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SPECIAL REPORT

A Denver Billionaire's Invisible Hand

Industrialist Philip Anschutz, intensely private and `focused beyond belief,' is quietly changing the face of downtown Los Angeles.

July 23, 2006|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

On a warm summer evening in 2004, Philip Anschutz greeted British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott at the $150-million soccer palace Anschutz had created in Carson.

After settling into a luxury suite to watch the Los Angeles Galaxy battle the San Jose Earthquakes, Prescott asked Anschutz which side he was rooting for.

"He said it didn't matter because he owned the two teams," Prescott recalled in an interview in London. At the time, Anschutz controlled half of the 10 pro soccer franchises in the U.S.

The moment captured Anschutz's trademark approach to investments, which holds that they are to be dominated, not merely owned. That philosophy has made Anschutz an economic force in Los Angeles, as important to the region's future, some say, as the William Mulhollands and Harry Chandlers of the past.

Yet in a city known for its entertainment moguls and industrialists who seek the limelight, Anschutz is intensely private. He is a longtime Denver resident and doesn't even maintain a Los Angeles address.

"Philip Anschutz is sort of like the Wizard of Oz," said Los Angeles economist Jack Kyser. "He is the man behind the curtain pulling the levers. Nobody sees him, yet he has a huge impact on Los Angeles."

In addition to the Home Depot Center in Carson, Anschutz built the $400-million Staples Center, dug a 130-mile oil pipeline from Kern County to Wilmington and is pumping $1.8 billion into a sports and entertainment district in downtown Los Angeles. He also has assembled the nation's largest chain of movie theaters and operates a Hollywood production company that is leading a revival of family-oriented films.

"There isn't a single person in the history of Los Angeles that has put more of his own money into this city," said developer Steve Soboroff, a onetime advisor to former Mayor Richard Riordan. "My feeling is we should rename the Harbor Freeway the Anschutz Freeway."

With an estimated net worth of $7.2 billion, Anschutz ranks No. 28 on Forbes' list of the richest people in America. Over the last four decades, he has amassed a global empire of more than 100 companies, nearly all of them privately held. In addition to oil and gas, real estate, movies and sports, his enterprises are active in railroads, telecommunications, agriculture, live entertainment, art and newspapers.

Preeminent among the firms is Anschutz Entertainment Group, which began operating in Los Angeles in 1995 as Anschutz Properties Co. with the purchase of the bankrupt L.A. Kings hockey team. AEG now has 50 subsidiaries worldwide, 3,000 employees and annual revenues approaching $1 billion. It develops major sports and concert venues in the U.S. and Europe and is the nation's second-largest promoter of live entertainment, with recent tours starring Paul McCartney, Kenny Chesney and Prince.

Acquaintances describe Anschutz, 66, as brilliant, stubborn and compassionate.

"He's deeply religious, a man of high integrity and great character," said Los Angeles Unified schools Supt. Roy Romer, a friend of Anschutz from his three terms as Colorado governor.

Like many aggressive businessmen, Anschutz also has acquired his share of adversaries. His litigation record reveals a sharp-elbowed tycoon willing to pay to make disputes go away and to keep his public image intact.

During the last three decades Anschutz has paid cash settlements -- all of them confidential -- to companies that claimed they were denied their fair share of profits or were done in by deceptive business practices, according to interviews and courthouse documents in California, Colorado and Wyoming.

Among the settlements was a multimillion-dollar award to Mel Gibson, who alleged that the theater chain Anschutz controls cheated the actor's distribution company out of revenue from the hit movie "The Passion of the Christ."

George Ablah, 77, a real estate magnate and fellow native Kansan, prevailed in a legal tussle with Anschutz over a failed oil and gas partnership.

"He is very tough," Ablah said of Anschutz. "He thinks he is God. If you question him in any way, he will cut your legs out from under you.... He is extremely lucky with those tactics. It has worked out very, very well for him."

Anschutz's Denver-based spokesman, Jim Monaghan, declined to discuss the litigation, saying only that the number of suits against Anschutz and his companies is "remarkably small" for such a large organization. He also said that a settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing.

Anschutz shuns publicity and declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this article. According to Monaghan, Anschutz's last extensive on-the-record interview took place in 1974.

Occasionally, Anschutz speaks to the media, but insists on not being quoted. He chatted with this reporter in December at a London movie premiere but insisted that the bland exchange be off the record.

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