By Maria Saporta
It’s the end of era.
I just found out this afternoon that Erwin Zaban, a pillar in the Atlanta business community, has passed away.
The service for Zaban will be at the Temple on Wednesday, July 7 at 2:30 p.m.
How does one begin to explain what an important and enduring role Zaban played in both the Atlanta business community and the Jewish community.
Zaban was instrumental in building one of Atlanta’s iconic public companies — National Service Industries — which at one time including Zep Inc., Selig Chemicals, National Linen Service, Lithonia Lighting, Atlantic Envelope Co., as well as a host of others.
NSI’s corporate board was like no other. Zaban took great pride in having directors who were top executives at major Atlanta and Southeastern companies — Delta Air Lines, Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Wachovia, H.J. Russell & Co.
In the center of it all was Zaban, a frail-looking man who had more stamina and strength than many half his age.
Zaban, who was one month shy of his 89th birthday when he passed away this week, began working for Zep when he was only 24 years old. He spent 58 years with the company, before retiring for a second time in 1994.
The conglomerate, which was traded on the New York Stock Exchange, grew by acquiring family-owned companies in various service industries.
After Zaban retired, the company had various executives, and NSI was dismantled piece by piece. It was a situation that pained Zaban greatly — to see an entity that he had built get carved into pieces.
But instead of focusing on the trials and tribulations of NSI, Zaban put his energy in philanthropic endeavors — primarily in the Jewish community.
He and his family have been a major benefactors to the Marcus Jewish Community Center at Zaban Park and the Jewish Home in Buckhead where there stands the Zaban Tower.
“It has really been more rewarding to me than business — not monetarily but mentally,” Zaban told me in an interview back in 2001. “It did get my mind off of NSI to a certain extent.”
The Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody also benefitted greatly by Zaban’s largess. He bought the first 50 acres for the property for a Jewish day camp nearly 40 years ago in memory of his parents. About 20 years ago, he bought another five acres so the Jewish Community Center could move from Peachtree Street to what had become Zaban Park.
Another amazing angle to Zaban was how he seemed to defy death time and time again.
Twenty-plus years ago, Zaban survived four operations to treat melanoma cancer. He then had recurrence of cancer in 2001, and Zaban told me he had almost died when he had a negative reaction to chemotherapy.
For Atlanta, one of Zaban’s greatest contributions was his role as a wise leader and mentor for others.
Robert Arogeti, chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, said Zaban was one of the last of Atlanta’s elder statesmen in the Jewish community — a link to a time when a few influential leaders held sway on the key issues in our region.
At the end of our lengthy interview nine years ago, Zaban talked about his future in this way: “If I live and don’t go broke, there’s a lot more I’ve got to do.”
Atlanta will miss Erwin Zaban for decades to come.