifth Super Bowl championship. The DeBartolo fortune was part of the team's success; the payroll was the highest in the National Football League and DeBartolo, Jr., lavished first-class treatment on both players and their families. DeBartolo, Jr., enjoyed the glamour of his sports' affiliation, the locker-room camaraderie and celebrations, while his father was a more reclusive observer. DeBartolo Senior died in 1994.
The DeBartolos and their real estate and sports interests are profiled in several articles in the Chain Store Age Executive (May 1981; May 1989; and November 1989). A more critical perspective is found in Jonathan R. Laing, "King of Malls," Barrons (June 12, 1989). DeBartolo is regularly listed in "The Forbes Four Hundred." Two accounts of the San Francisco 49'ers include material on the family: TIME (January 8, 1990) and Sports Illustrated (January 29, 1990).
Useful general accounts of shopping center development are William S. Kowinski, The Malling of America (1985); Horace Carpenter, Jr., Shopping Center Management (1978); and George Sternlieb and James W. Hughes, editors, Shopping Centers: USA (1981). □