Umberto Fedeli doesn't sleep well.
It's not uncommon for him to wake up several times throughout the night in a fit of panic.
The founder and president of Independence-based insurance firm The Fedeli Group cites his horrendous fear of failure as the cause. It's a fear of failing the ones he loves. Has he followed through on his word? Has he done all he can to help an associate with a life-threatening illness? Has he sent the right gift to a relative's wedding he can't attend because of other obligations?
Thoughts such as these constantly plague him; he takes ownership of other people's problems. And he does everything within his scope of influence -- which is vast -- to help people find a solution. In fact, he's made a career of it.
Every summer for the past four years, Fedeli has hosted a fundraiser at his Gates Mills home that is particularly meaningful to good friend, U.S. Senator Mike DeWine. The money raised goes toward a group called Hands Together, which runs a school in Haiti named after the senator's late daughter, who was killed 12 years ago when she was only 22 years old.
This is one of hundreds of fundraisers Fedeli throws at his home each year. And if he's not hosting an event, he's going to one.
Fedeli gets his share of favors in return. Not long ago, one of his five children was getting ready to leave the country on a service trip and realized she couldn't locate her passport. Fedeli put a call into Senator DeWine's office, and she got a passport in no time.
"I think there are people sometimes who think I have a plan," Fedeli says. "I don't have an agenda."
Fedeli refers to servant leadership, rather than the you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours mentality, as his business philosophy. Through his business, Fedeli fulfills a call to service, to help others.
"I like to make a difference," Fedeli says. "I like to know that I've been able to do something that has helped someone's business."
He does that through relationship building.
"There's nothing that we feel is more important than relationships," Fedeli says. "Relationships with our clients, relationships with the associates who work here, relationships with the strategic partners that we do business with, relationships with our community."
He brings people together and he gets things done by wielding the great power and influence he has due to his own relationships with influential people such as A. Malachi Mixon, chairman and CEO of billion-dollar Invacare Corp. and chairman of the board of The Cleveland Clinic; Sam Miller, co-chairman of real estate development behemoth Forest City Enterprises; both of Ohio's U.S. senators; and even President George W. Bush.
What might be even more impressive than this long list of powerful friends is the fact that Fedeli is only 45 years old. How does someone so young and from such a modest background rise up and acquire so much civic and political power and influence?
It's a combination of personality and persistence, persuasion and self-promotion, and lots and lots of money.
Fedeli could have written the book on how to win friends and influence people. There's just something about him that commands respect.
Though his weight has been a constant source of frustration for him over the years, it also has been a source of his powerful image. It's tough to argue with a man of his size.
But his influence stems much more from his personality than his stature. Fedeli is uncommonly persuasive, if not a bit intimidating. Yet, once you start talking to him, you find an incredible charm that instantly melts away any impression of a daunting exterior.
He is soft spoken, but passionate as, over the course of a two-hour interview, the conversation jumps from past media coverage he's received to his alma mater John Carroll to his family to his business to his political involvement to the Catholic Church.
"He's a man of conviction," says Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, a close friend. "He's confident in his beliefs. That's impressive to people whether you agree with him or not."
Fedeli adheres to the principle: Treat others how you wish to be treated. Though he insists his motives are altruistic, it's evident he also really wants to be well-liked and respected.
So he gives and gives, much more than he takes, from the golden box of chocolates every guest at his office receives (even the man from the repair shop who came to pick up the keys to Fedeli's car) to the four-plus course lunches he serves in his corporate dining room.
"His heart is as big as he is, and that's considerable," says good friend Sam Miller.
Fedeli's charming personality and dogged persistence stem from his Old World upbringing. His life is a testament to the American dream.
Born in Collinwood and raised in South Euclid by Italian immigrant parents, Fedeli remembers not having a lot of material things growing up, but being surrounded by family and much love. He learned early on the ways of the Catholic Church and also the value of hard work.
