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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The Big Time : Gucci Watch Mogul Severin Wunderman Has It All--but He's Not Settled Yet

March 26, 1995|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — With the 10-foot walls, attack dogs and armed security surrounding his Mediterranean, cliff-top estate, it's no surprise that Gucci watch mogul Severin Wunderman has been called the Howard Hughes of Orange County.

Dodging the tabloids after an ill-fated marriage several years ago to "NYPD Blue" actress Gail O'Grady, Wunderman, 56, has granted few interviews and allowed even fewer photographs.

"I'm not what you would call a publicity seeker," he declares, seated comfortably in the office of his Camel Point home overlooking Aliso Pier. "I'm a private person."

So private that many of those who know him say he remains a mystery. And so private that, after five years in Orange County, Wunderman says he's never felt he really fit in.

Now the Belgian-born owner of the Severin Wunderman Museum in Irvine says he's leaving and returning to Europe. He has donated his museum collection to the University of Texas, Austin, and, in preparation for the move, the museum closed its doors to the public two weeks ago.For sale are three of his five California residences--including the one he is sitting in, listed at $10.8 million.

"I'm basically European," he says, adding that he is restoring a 15th-Century castle in the south of France to live in. "It's just a more comfortable place for me to live."

After his recent offer to move the world's largest permanent collection of works by French artist, poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau from Irvine to downtown Laguna Beach turned into a petty parking war with city officials, he decided it was time to leave. The dispute over the museum relocation centered on a dozen parking spaces. "The community support just wasn't there," he says.

Wunderman chooses his words carefully, yet the self-made millionaire speaks candidly from behind his antique desk, relating with quiet-toned authority the triumphs, failures and challenging childhood that have led to his overwhelming success. He says that, at long last, he is able to run his privately held, Irvine-based company, the Severin Group, from a distance.

"My secret for a successful business is to surround yourself with good people. And you have to be willing to take risks," he says. "At this point, my business is like a 747; once the plane takes off, it flies by itself."

Whether it flies on autopilot or with the collective navigation of his 600 employees, Wunderman's company has soared skyward as the sole manufacturer, marketer and distributor of Gucci timepieces and Fila sports watches. Today, Wunderman says, Gucci watches generate $500 million in annual retail sales. Many say the successful marketing of the timepieces--which range from $235 to $14,000--is the direct result of Wunderman's intense drive and determination.

"He's extremely defined in what he wants," says a member of his personal staff. "And, yes, he can be very demanding. That's why he's so successful."

"Doors slam; things fly around the room, but we are family around here," says another employee. "He always says, 'I've never had an ulcer,' and I say, 'I know, Severin, that's because you give them to other people.' "

*

After quitting school at 16, Wunderman learned to speak five languages, acquired a vast knowledge of art and embarked on a series of self-propelled business ventures that resulted in a personal empire estimated in court documents at $266 million. He has four children, three grandchildren and five ex-wives.

He bought his first piece of artwork when he was 18--it cost $40, which was a week's pay. The piece was a portrait of Cocteau's lover, Jean Marais.

"I wanted things, like everyone else does," he explains, surrounded by Napoleonic paintings and collectibles. "But there was no one to pay for it, so I made (the money) myself."

Wunderman admits that there have been times when he's crushed 10 toes with a single stomp to get what he wanted. "My father taught me to always throw the first punch; that way you've already won 50% of the fight right there," Wunderman says. "I've always remembered that, in business, and in life."

Wunderman is slight of build but fills the room with an imposing presence. Notoriously quick-tempered, with little patience for ignorance or mediocrity, it's clear right away that this is one self-made man who can smell a lie from across the room and a good business deal from around the globe.

"Having not finished school, it's strictly street-smarts," he says with a smile. "In a meeting, I can basically tell which way the wind is going to blow. I can tell immediately."

He admits to having a temper, and the word demanding is used repeatedly to describe him. In addition to shouting and breaking things, he has tossed more than one cellular phone out the window of his chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.

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