Vision Community Awards: Worcester’s Michael D. Sleeper wins Isaiah Thomas honor

Vision Community Awards: Worcester’s Michael D. Sleeper wins Isaiah Thomas honor

Big corporations get treated like partners in his family business, and individuals from humble backgrounds get a place in the company fold, Mr. Sleeper’s friends and acquaintances say. The chairman and chief executive of Imperial Distributors Inc. also uses something personal, community service, to shape the culture of his business.

“He gets his team so excited. He’s a multiplier of a thousand,” said Christopher J. Crowley, executive vice president of Polar Beverages of Worcester, a friend who has traveled on business trips with Mr. Sleeper. “He gets everybody committed to community service.”

For his efforts, Mr. Sleeper has been chosen to receive the Isaiah Thomas Award for service to the community.

The award is one of five Visions Community Awards that the Telegram & Gazette will present during a 4:30 p.m. ceremony Monday at Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St. Gov. Charlie Baker is the keynote speaker, and the event is free and open to the public.

The Isaiah Thomas Award is given to a Central Massachusetts resident who has made outstanding contributions to society, especially over a period of time. It was created in 1950 by the AdClub of Greater Worcester and incorporated into the Visions program in 1999.

Other Visions Community Awards are for young leader, public service, academic achievement and cultural enrichment.

Mr. Sleeper, 72, and a resident of Worcester, is known as a person devoted to Worcester, and he uses similar terms to describe his own activities in the community.

“I think some of it has to do with my love for Worcester,” Mr. Sleeper said during an interview in his Worcester office. “I talk about it being beautiful Worcester. I never say Worcester. I say beautiful Worcester. It’s kind of a bit of a joke, but in a way, it’s not a joke, because that’s kind of the way I think about it.”

Born in Worcester to Frank and Ethel Sleeper, Mr. Sleeper grew up with the business his father created in 1939. Frank Sleeper started by assembling and selling first aid kits door to door, but decided he could display and sell more health, beauty and household goods with a display cabinet in grocery stores. He persuaded one store to take on the merchandise. More stores followed.

As a teenager, Mr. Sleeper worked after school in one of his father’s warehouses. When he got a driver’s license, he started delivering goods to stores.

A graduate of Worcester public schools, Mr. Sleeper received a bachelor’s degree from Babson College in Wellesley and returned to Imperial. He remained there, except for a stint in the Army Reserves, and became company president in 1973.

Today, Imperial has warehouses in Auburn and Worcester and employs about 700 people, including roughly 300 people locally. The company distributes household goods, beauty and personal products and other non-food items to stores in 27 states, plus Puerto Rico and Bermuda. Imperial even has a faux store, stocked with everything from mops to mascara, in its Worcester warehouse to show clients and experiment with product displays.

Under Mr. Sleeper, Imperial has also become an engine for charitable giving. The company and its employees have donated more than $1 million in the past 10 years to the United Way, a nonprofit organization that focuses on local communities.

The roots of that giving go back to the days when Mr. Sleeper and his wife Carol, who married in 1968, became involved in a young couples’ club at Temple Emanuel, the Jewish synagogue in Worcester that Mr. Sleeper had always attended. Mr. Sleeper grew more involved in the synagogue, then in the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, which raises funds to support the Jewish community.

From there, he said, he felt that getting involved in the United Way was a way to give back to his community but also define Imperial’s culture.

“I thought, it’s great for Imperial to grow its business, have good values for its people and so on, but what are we really doing in terms of giving back to the community and educating our people on the importance of giving?” he said.

Since then, Mr. Sleeper has signed on to a number of other community endeavors. He served on the boards of the Worcester Art Museum and the Reliant Medical Foundation. Assumption College, a Catholic college in Worcester where he takes his morning walks, tapped him for its board.

Francesco C. Cesareo, Assumption president, said he wanted Mr. Sleeper’s business expertise on the board as the college works through the challenges of offering 21st century students the education they need.

“Michael has really helped us to think through those challenges in a very strategic and a very creative way,” Mr. Cesareo said.

Imperial, under Mr. Sleeper, also has hired 25 people over 25 years through the Worcester Community Action Council, an organization focused on addressing poverty.

Jill C. Dagilis, executive director of the council, described Mr. Sleeper as a hero who began hiring young people that the council had trained after she and another council representative made a cold call to him.

“Since then, he just steps up, every year, all the time,” Ms. Dagilis said.

A father of three and grandfather of two, Mr. Sleeper has started to turn over some of the duties at Imperial as he plans for the day when others will run the company. Herbert Daitch is now president of the business.

Mr. and Mrs. Sleeper’s daughter Naomi, a Boston resident, is an Imperial category manager focused on natural organic products. The Sleepers’ other two children are Eric, a pediatrician and father of two who lives in Lexington, and Maxine, a lawyer in New York City.

Mr. Sleeper said he expects to remain involved in Worcester, and that he takes pride in making a difference in his hometown.

“I just feel I couldn’t be here without being engaged in the community,” he said. “It’s what gives life meaning. I hope that doesn’t sound too self-serving, but I want to be engaged and active for as long as I can.”

Contact Lisa Eckelbecker at Follow her on Twitter @LisaEckelbecker.