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No-Frills Developer Finds Approach Works Just Fine

April 09, 1987|GREG BRAXTON | Times Staff Writer

Around Burbank City Hall, people tell this story about developer Joseph A. Perry:

In the late '70s, Perry approached the city about building a high-rise hotel in downtown Burbank. Although he told city planners that he had the financial means to handle such a project, they didn't take him seriously because of his unorthodox appearance--baggy pants and untucked, stained work shirts that barely contained his ample stomach.

Frustrated by months of rejection, Perry showed up at one City Council meeting carrying a suitcase. He dumped its contents--hundreds of packets of money--onto the lectern.

"Maybe this will convince you," Perry exclaimed. " Now will you let me build my hotel?"

But the facts have been exaggerated over time. Perry didn't dump a suitcase of money. Actually, he waved a cashier's check for $750,000 in front of them.

He also declared that he was determined to build a hotel in Burbank and would keep pressing the city "until Jesus comes back."

Perry may appear eccentric--his rumpled clothing, thinning salt-and-pepper-colored hair, thick eyeglasses and kinetic manner don't quite fit the stereotype of a successful suburban developer. Yet, he is regarded by peers and opponents as a shrewd businessman possessed of an uncompromising determination.

The 19-story Holiday Inn he finally built is the principal landmark of downtown Burbank. City officials say the 370-room, $6-million hotel brings in about $600,000 a year to the city in tax revenues, and he is negotiating with the city for a 300-room addition.

Perry has also built and operates a 600-room Holiday Inn in Glendale and a 230-room Holiday Inn in Long Beach.

The 63-year-old Perry is respected by city officials and development experts as a hands-on builder who knows what he wants and continues to have a guiding hand in projects once they are completed. Indeed, he maintains an office in the Glendale Holiday Inn.

But he is also criticized by those same officials as being ornery and difficult to work with. They say he is a no-frills businessman who is not likely to use diplomacy in business dealings.

'Bottom-Line Oriented'

"Joe is very bottom-line oriented," said Larry J. Kosmont, former Burbank community development director who now runs his own development and consulting firm. While employed by the city, Kosmont worked with Perry on his proposals for the hotel.

"He's not one to waste a lot of time on issues other than money and square footage," Kosmont said. "He's difficult to negotiate with and cantankerous when he wants to be, which is often."

"I'm not the easiest guy to get along with," Perry acknowledged. "I'm a tough negotiator. I didn't get my money by sitting around and twiddling my thumbs."

Perry has also been characterized by his employees as being unreasonable and Scrooge-like. The National Labor Relations Board 1 1/2 years ago charged him with discrimination and unfair labor practices, saying he harassed employees who engaged in union activity and threatened to fire some of them.

Hotel Workers Walked Out

Twenty-eight maids and laundry workers in Glendale and Burbank walked off their jobs for 12 days in early 1985, saying Perry and their union had formed a contract that cut their wages and eliminated medical insurance and other benefits.

The hotel employees voted to join a new union, Service Employees International Union, which is now negotiating a contract with Perry. Although negotiations have been continuing and there is no immediate plan for a strike, union representatives have claimed that wages at the Glendale and Burbank Holiday Inns are well below industry standards. However, they declined to give exact figures.

To catch up, Perry would have to raise each employee's wage at least 10% each year over the next four years, union officials said.

Union organizer Jaime Rodriguez was quoted last year in a hotel trade newspaper as saying that Perry was "in the Dark Ages" in his treatment of female employees. "There's one woman who went on leave to have her baby, and, when she came back, she lost a year's seniority," Rodriguez said.

Declined Comment

When questioned about his labor conflicts, Perry said: "That's too touchy a subject, and I'm still in negotiations, so I can't talk about it."

But Perry loves to talk about money. He seems to contradict himself over the significance of it.

"Just because you have money doesn't make you better than anyone else," he said. "You see a Volkswagen and a Rolls-Royce side by side, and the Volkswagen is just as precious and important to its owner as the Rolls-Royce is to its owner."

Perry drives a 2-year-old Ford Thunderbird.

Although a millionaire many times over, Perry wears clothes that seem to have been purchased in the bargain basement. He wore overalls to his mother's funeral a year ago "because that's the way she liked to see me," he said. "I've only had two suits since I was 12. I wear $25 shirts and $18 pants, and they suit me fine."

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