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The chicago tribune dubbed Aaron Feuerstein "the mensch of Malden Mills." Fortune called him "the new patron saint of working Americans."

They're talking about the marketer of Polartec fleece-and president-CEO of Malden Mills Industries. He's become somewhat of a darling of the press, but a business decision he made became a marketing coup.

A fire devastated Malden Mills factories in December 1995. Yet Mr. Feuerstein surprised many by deciding not only to rebuild operations in the same poor Boston suburb but to keep most of his employees on the payroll and maintain their health benefits in the interim.

"I didn't do it for the media benefit," says Mr. Feuerstein, 71, a religious man who seems to make his business decisions with a combination of savvy business sense and the teachings of Judaism. "It was just the right thing to do."

This decision not only cemented loyalty among his staff but also from his customers. People vowed to support the company by buying products featuring Polartec, a well-known branded fabric used by apparel marketers such as L.L. Bean, Patagonia and Eddie Bauer.

"I received 10,000 letters from people all over the country," Mr. Feuerstein says.

The company does some advertising; last year it spent $2.6 million in measured media, mainly in magazines. But it's gained most of its media exposure over the last 18 months in the wake of the fire.

Malden Mills' sales this year are projected to be $358 million, still less than its pre-fire sales of $400 million, but up from 1996 sales of $300 million.

"I have an obligation to make this thing win, because they're all watching me," says Mr. Feuerstein. "Can you treat your workers decently and still win? I will prove to them that no only will we win, but we'll have won many times greater than ever before because my workers want us to win."

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