The answer to the question “What does a multibillion-dollar farming empire look like?” lies in a spot in the southwestern San Joaquin Valley.
It’s a 10-minute drive from the I-5, just on the other side of Lost Hills, population 2,412. The landscape is remarkably desolate. Gray pistachio and almond orchards line the road; in midwinter, their only color comes from the pink blossoms clinging to warm, denuded branches. There are scattered but dense colonies of nodding oil pumps and, beyond that, parched land that reaches out eternally toward the coastal mountains.
On the aptly named Brown Material Road, there are long, brown hills, high sugarloaf peaks perched with crows stretching for a quarter-mile, fitting neatly enough into the arid valley. Move in closer and you’ll see these hills are actually made of tiny shards from millions and millions of almond and pistachio shells.
Almost all of America’s pistachios and more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California, most passing through a nearby facility owned by Paramount Farms. Last year, it processed more than 500,000 tons of pistachios, a 300 percent increase from 2009.
Paramount is owned by West L.A.’s Roll Global, a $3 billion agribusiness conglomerate headed by Stewart and Lynda Resnick.
The Resnicks are behind the Wonderful brand of snacks, which markets Paramount’s pistachios and almonds, POM pomegranate juice and the Halos clementines produced by Roll’s Paramount Citrus branch. Wonderful will start marketing grapefruit under the name Sweet Scarlets this year.
Their Roll Global holding company is one of the largest privately held agriculture empires in the world. In addition to Paramount, the company’s umbrella covers Fiji Water; flower delivery service Teleflora; organic pesticide company Suterra; the Neptune Pacific Line, a South Pacific shipping firm; and in-house advertising, legal and management consulting practices.
As the sole proprietors of Roll, the Resnicks have an estimated net worth of $3.9 billion, placing them among the top 10 on the Business Journal’s list of wealthiest Angelenos.
Los Angeles boasts its fair share of billionaires, but the self-made Resnicks have an impact on the region that is singularly profound.
Roll is viewed by many as the paragon modern agribusiness, its success fueled by the complementary mix of Stewart and Lynda’s personas. Stewart is a self-made businessman with a gift for intuiting when to enter new industries. In farming, his ability to control all segments of the agricultural food chain is near total. Roll owns everything from the water for its farm land up through the in-store merchandising – a literal soup-to-nuts operation.
But that strategy hinges on Lynda’s marketing acumen. Her focus on flashy, expensive – and not uncontroversial – campaigns single-handedly turned pomegranate juice into a health craze and helped make Cuties clementines the most valuable citrus crop in the country.
In a deeply fragmented agriculture industry, Roll is unapologetically big.
“There’re only three industries where there’s strong leadership positions – clementines, in pistachios and pomegranates,” Stewart likes to say. “And we’re the leader in each one.”
The couple’s influence goes beyond business, placing them among the region’s most generous philanthropists. Together they have given more than $20 million to UCLA, Stewart’s alma mater, funding the school’s neuropsychiatric hospital as well as numerous scientific studies related to health. The Resnicks also created the Sustainable Energy Institute at Caltech.
Lynda is chairwoman of the acquisition committee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to which the couple made a $55 million donation in 2008 for the construction of an art pavilion.
It is for their success in creating a modern agriculture and marketing powerhouse, along with their largesse toward the civic and cultural communities in which they live and work, that the Business Journal named the Resnicks its Business Persons of the Year. They joined the Business Journal’s Hall of Fame at a luncheon March 18 at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles in downtown.
The couple hold court as one of the lynchpins of L.A.’s high society in their ultralavish beaux-arts mansion on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Lynda counts among her friends Laurie David, Arianna Huffington, Walter Isaacson and former Vice President Al Gore.
Sunset House, as it’s called, is gilded with 18th century masterworks. Stewart has a particular fixation on sculpture and once acquired a statue of Napoleon for their foyer that was so heavy they had to insert a steel support beam underneath the house to gird the extra weight.
Resnick gatherings are locally legendary.
“Being invited to a dinner party by Lynda Resnick is like being nominated for an Oscar, only more impressive,” said local publicist Michael Levine. “At my last dinner party, I sat with David Geffen, Steve Martin, Norman Lear, Warren Beatty, Thomas Friedman, Bill Maher, among others.”
Indeed, to their friends, the Resnicks represent a standard of wealth and culture unique to a city as new as Los Angeles.
