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Ahmanson Ranch Protesters Turn Up the Heat on Sizzler Chairman

Phillip Matthews also sits on the board of Washington Mutual, the project's developer.

January 01, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

The Sizzler chain of steak restaurants is getting a grilling over the planned $2-billion Ahmanson Ranch residential development north of Los Angeles.

It's not that Sizzler, a division of Sherman Oaks-based Worldwide Restaurant Concepts Inc., is looking to open a new location at the controversial site. Rather, Sizzler has drawn protesters because Worldwide's chairman, Phillip D. Matthews, also serves on the board of Washington Mutual Inc., the Seattle-based bank that wants to develop the 3,050-home project.

A group of opponents called Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch has organized informational pickets at Sizzler restaurants near the project as a way to call attention to Matthews' refusal to meet with them.

The group says it wants the chance to convince Matthews why the development -- located in Ventura County west of the San Fernando Valley -- is a terrible idea.

At the same time, the protesters acknowledge that Matthews makes for a good target. Indeed, the group's director says he has been singled out from among Washington Mutual's 13 directors because he runs a high-profile, consumer-oriented company based in the San Fernando Valley.

"We want his own customers to know about his involvement in a project that is so detrimental to the region," said Chad Griffin, who runs Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

The tactic is drawing mixed reviews from corporate governance experts known for holding directors accountable for a company's actions. Some say it's unfair to link a person's work as an outside board member with what he or she does as a primary occupation.

But others believe that such efforts will put extra pressure on independent directors at a time when their performance is under closer scrutiny.

"I think you will see more of this -- and it won't be a bad thing," said Nell Minow, editor of Web site Corporate Library and the author of several books on corporate governance.

The Sizzler protest, she added, "will make directors consider that there may be broader consequences to their actions and decisions."

If it moves forward, Ahmanson Ranch would be one of the largest housing ventures in Southern California. It has become mired in a decade-long battle over traffic and environmental issues that has pitted the developer against foes that include such Hollywood celebrities as producer-director Rob Reiner and actor Martin Sheen. Washington Mutual acquired the land when it bought Home Savings of America in 1998.

Although Ventura County has approved a revised environmental impact report and the tract map for the first phase of Ahmanson Ranch, officials in Los Angeles and Calabasas -- cities bordering the project -- are seeking to block the development, citing concerns about water and other land-use issues.

In early December, about 50 activists gathered at a Sizzler restaurant in Thousand Oaks, handing out fliers titled "Sizzler's Role in Destroying Our Quality of Life" and urging patrons to call Matthews to voice their concerns. More demonstrations are planned, Griffin said.

Minow said directors of companies should be accessible to community groups such as Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch.

"They should not rely on management for all of their information, and they need to consider other sources like this," Minow said. "What does Matthews have to lose talking to them?"

Matthews did not return repeated calls for comment.

Kim Forster, Worldwide's vice president of strategic planning, said the restaurant chain has not taken a position on Ahmanson Ranch and would not comment on the protests.

Michael Flaherman, chairman of the investment committee at the $132-billion California Public Employees' Retirement System, called the Sizzler protest a "creative" move "by public-policy entrepreneurs who have discovered this as another lever to pull." But he said that because Matthews has separate fiduciary and management duties at the two companies, making such a connection between his roles at Sizzler and Washington Mutual is unwarranted.

Besides chasing away a few customers, gaining a few signatures on a petition and winning some publicity, the Sizzler protest has not had much of an effect on the proposed 2,800-acre housing development. It also has not had any measurable effect on the $267-million restaurant company, which has 322 Sizzler restaurants worldwide and 110 KFC outlets in Australia.

Griffin of Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch says he understands that protests might hurt Sizzler employees, who themselves may object to the Ahmanson Ranch project, but he believes it is the best way to gain a meeting with Matthews.

"This is an informational campaign," Griffin said. "We want employees and customers to confront Mr. Matthews about this issue."

For its part, Washington Mutual seems unconcerned.

"This is too local an issue, and the potential interest beyond the immediately adjacent communities is too limited," bank spokesman Tim McGarry said. "The company believes this is an excellent project, and the board has been very supportive of it," he said. "We are moving forward in a very determined way."

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