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Donald Sterling a Champ--in Real Estate

COLUMN ONE

Although his L.A. Clippers keep losing, he keeps building an empire of Westside properties. And he does it without brokers, partners or Wall Street.

July 09, 1996|THOMAS S. MULLIGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Donald T. Sterling bought the landmark former MGM headquarters in the heart of Beverly Hills, furnishing rooms with French antiques and restoring the detailed bronze elevator doors, sculpted wood wall moldings and parquet floors.

But when posh retailer Barneys of New York wanted to lease the choice ground-level space from him, the Los Angeles Clippers owner refused. Except for his own offices on the top two floors, the building he calls Sterling World Plaza is completely empty.

Said longtime Sterling friend Michael Selsman: "That's the biggest moat this side of Camelot."

Volumes have been spoken and written about Sterling, the quirky and unpredictable sports magnate who owns one of the worst franchises in the history of the National Basketball League. Dubbing him "The Donald," sports columnists and talkmeisters have written him off as a lightweight; an agent for one of his players called him a "buffoon."

But there's a far different side to Sterling--one that is not public and is rarely examined. In three decades, he has built one of the largest real estate empires in Southern California and is the largest residential landlord in Beverly Hills.

"Whatever people might think of him, he's a damn shrewd, smart businessman," said E. Gregory Hookstratten, a Beverly Hills lawyer, agent and former courtroom adversary.

Sterling, 62, is an uncommon mix of Boyle Heights, where he grew up, and Beverly Hills, where he got rich. He works in the penthouse built for Louis B. Mayer and sleeps in a pillared Beverly Hills mansion once owned by Cary Grant.

A public figure who can be found at court side at almost every Clippers home game, he is aloof and intensely private when it comes to his business and personal lives. Though one of Southern California's top real estate barons, he is a mystery figure in his industry because he doesn't take partners, employ brokers or raise money on Wall Street.

In other ways--including his dapper style of dress, the Malibu beach barbecues he throws and the celebrities who sometimes surround him at Clippers games, he comes across as a typical Mr. Hollywood.

But Sterling doesn't do lunch and he often works until midnight.

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A lot of shrewd investors have been humbled by the brutal real estate crash that continues to reverberate through Southern California. But Sterling, whose life is Southern California real estate, has survived largely unscathed because of his patience, caution and disciplined--almost prosaic--approach to real estate investment.

He owns a lot and now wants more. But unlike the people he so often finds across the table from him, he knows how to wait. The key to Sterling's power is not that he can write a $35-million check or close a deal in three days that would take somebody else three months. (His net worth is believed to be in the hundreds of millions.)

The key is that he might decide not to.

Ever cordial, perpetually tanned, without partners or stockholders to push him for a quick return on investment, Sterling has the luxury of being able to say no to anything and anybody.

"I always felt we benefited more from the things we didn't do," he said recently in a rare on-the-record interview about his business affairs.

In June, for example, he rejected a reported $95-million package of inducements to move the Clippers from the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the NBA's oldest venue, to the gleaming Pond of Anaheim.

And although the Clippers--who have lost roughly twice as many games as they have won during his ownership--may be bad, Sterling says he has turned down more than 10 times the $13.5 million he paid for them in 1981. (The expansion Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors each paid $125 million last year just for the right to enter the league.)

As rich an asset as the Clippers may be, they're the sideline to Sterling's main calling, which is helping investors and banks out of distress by taking swank property off their hands.

He owns, in his own name, 56 upscale apartment complexes in Southern California, 25 of them in Beverly Hills. He is an investor in real estate investment trusts that he says hold another 48 multiunit residential properties.

Deals often come to him after other people's foreclosures and bankruptcies. "People come to me because they know that if I like something, I can move immediately," Sterling said.

A compact former gymnast, he runs his show from a gilded French writing table and has a Socratic conversational style, often turning a question back on the questioner: What do you think? What would you do? He is soft-spoken and unfailingly courteous, often sending complimentary personal notes and Clippers tickets to business and social acquaintances.

When he's buying, Sterling sometimes buys in bunches. In a 1979 deal, he bought 11 Santa Monica apartment complexes from fellow real estate mogul Jerry Buss, who used the money to buy the Los Angeles Lakers from Jack Kent Cooke.

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