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The Shadow of an Operator : Bernard Mass hits vulnerable firms like a whirlwind, leaving destruction in his wake. He's been at it for 30 years, but now he has the attention of the FBI.

November 25, 1990|JIM SCHACHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a certain kind of business known as a schlock operation.

Its merchandise is schlock-- Yiddish for "knocked about," second-rate, fire-sale stuff. But the term also suggests a way of doing business, regardless of the merchant's ethnicity. The standard operating procedures are seat-of-the-pants. Ethics are checked at the door.

Such operations and operators are staples of commerce, moving goods no one else will sell and serving a clientele that big business ignores. Their chiseling ways--the bounced checks, the unpaid taxes, the broken promises--don't do any one victim any great harm. The economy tolerates their presence.

But sometimes a schlock operator gets ambitious. He tries to exercise the skills that work so well at the margins of business on projects of a greater scale.

And then the damage can grow.

Bernard Mass--a self-described schlock merchant who got his start running fruit stands and clothing stores in New York--has used his street smarts to talk his way into one company after another, in the Southland and across the country, for the last 30 years.

Every last one of these firms has failed, separating vendors, lenders and investors from millions of dollars and, on occasion, stripping possessions and pride from gullible, greedy friends who thought Mass was their ticket to riches.

Mass isn't Wall Street. And he isn't Main Street. He operates in the back alleys of business, picking through industry's garbage for sickly or discarded companies from which he can coax one last gasp of cash.

The 1980s, that era of instant wealth, were Mass' heyday. While Michael Milken and Charles H. Keating Jr. were transforming the economic landscape, Mass, like so many other relative unknowns, was cutting his own deals--leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers, penny stock offerings and suspect dealings with a savings and loan.

Department stores and print shops crumbled around the rumpled Anaheim Hills businessman. Three times in the decade, he set can manufacturing companies on the path to bankruptcy, once after Tennessee development officials had bent over backwards to help Mass open a plant. One of his businesses raised a half-million dollars for a home AIDS test kit, then squandered the money even before regulators blocked the marketing of the kits.

Mass, who turns 47 this week, is one of those people who is always working a deal. Just in the last year, he has tried to buy car dealerships in Southern California and Florida, a car rental company in Oklahoma, a Texas steel distributor, a drug manufacturer in Santa Fe Springs, a huge drug plant near Miami and a Los Angeles furniture company.

Each acquisition faltered--but none as spectacularly as his takeover of a Gardena pharmaceuticals firm called Whiteworth/Towne-Paulsen. With annual sales approaching $20 million, Whiteworth for years had been the West Coast's largest maker of such basic drugstore products as rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

Little more than two years after Mass got control of the firm with a rasher of promises and $40,000 in borrowed funds, nothing remains beyond the stack of tax liens and lawsuits filed to collect Whiteworth's unpaid bills. The auctioneer's gavel fell on the last pieces of equipment a few weeks ago.

In the past, Mass' loopy deals inspired scores of lawsuits but failed to capture law enforcement's interest. Now, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is probing allegations by ex-employees that Mass tricked Whiteworth's lender--an overindulgent unit of Coast Savings Financial--into advancing $1 million on non-existent orders. Twice before, Mass' companies have been accused of the same scam. He denies any wrongdoing.

Mass terms himself a "workout artist" though, with unintended irony, one of his advisers--convicted Florida con man Paul Garfinkle--puts it another way. Mass, he says, "is known basically as an undertaker of businesses."

And while intimates say Mass is driven by the thrill of the deal more than avarice, it is his knowledge that so many others are motivated by greed that helps Mass identify likely marks for his odd combination of charisma and chutzpah.

"I've seen him stand eye-to-eye and tell somebody, 'I'm going to take your money from you. That's the kind of guy I am,' " recalled Brian McDaniels, who worked for one of Mass' can companies in Orange. "They'd laugh. And he'd laugh. But he'd do it."

Mass concedes that he's no candidate for sainthood. But he also makes no apologies to the investors in companies he's flattened, the employees whose paychecks bounced or the business partners whose marriages were torn apart.

"I am not ashamed of what I do," says Mass, a small man with an easy laugh and the remnants of a Bronx accent. "Everybody knows what I do. I tell people what I do when I do it. Afterwards, when it's over, some people see it differently."

A Shine to Polish

Los Angeles' container industry is one of many that didn't know, initially, what to make of this character, Bernie Mass.

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