They seem perfectly suited to bring off a museum merger that could secure Orange County's future in the visual arts.
Charles D. Martin and Gilbert E. LeVasseur Jr. have built successful careers by launching, restructuring and putting complex organizations together.
Martin, the venture capitalist and investor in leveraged buyouts, and LeVasseur, the merger specialist who made a small fortune buying and selling companies, know deal-making inside and out. When the two applied their skills to the art world last year, LeVasseur, as the Laguna Art Museum's president, and Martin, a Newport Harbor Art Museum trustee, adroitly pulled together in a few days a proposed merger plan, something their respective institutions had tried to do for a decade.
The plan calls for making a financially sturdy museum out of two wobbly ones. The new Orange County Museum of Art would have reduced staffing, a collection of 20th century California art, and hopes of becoming a first-class venue.
Newport Harbor's expanded facility in Fashion Island would be the headquarters, at least for awhile, with Costa Mesa often discussed as a final site. Original plans suggested closing the historic Laguna museum building, though public protest has forced deal makers to consider alternatives.
Indeed, Martin and LeVasseur are discovering the art museum business doesn't work like any they've known.
While both love art--Martin began collecting more than a decade ago, LeVasseur has a few pieces--their inexperience in museum governance shows.
In their drive to cut a deal, they emphasized its financial merits while failing to articulate an artistic vision. They failed, too, to see how the broad constituencies their museums serve make the process of combining them far more complex than putting two companies together. They've ruffled some expensive feathers among trustees with fund-raising clout. They've angered Laguna citizens who want trustees recalled for suggesting that their local museum be closed.
Martin says, "'What we dramatically underestimated was the element of a kind of self-centered parochialism within the Laguna community."
Adds LeVasseur, "I thought we were doing the right thing for this institution and when anybody saw it, it'd be hands down, everybody'd go for it.
The duo, who have become friends in the process, recently discussed their views in a wide-ranging interview at the Pacific Club. They had just met over lunch at the private Newport Beach club to discuss whether Martin might invest in a company owned by a friend of LeVasseur.
LeVasseur is kicking himself for failing to read up on the Laguna museum's quirky bylaws until a month ago. They give its 1,383 voting members--about 390 of whom live in Laguna--the power to approve or disapprove the merger.
If he'd known about them a year ago, he says, he would have followed standard corporate operating procedure: change the bylaws, shifting power to the trustees.
The two also feel they've been personally threatened.
Martin says that, while trustees from the two museums met Feb. 27 at the Five Crowns restaurant in Corona del Mar, somebody scratched his black Mercedes SEL with a key.
LeVasseur says someone left a message on his answering machine: "You can hurt us. We can hurt you."
These two highly successful practitioners of the corporate deal might as well have landed on a foreign planet. They're accustomed to quiet boardrooms, far from the glare of publicity.
In the private business world, Martin, who is 59, has built a reputation for his intelligence, integrity and artistic bent.
His longtime friend, Fred Chaney, the chairman of a Newport Beach-based company which runs education programs for company presidents, says Martin's "raw mental horsepower" amazes him.
Martin, the son of a postmaster from Willard, Ohio, moved to California after putting himself through Ohio State University. He spent years running and advising companies on business development, mergers and financing. In 1985, he founded Enterprise Partners, a Newport Beach venture capital firm.
Enterprise has $215 million worth of investments in health care and information technology companies, with investors ranging from founders and chief executives of California companies to major organizations such as AT&T and Citicorp.
LeVasseur, 52, a milkman's son born in Washington, D.C, and raised in Westchester in Los Angeles, has always impressed friends as someone who makes dreams happen. While surfing the Pacific waves as a child, he used to admire homes along the oceanfront bluff. Now he has built one for himself.
As a teenager doing factory work, he imagined himself one day owning his own business. He got an MBA from USC, then a job as an acquisitions specialist for ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc. president Milan Panic.
He next joined other investors who turned a nursing home company into a publishing firm, then sold the publishing assets to ABC in 1977.