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Trying to make room for polar bears

The founder of Oakwood apartments hopes his images from the Arctic spur others to fight global warming.

July 15, 2007|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Howard Ruby built a $600-million company, married a movie star and taught himself to be a master photographer. He has one more item to check off his to-do list: Save the planet.

The 72-year-old founder of Oakwood Worldwide, the largest provider of furnished apartments, is determined to do everything he can to stop global warming, and he thinks he has the means and the know-how to make a dent in the problem.

"It's my megalomaniacal goal," Ruby says with a laugh. "Maybe I can do something socially responsible."

Upping the "green" quotient of the 25,000 apartments his company manages will be part of practicing what he preaches, but the real push will come through an education program of Ruby's design that is aimed at young people.

"We've got to get children to tell their parents" about what they can do to reduce greenhouse gases, he says. "They can do it. My children stopped me from smoking."

Ruby founded Los Angeles-based Oakwood Apartments in 1969 and went on to create an international empire of furnished units rented by business travelers and others who need short-term housing. Among the early investors were trumpeter Herb Alpert and his recording business partner, Jerry Ross, who founded A&M Records in a Hollywood garage. The pair put profit from early Tijuana Brass albums into Oakwood.

At its peak, Oakwood held 40,000 units. About 10,000 units were sold for $1.4 billion to Archstone-Smith Trust in 2005, but Oakwood still manages many of those.

Ruby's passion for tempering global warming is the result of an epiphany he had while on a photography expedition in Hudson Bay and subsequent trips to the Arctic. He documented ice melting in gargantuan blocks and polar bears struggling to find food as their habitat disappeared.

"The polar bear is really the canary in the coal mine for global warming," Ruby says. "If we don't take steps now to reduce greenhouse gases and slow down the warming trend, we will lose them."

Ruby "keeps reinventing himself" and isn't afraid to jump into new fields where he isn't an expert, his wife, Yvette Mimieux, says. "He's willing to put himself at square-one vulnerable. He gets excited about things in a way people half his age have long since forgotten."

Mimieux, who starred in such hit movies as "Where the Boys Are" and "Toys in the Attic" in the 1960s, has been married to Ruby since 1986 and has accompanied him on many of his polar photography expeditions.

Ruby has no interest in debating the existence of global warming.

"You can sit around and poke holes or you can get to work," he says. "We ignore detractors and move on. It always feels better to do something."

What Ruby did was return repeatedly to the Arctic with his photography equipment. Although he is slowly losing his vision to a degenerative eye disease, Ruby is able to see clearly through a camera lens.

He's taken hundreds of pictures of polar bears and reproduced the pictures on calendars, a website and trading cards that he hopes children will collect.

"The endearing empathy of mother with her cubs may put people in a frame of mind to save energy and recycle," he says.

In most of the pictures, the big, white animals look cuddly, frolicking in the snow. Baby bears nuzzle their mothers, the image of natural bliss. But in others, lonely looking adult animals pad across melting ice floes apparently in search of food. Ice floes are crucial to the bears' mating and hunting practices, such as catching seals when they pop up to breathe through holes in the ice.

Ruby hopes the polar bear will become the symbol of the fight against global warming, much as the panda is the icon for the conservation works of World Wildlife Fund or Smokey Bear reminds people to prevent forest fires.

The polar bear trading cards with conservation tips on the back have already been passed out in Santa Barbara elementary schools as part of Earth Day observances, and Ruby has made them and other items such as bookmarks and school lesson plans available to a wider audience through his Global Warming Crusade website.

When Ruby saw bears in distress, "It really shook him," says his friend Larry Flax, a co-founder of California Pizza Kitchen Inc. "This is one of the major issues of our lifetime, and Howard is beginning to be one of the world-class contributors at focusing on it."

At Oakwood, Ruby has implemented a $2-million program to reduce the corporation's production of greenhouse gases by 35% in 10 years. The company is striving to improve recycling efforts, purchase environmentally friendly products and switch to more energy-efficient washers, dryers, air conditioning units, lighting and hot water systems.

Future programs may include installing photovoltaic solar heat and weather-controlled irrigation systems tracked by satellite that would reduce water consumption and runoff.

Oakwood will save a lot of money by making such improvements, says Los Angeles real estate and environmental consultant Charles Lockwood.

"The savings in his properties can be substantial and also bring the message of environmental sustainability to a huge audience," Lockwood says. "They'll realize it can be done without a big impact on their lives. It's a terrific educational model for other mass-produced-building owners."



Begin text of infobox

A doer

Who: Howard Ruby

Age: 72

Occupation: Chairman, Oakwood Worldwide

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School

Career highlights: Created Oakwood brand of "extended stay" apartments, helped found National Multi-Housing Council trade group.

Personal: Married to actress Yvette Mimieux, lives in West Los Angeles.

Hobbies: Photography, travel

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