Fedeli paid for his John Carroll University education himself, working various odd jobs to pay the bill. While studying business there, he learned the Jesuit teaching, "Men and women for others," and has made it his own personal mantra.
Not long after Fedeli's father began his own construction business in the mid-1970s, Fedeli was introduced to his insurance agent, Harvey Lewis. The young Fedeli was instantly drawn to the business.
"I realized [Lewis] had a tremendous amount of rapport ... with his clients," Fedeli says. "He was an advisor, a friend and a confidante."
In 1980, during his sophomore year of college, Fedeli began to work with Lewis, soliciting small property and casualty accounts from gas stations, pizza shops, dry cleaners and other mainstreet businesses. He was a natural salesman.
Fedeli worked with Lewis until his senior year. After graduating, he formed a partnership with John Cavaluchi, who ran a small insurance firm that concentrated on insuring large industrial and commercial businesses.
In 1988, Cavaluchi retired and Fedeli bought out his interest in Cavaluchi, Fedeli & Associates. Soon after, Fedeli changed the business's name to The Fedeli Group, and moved his roughly 40 employees from their office in North Olmsted to a spot on Rockside Road in Independence.
The early years of running his own business proved a struggle for Fedeli. He worked long hours that took him away from spending time with his wife, Maryellen, and his young children.
"I felt that everything was pretty much on my shoulders," Fedeli says. "I didn't have a support team or a lot of tools."
In the beginning, it was tough for Fedeli to pay his associates, but he persevered.
"We financed our growth with growth," he says.
Today, The Fedeli Group is one of the largest privately-held insurance brokerages in Northeast Ohio, serving primarily middle market companies and concentrating on insurance and risk management; captive insurance; personal insurance; surety services; group benefits consulting; and life insurance and estate and succession planning. The firm has more than 100 employees and roughly 4,000 clients nationwide.
One of The Fedeli Group's business affiliates, Workers Compensation Management, serves more than 100,000 additional customers.
Though Fedeli doesn't give out exact numbers, annual revenue is somewhere in the eight-figure range. Last year marked the business's 24th consecutive year of growth.
"He's a very intuitive businessman," says Ed Kraine, executive vice president and chief insurance officer for The Fedeli Group. "He knows opportunity when he sees it."
But Fedeli credits much of his business's success to his management team and associates.
"I don't have to have all the answers," Fedeli says. "I need to know who's good at their job."
Employees at The Fedeli Group must embody the company's core values, namely loyalty and respect. There is a high priority placed on the forming of close relationships, ones that are professional, yet familial.
Dedication to the community also is very important. Fedeli encourages his associates to take an active role in society, whether it be through charitable, civic, political or social organizations and causes.
In both respects, Fedeli is the ultimate role model for his associates.
"You have to motivate your staff by example," he says.
Fedeli does what it takes to make his customers happy, and expects his associates to do the same.
"He's kind, he's compassionate, but he demands results," says Kraine, who's worked for Fedeli for 14 years.
Before he worked for Fedeli, Kraine remembers getting a phone call from him. Fedeli wanted to recruit him. Kraine mentioned how he and his wife were going to celebrate their wedding anniversary that night at a popular West Side restaurant. When they arrived, they discovered that Fedeli had taken care of everything, including the bill.
When Fedeli met future client Robert Boykin, CEO of Cleveland-based Boykin Lodging Co., a hotel real estate investment trust, in the early '90s, the businessman was trying to decide which insurance company to sign with. Fedeli easily won him over.
"At the time, we were a small company that was growing," Boykin says. "They articulated ideas and concepts that were creative. We really got a good sense of service. That's their strength."
Fedeli once arranged a lunch meeting between Boykin and a local lawyer with expertise in the construction business. The relationship that was formed that day has proven to be very useful to Boykin.
"He does things that exceed expectation," Boykin says. "He looks at people's businesses in a broad sense. He looks at it as more than just insurance."
