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ALEX SPANOS : How the son of an impoverished Greek immigrant borrowed $800 and turned it into a business and sports empire worth $160 million.

March 11, 1985|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

STOCKTON — Alex Spanos had trouble sleeping one night recently after a stressful day at the office of his football team, the San Diego Chargers.

He had released two veteran members of the team's scouting department, the first men he had fired in more than 10 years. Normally, a subordinate takes care of such unpleasantries, leaving Spanos free to concentrate on his business empire, whose bedrock is apartment construction.

The next day, as he sat in the comfortably appointed interior of one of his four corporate jets, Spanos still seemed to be wrestling with his conscience.

"I gave each of them a year to find another job, and I didn't have to do that," he said, as if trying to convince himself that he had done the proper thing.

Over dinner in a trendy Dallas steakhouse, a pensive Spanos discussed his discomfort with his son-in-law, Barry Ruhl, one of the four members of the inner circle that helps run the family-dominated business.

Ruhl and his companion, the head of the Texas division of the company, seemed only moderately interested in the Chargers, so Spanos focused on carving a steak and nibbling on some onion rings.

After several moments of silence, Spanos' thoughts shifted and he began talking excitedly about a recent segment of the TV show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" that featured a business tycoon from the Far East who had invested multi-millions in a yacht.

"Damn," Spanos said, "I wish I had taped that show. Can you imagine putting so much into a boat?"

A dinner guest was struck by a certain irony in the moment.

"Glad you haven't lost your capacity for amazement," the guest said, bringing a quick smile from Spanos, a gruff, plain-spoken man with a silver crewcut and a face dominated by a longish nose and a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.

Like many other wealthy businessmen before him, Spanos is emerging from the relative anonymity of the corporate world through the high-profile position of running a professional sports franchise.

Spanos, the son of an impoverished Greek immigrant, supervises an apartment-construction empire that spans the breadth of the Sunbelt and has brought him a net worth estimated at $160 million. He is known for his philanthropy, particularly in the Stockton area, with donations to education, medicine and culture that reach into the millions.

He added the Chargers to his domain last summer after passing up a chance to buy the San Francisco 49ers several years ago, when Al Davis told him they were for sale.

Spanos said he considers Davis a friend and the shrewdest thinker in the history of pro football, but he doesn't want to be too closely identified with him because Davis is not universally admired in the owners' fraternity.

He much prefers to be linked with comedian Bob Hope, a frequent golfing companion who also taught him a softshoe-dance routine that the two have done on stages around the country. Hope and Spanos first met at a golf tournament 20 years ago.

"When Alex was born," Hope once quipped, "the doctor slapped him and Alex said, 'Like to rent an apartment?' "

He has built nearly 50,000 apartments over the last quarter-century and now ranks at or near the top of the industry, with projected revenues of more than $900 million this year.

"When Alex plays golf, if he loses the ball, he doesn't even bother to look for it," Hope joked. "He figures he'll just buy the property and find the ball while building apartments."

Life wasn't always so comfy. During the bleakest years of the Depression, the Spanos family was so poor that the children slept three to a bed.

"We had to take off our shoes after school to save wear on the soles," Spanos said.

The family could only afford hot water for one bath a week, and the children had to share the bath water.

Now, Spanos owns a fleet of private jets that allow him and his aides to cover up to 6,000 miles each in a three-day week that begins each Tuesday afternoon. They are all back home in Stockton by sunset each Friday.

When Hope saw the A.G. Spanos Jet Center, which dwarfs the Stockton municipal airport, he said, "Alex must be going to the moon. He's bought all the real estate down here."

Hope was indirectly involved in Spanos' closest encounter with death. A few years ago, Spanos picked up Hope and his wife after a show in New York and flew them to Burbank in one of his jets, which can travel nonstop from coast to coast.

After dropping off Hope, it was time to depart for Stockton. But a driving thunderstorm had swept into the area, making conditions far from ideal. As the plane was taking off, its nose was struck by lightning, and a clap of thunder detonated in the ears of the pilot and his passengers, which included Spanos and several family members.

"I thought the plane was going to crash," Spanos said.

It managed to stay aloft and complete the one-hour flight to Stockton, but $100,000 worth of repairs later had to be made. It was the most frightened he has ever felt, Spanos said.

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