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A Family's Fortune

January 04, 1987|SAM ENRIQUEZ | Times Staff Writer

Generation after generation, the Janss clan acquired and developed the Los Angeles metropolitan area, including Westwood, Thousand Oaks and Van Nuys. One after another, they came, saw and built. Now they are resting.

While the Janss Investment Corp. was busy developing the conservative, white-collar city of Thousand Oaks during the 1960s, the firm's chairman of the board, Edwin Janss Jr., was out protesting the Vietnam War and collecting wild pop art.

"At that time we had a damn good team working for us, so I had the time," recalled Janss, 72, in a recent interview at his home in a modest West Los Angeles neighborhood.

Janss, who earlier in the decade had been asked to serve on a Third World development commission by President John F. Kennedy, ended up on President Richard Nixon's "enemies list" for his anti-war activities.

Meanwhile, Thousand Oaks was added to the Janss family's list of successful developments that included Westwood, Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, Yorba Linda and parts of the San Fernando Valley, as well as two ski resorts--Snowmass in Aspen, Colo., and Sun Valley in Idaho.

Over three generations, the Janss family has developed an estimated 90,000 acres of Southern California property. In recent years, the family operation has found good managers to run the family business, even as the interests of family members such as Edwin Jr. shifted from the pecuniary to the aesthetic.

But the conversion of 10,000 acres of Ventura County ranch land into Thousand Oaks housing was probably the last major Janss family development. A recent breakup of the family holdings and a dwindling interest in development among younger family members has all but ended a family dynasty that built housing for more than 65,000 people in its first 10 years in business.

The last Janss family member who still lives in Thousand Oaks, Larry Janss, the son of Edwin Jr., said that his interests are more or less confined to operating the Conejo Village Bowl, a bowling alley that is his share of the family business. Larry's cousin, Dr. William Janss Jr. of Westwood, is the only family member still active in development, but family members say he has a long way to go to match the accomplishments of his father, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather.

It was coincidence rather than entrepreneurship that sparked the Conejo Valley development, recalled Edwin Jr., who lived on the family ranch there from 1932 until 1964. He said he was not much interested in development when his father, Edwin Sr., handed over control of the firm to him in 1954.

"My interest was in having a good time; I excelled at that," Janss said.

Edwin Jr. had spent the previous 20 years raising thoroughbred horses on the family's Conejo Ranch. At one time he had 300 horses in his stable and 25 horses training at the Santa Anita race track.

Although Edwin Jr. had already developed land near Camarillo into the Las Posas Country Club and Estates, he took over the family business reluctantly.

"I ended up converting a harness shop into our office," Janss said. "I made my dad so nervous--he was constantly looking over my shoulder--that he died of a heart attack four years later."

After Edwin Jr. began building four houses for his employees on Thousand Oaks Boulevard in 1955, passers-by started asking the price of the new homes, Janss said. At that time there were still fewer than 2,500 people living in the area, he said.

"After about 100 people stopped to ask how much they needed for a down payment on the houses, my accountant said, 'You better start selling houses,' " Janss said. "Up until that time, it was pretty primitive out there."

Janss purchased 96 acres for the Conejo Oaks housing development and, before the tract's three model homes were finished, all 98 lots in the development were sold, he said.

The company purchased other properties, including the Lynn Ranch and Borchard Ranch. Over the next 25 years, the Janss Investment Corp. was involved in the development of about 20% of the land in Thousand Oaks, mostly in the area west of Moorpark Road.

"We parceled out the land and had others subdivide it," Janss said.

As demand for housing grew, Janss hired sales and finance experts to oversee the day-to-day development of the Thousand Oaks-area properties that eventually included the city's first industrial park, as well as the Janss Mall and The Oaks shopping center. The Janss firm also developed water and sewage companies to serve the expanding area.

"I was basically lazy. What I wasn't interested in, I turned over to somebody else," Janss said.

Although the Janss family was never active in local politics, after Thousand Oaks was incorporated in 1964 the family firm donated 10 acres of land where the Civic Center eventually was built, and offered an adjacent 10 acres that the city later purchased. For nearly 20 years, the Janss Foundation gave the city $25,000 a year to spend on charitable causes.

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