Gary Erlbaum

Biography

In the age of online commerce, it’s not so absurd to hear about a college student—or someone even much younger—starting a business. But in the mid-sixties, when Gary Erlbaum launched Panelrama during his senior year at Temple, it was absurd. And the story only became more so with each passing year, as the company grew into a modest, regional home-supply chain—all while Mr. Erlbaum worked his way through the Fox School of Business and then the Beasley School of Law.

Nearly 50 years later, he’s still not quite sure how he pulled it off. But he did, of course. And he was only setting the table. In late 1979, a decade out of law school, Mr. Erlbaum began liquidating his company. He’d use the income to buy an interest in the laser patent rights. It was an incredible gamble. Gordon Gould, the self-proclaimed inventor of the laser, had been tied up in litigation with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the laser industry for the better part of 20 years at that point. With Mr. Erlbaum as his advisor and investor, Mr. Gould won the last of a series of legal decisions in 1988 that left him control of patent rights to about 90 percent of the lasers used and sold in the United States at the time, which accounted for about a half-billion dollars in annual sales. “Ironically,” says an Inc. magazine feature that covered the saga, “had they been granted 30 years ago, these patents would have expired while the industry was still tiny and would have captured only a fraction of their current revenue.” As it was, Mr. Erlbaum, who brokered a majority interest, would go on to serve as president of Patlex Corp., the entity formed to oversee the licensing and the river of royalties that flowed from it. Comfortably settled these days in commercial real estate, he describes his share of the litigation as a “historic battle.” But it also ran years beyond what he thought it would. Windfalls of that magnitude are rare. Rarer still, a second within a single career. In 2000, a year after taking David’s Bridal public, Steven Erlbaum—Mr. Erlbaum’s brother—sold the wedding-gown chain they founded for over $400 million. Mr. Erlbaum served as the company’s secretary and treasurer. Mr. Erlbaum traces his ability to pivot so fluidly from one industry to the next to his years at the Fox School. “The absolute usefulness of doing things at the same time that you were learning them was an unbelievable experience,” he says. “It allowed me to become more than a retailer; it molded me into a businessman. The advantages and opportunities that that provided me—it’s amazing even for me to consider.” The greatest among them: that he didn’t need to deprive his family of his attention or presence. Because he was able to find success early on, Mr. Erlbaum never had to choose between his career and his family. And, “as I got smarter and more comfortable with what I was doing,” that time only grew. After 51 years of marriage and 15 grandchildren, his family continues to be his leading priority. “My tennis match tomorrow afternoon,” he says, “it’s me and my three sons.”

Temple University Degree
Bachelor of Science ’66, Fox School of Business Juris Doctor ’69 | Beasley School of Law

Title & Company
President, Greentree Properties Corporation

Temple University Awards & Affiliations

  • Commencement Speaker, Fox School of Business, 2006
  • Marketing Award, Fox School of Business, 1966

What I wanted to be when I was 20 years old
A lawyer. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer. Back in those days, it was one of the most respectful professions around.

Best piece of advice anyone ever gave me
Don’t burn your bridges. You never know what’s going to happen. In hindsight, it’s astounding the roads you go down and the paths you cross. You’re not going to click with everyone, but you can never be certain that you won’t eventually need someone’s help.