By Leonard Felson
Alan Lazowski walks into his father’s office, a rabbi’s study, ensconced on downtown Hartford’s Lewis Street within the corporate headquarters of LAZ Parking, the fastest-growing parking company in the nation.
Lazowski, the son, the parking magnate, founder and CEO of LAZ Parking, is enthusiastic, explaining why he’s running late.
All morning at a state prison, Cheshire Correctional Institution, Lazowski had joined in a Connecticut launch of what he calls the country’s most successful prison-reform program. The T.R.U.E. program (truth, respect, understanding and elevation) is all about giving young inmates, 18 to 25, another chance, and Lazowski has committed to hiring six of them, once they are released back into the community.
His father, Rabbi Philip Lazowski, sits at his desk listening to his son, Al, as most people call him, talk about the pledge to the young prisoners, and it’s as if the two realize a mitzvah or holy deed has just been accomplished. Three College Kids
Only blocks away, in front of Max Downtown restaurant on Asylum Street, LAZ got its roots. It was 1981. Frank’s Restaurant, a city dining institution, filled the space on the ground floor of a new skyscraper called CityPlace.
Lazowski was about to enter his senior year at UConn. He and two close friends, all from Bloomfield, were talking about summer job possibilities. Michael Harth, in San Diego for college, would start a valet parking business for beachside restaurants. Jeffrey Karp would do something similar in Boston, where he was going to school. Lazowski liked the idea too. None of Hartford’s restaurants offered valet parking. By summer’s end, he was parking cars for customers not only at Frank’s, but also at 36 Lewis Street, the Brownstone and Hubbard Park — all since gone to restaurant heaven.
Lazowski saw a future, borrowed $3,000 from his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, then told his dad he wasn’t returning to school. Instead he would continue as a valet parker. Like his grandfather, his father had also survived World War II, fighting as a Jewish partisan in the Polish forests, reaching America in the late 1940s, learning English, holding down several jobs, going to college, studying to become a rabbi. He wasn’t on board with his son’s plan.
“You want to be a lawyer, a doctor — that’s your business. But don’t start with parking,” the rabbi recalls saying. “Go study to be something.” The younger Lazowski persisted.
Then came his first big break. He had gone to see David Chase, a major Hartford developer who was a family acquaintance and another Holocaust survivor, about running the valet service at Chase’s Hilton Hotel opposite Bushnell Park. Chase made a counter-offer: run the hotel’s entire garage. Lazowski said yes. A year later, he had raised net income for the hotel’s parking operation by 50 percent, and won entree to more deals across the city and beyond.
Today, LAZ ranks as the second-largest parking company in the country, handling more than 1 million parking spaces in 34 states and 340 cities, wherever cars are parked: airports, hospitals, universities, municipalities, surface lots, stadiums, arenas and events. Visit UConn Medical Center, Hartford Hospital, Yale, Rentschler Field, Xfinity Theater and dozens of college football and basketball games in the state, and you’ll park with LAZ. Nationwide, LAZ has 13,000-plus employees, including 1,200 in Connecticut.
A major deal in Chicago more than a decade ago coupled with a 50 percent purchase of LAZ by VINCI Park, one of the world’s largest parking firms, catapulted LAZ into the big leagues. Beyond The Bottom Line
Ironically, that success is not about parking cars. It’s about people, according to Lazowski and senior executives.
“The opportunity to change lives — that’s the beauty of Al Laz,” says Jim Marzi, a senior vice president in charge of Connecticut operations. He should know. Marzi needed a job after Colonial Realty, the company he was working for, collapsed in the 1980s after bilking nearly 7,000 investors in one of the state’s most infamous fraud cases.
“Laz gave me a job for $6.40 an hour, driving to New Haven every day to park cars,” Marzi remembers. “He’s about giving people the opportunity to grow.”
Andi Campbell, senior vice president of people and culture (essentially head of human resources), agrees. She was so impressed with Lazowski and the company that she uprooted herself from California six years ago to work in Hartford. “A lot of CEOs would say, ‘Oh yeah, we care about our people, but here he’s people over profits, and I see it all the time,” says Campbell, who helped develop LAZ University, her talent development and corporate training portfolio through which the company offers employees and managers courses on everything from how to do your job better to being a better person.
“The LAZ way,” says Lazowski is not only about taking care of employees, but also its customers.
If that sounds altruistic or corny, it’s also good business. Let’s say you own an office building where LAZ manages the garage, making you a million dollars more than before LAZ ran it. “When you do that,” Lazowski says, “clients ask, ‘Where else can you open up for us?’”
“It’s not just about bottom-line profits all the time. It’s about taking care of your employees, your vendors — the community around you. When you do that and you help all the stakeholders, it comes back to you 10 times,” he says. ‘Anything’s Possible In Life’
That core belief, Lazowski says, stems from his parents’ harrowing story of survival during the Holocaust, recounted in his father’s 2006 book, “Faith and Destiny.” (Lazowski’s mother, Ruth, for years served as a bookkeeper for her son’s company. She retired in 2017.)
“Anything’s possible in life,” Lazowski says, after telling me how his father survived and the movie-like version of how his parents met.
“Never ever give up. Miracles happen. And when you have a chance to bring humanity to the moment, to help somebody, you do it,” he says.
That also explains why Lazowski is such a big philanthropist, supporting hundreds of charities within the city and region, as well as Hartford’s Jewish community either personally with his wife, Marcia, a high-end interior designer and decorator, or through the company and the LAZ Parking Charitable Foundation.
He’s also passionate about social justice issues, serving on the board of the Connecticut Immigration and Refugee Coalition, as well as several national boards among them, the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. President Obama appointed him to the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and he serves on numerous other business boards.
Meanwhile, he’s looking forward along with his innovation team, focused on how LAZ will transform into a transportation and mobility company that’s about more than parking cars, but last-mile logistics, ride-sharing and storage of goods.
“He’s a visionary,” says Marzi.
Earlier this year, he was in negotiations to purchase the Gold Building in partnership with Shelbourne Global Solutions, a major downtown office tower owner. That’s the building that Chase once owned and where Lazowski got his first break. Over the years too, his two buddies, Harth and Karp, joined LAZ, now all working together.
If all goes through, Lazowski says, he wants to convert his offices at 15 Lewis St. into apartments, adding to the nearly 2,000 units built downtown over the past two decades.
“Hartford,” he says like a real booster, “is one of the most underrated cities in the country.”
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