Kevork Hovnanian of Hovnanian Enterprises
Roger Tully Kevork Hovnanian of Hovnanian Enterprises

Kevork Hovnanian knew about deprivation. At age 16, he lost his mother. Twenty years later, he lost his road construction business in his native Iraq after Baathists there overthrew the government in a bloody revolution, and he fled the country in 1959. Those life experiences helped shape Hovnanian’s ideas about business, philanthropy, and public service, for which Hearthstone is honoring him posthumously. “Even when he didn’t have money, he had a generosity of spirit,” recalls Arthur Greenbaum, an attorney and friend since Hovnanian’s arrival in the U.S. Greenbaum notes that Hovnanian had sent his three younger brothers to the safety of America’s shores before he came over himself.

“He escaped Iraq, literally for his life, and his coming to the U.S., which he saw as a dream beyond comprehension, had a profound impact on how he viewed life after that,” says Edward Kangas, a 20-year friend and the retired worldwide chairman of Deloitte & Touche. “He is one of these people who live their lives full of passion and joy, and part of that joy comes from helping others.”

The brothers Hovnanian started a home building business (with a $4,000 investment and $20,000 loan) in Red Bank, N.J., that evolved into Hovnanian Enterprises, now the sixth-largest builder in the U.S. Hovnanian was the company’s chairman until he died at age 86 from congestive heart failure on Sept. 14, 2009. “Like many successful people, my father felt blessed and wanted to give back,” says Ara Hovnanian, Kevork’s son and Hovnanian Enterprises’ CEO. And in many cases, Kevork’s giving back had decidedly personal undertones.

When Ara’s 15-year-old son Alton was killed in a boating accident in July 2002, Kevork, who had been very close to his grandson, donated millions of dollars to establish the Alton A. Hovnanian Emergency Center at Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank. He pledged $10 million to establish a new cardiology floor at New York Presbyterian Hospital as a kind of thank-you gift for the way the hospital had treated him when he was ill.

Hovnanian also spent millions toward the construction of the K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital at Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune, N.J. This facility, which opened in 2005 and currently has 60 specialists, was the first of its kind in the area. Hovnanian’s support “enabled the pediatric services to immediately grow into a full-blown children’s hospital,” says John Lloyd, the hospital’s president. Hovnanian’s religion and ethnicity (he’s Armenian Catholic) have also been motivating influences on his philanthropic activities. For example, he used his own money to build St. Stepanos Armenian Church in Elberton, N.J., in honor of his mother, Yester. During the construction (which was completed in July 1987), “he was there every day; he was practically the general contractor,” recalls Mazin Kalian, Hovnanian’s son-in-law and president of Kalian Homes. “He even interviewed the guy who did the paintings on the wall.”

A year later, in December 1988, a series of earthquakes struck northwestern Armenia, leveling several towns, killing 25,000 people, injuring 15,000 others, and leaving 517,000 people homeless. Four days after that earthquake hit, Kevork Hovnanian flew to Armenia and got involved in the relief effort. “It was emotional and disappointing to see people carrying their dead,” Hovnanian recalled. “It was horrible.” He used his own resources and personnel to rebuild some of the destroyed villages, employing American-style, wood-framed construction despite Armenia’s prime minister’s protestations against that method of building. And in 1989, Hovnanian founded the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR), which provided education, health care, housing, clothing, and food to victims’ families. “He has contributed his knowledge, fortune, and passion to the Armenian people,” says Garnik Nanagoulian, FAR’s executive director.

“I believe that FAR taking children from police stations [and] giving them a home [after the earthquake], that was a very important thing,” said Hovnanian in a 2006 videotape that FAR put together in his honor. “We were happy to be in position to help others.” FAR has grown into an agency with 150 full-time employees, operating soup kitchens and summer camps, and providing scholarships and scientific grants for building irrigation systems.

Finally, Hovnanian made small and large contributions to helping people in his adopted country. “He always felt that minorities, and blacks in particular, never had a chance for homeownership,” says Greenbaum. So about 20 years ago, at the behest of then Newark Mayor Sharpe James, Hovnanian Enterprises built a 600-unit Society Hill community in an area of that city that had yet to recover from the race riots of the 1960s. “It wasn’t a safe neighborhood, even in the daytime,” says Ara Hovnanian. “Now, it’s a nice little community.” Both Greenbaum and Kangas use the term “straight arrow” to describe Kevork Hovnanian’s approach to business and philanthropy. “Like a lot of entrepreneurs, he had a natural intuition that he acted on,” says Kangas. “He never cut corners, and he didn’t have to ask anyone what was the right thing to do.” Ara Hovnanian also believes that his father will be remembered for his integrity and the value of his word. “That principle lives on to this day.”

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