Through his business relationship with Fedeli, Boykin has also become his friend. In fact, Boykin and three members of his management team recently went to Fedeli's house to learn how to make Italian sausage, instructed by Fedeli's father. Entertaining is at the heart of Fedeli's business relationships.
"You have to play to your strengths," Fedeli says. "I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses."
Entertaining is certainly a strength. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Fedeli's mother, Lucia, is the guest chef in the corporate kitchen.
Walk through the door into the dining room and you're instantly transported to a different world where wine flows freely and the Italian delicacies are plentiful. It's easy to forget you're still at the office and not at Fedeli's own dining room table.
After the antipasto, fried zucchini, fresh cheeses, salad, pasta and main dish, there will barely be room for dessert. But the Fedelis rarely take no for an answer when it comes to food. It isn't unusual to be sent home with a doggie bag.
Some say Fedeli walks a fine line between the professional and the personal. His friends are his clients and his clients are his friends. But they wouldn't want it any other way.
"He bridges the gap between business and friendship," Boykin says. "It has made me far more cognizant of how I respond to some of my clients."
But Fedeli's reputation for mixing business with pleasure caught up with him while he was chairman of the Ohio Turnpike Commission.
Then-governor George V. Voinovich appointed Fedeli chairman of the turnpike in 1991. During his six years as chairman, Fedeli made considerable improvements to Ohio's roadways. Among his achievements were the construction of 15 interchanges to better serve businesses; the implementation of a plan to add a third lane in each direction from Toledo to Youngstown; and the construction of several new rest stops.
But his method for choosing contractors for turnpike construction projects was brought under fire by a series of stories in The Plain Dealer. The paper questioned whether Fedeli was granting contracts to companies who would buy their insurance from him. The FBI began an investigation, which lasted for years, and made frequent headlines in the paper. Though the authorities didn't find any evidence of wrongdoing, Fedeli's name had been dragged through the mud. Still, he doesn't regret taking the job.
"I'm glad I did it at the time I did it," he says. "It was a matter of proving I could do the job."
Even though his time in public office was marked by controversy, he's been in high demand; Fedeli has turned down several offers to serve a public board since then.
"I've clearly chosen that I'm going to be a businessperson who's active socially, active in the community, active civically, active with charities, and active politically," Fedeli says. "I don't have any desire to be a public official. I don't want to have any concern of conflicts nor do I want to have handcuffs on what I can say and on what I can't do."
Today he is passionate about his positions on John Carroll University's board of trustees; The Cleveland Clinic board, where he also serves as chair of the government relations committee; the board of the Cleveland chapter of Legatus, an organization of Catholic CEOs; and chair of the Northern Ohio Italian American Foundation.
Fedeli's success as a businessman has enabled him to give much of his time and money to these organizations and to other causes he believes in.
"His actions have shown the sincerity of his commitment," says Bishop Pilla, who's known Fedeli for more than 20 years, during which Fedeli has raised a considerable amount of money for the Cleveland Diocese. "It's not just a question of being a philanthropist."
Fedeli's high-profile relationships and duties breed responsibility and obligation, which he no doubt feels pressure to fulfill.
Because of his reputation as a "go-to" guy, Fedeli receives hundreds of calls a month from people -- many he doesn't even know -- seeking favors.
"Not everybody who calls us is looking to do business," he says.
When asked if he feels he's ever being taken advantage of, Fedeli acknowledges that it does happen, but that doesn't mean he'll ever change his ways.
To illustrate, he refers to a favorite story about the owner of Nordstrom's Department Store, known for allowing patrons to return anything at any time, even without a receipt, no questions asked. As Fedeli tells it, someone once asked the owner of Nordstrom's whether he ever felt taken advantage of, and he said, "Yes, but I'm not going to change how we do business for the 90 percent of people who appreciate what we do because of the 10 percent who take advantage of us."
"There's a price to pay for success," Fedeli says. "There's also a price to pay for failure."
Fedeli would gladly have a sleepless night if it means not failing a friend.