“We’re still 150 years behind cities like New York when it comes to giving, especially to the arts,” said Michael Govan, LACMA’s chief executive. “What the Resnicks have done here is so incredible. They’re really our version of the Rockefellers.”
If the Resnicks’ mansion is Versailles, then the Roll offices are closer to the Tate Modern, London’s former power plant-turned-art gallery.
From the outside, Teleflora Plaza on Olympic Boulevard looks no different than any other drab, brown Westside edifice.
But its courtyard, ringed by high fences, holds an imposing collection of 20th century sculpture. The theme carries into the building, where the hallways and offices are lined with works by contemporary artists like Herbert Bayer, Frank Stella, Robert McChesney and Stanley Laurence Reckless.
The collection extends to the offices as well. When new executives arrive at Roll, they’re given a catalog of artwork from the Resnicks’ collection and allowed to pick out a few for their offices.
Earlier this year, the couple purchased a pair of works by Pablo Picasso – a 1917 oil painting and a 1919 drawing. Those they’ll keep for themselves.
“Think about it. I mean it’s an amazing story” said Marc Nathanson, the former cable magnate from Falcon Communications and a close friend of the Resnicks. “Here’s Stewart, this Jewish guy from Highland Park, N.J., who became one of the biggest farmers in California.”
A day later, Stewart corrected his friend.
“I’m actually the biggest farmer in the country.”
‘Don’t get me started …’
Unlike many fabulously successful people whose presentation exudes wealth, Stewart is unerringly casual. On the afternoon he spoke with the Business Journal, the billionaire was sporting jeans and a loose button-down shirt.
At 76, his hair is wintry and thinning, but he’s also tanned, athletic and an avid bicyclist.
Lynda abhors the biking; he’s fallen before and broken ribs and his clavicle.
“Oh please, don’t get me started,” she moaned.
Very much the L.A. businessman, the only thing that tips off his underlying wealth is a pair of clear-rimmed glasses that might have been borrowed from Andy Warhol. It wouldn’t be his first Warhol.
Stewart, who has long had a frosty relationship with the media, very rarely gives on-the-record interviews. Speaking in Roll’s conference room, surrounded by bottles of POM and Fiji water, a bowl of Halos at the center of the table, he complained that a lot of false things had been written about him and Lynda in the past. And besides, who needs the headache?
“Business is not an ego trip,” he said. Although Stewart’s lived in California for more than 50 years, he’s retained the percussive New Jersey accent. “I get satisfaction when I do good deeds and make money. Being written about doesn’t give me satisfaction.”
But throughout an hourlong chat, the father of five and grandfather of four was engaged, convivial and – a trait that many friends are quick to point out – funny.
“Stewart is a riot,” said Andy Clare, an attorney at Loeb & Loeb and Stewart’s biking companion. “Once he’s comfortable with people, he can be a funny guy.”
Stewart is proud to say that his story is unique to Los Angeles.
He came in the late 1950s to attend UCLA, staying through to get a law degree. While a student, he started a janitorial service, offering toilet cleaning and window washing to businesses. By the time he graduated in 1962, it had hundreds of employees.
Stewart later sold the company for $2.5 million and bought a security firm, American Protection Industries.
The company offered armed guards and a burglar alarm service, which was good business during the turbulence of riot-stricken 1960s Los Angeles. By the mid-’80s, API had become the largest installer of burglar alarms in the country.
In explaining Stewart’s quick, early rise to success, friends quickly point to an almost preternatural ability to grasp new concepts.
Nathanson remembered a day when he and his wife, Jane, invited Stewart and Lynda over for bridge. Stewart had never played – it’s a devilishly complex game of dealing and bidding – yet by the end of the afternoon, Nathanson was stunned by how quickly his friend had mastered it.
“Bridge is not a very simple game. It’s not like hearts or poker,” Nathanson said. “To be a quick study and have vision in the way that he does, I’d never seen anything like it. He has an amazing focus.”
That vision was apparent in API’s forays outside the security business.
In 1979, it bought Teleflora, a struggling flower-delivery service that was running a distant second to rival FTD, a co-op owned by florists around the country.
A second foray was investing in some land in the West San Joaquin Valley that Texaco and Mobil Oil were offloading in the mid-’80s. There were some nut groves there already, but the ground was also deeply abused from years of oil drilling.
Stewart saw the move as little more than a hedge against inflation.
“It was going to be a passive investment,” he said. “But then it became something I thought I could apply business principles to. And then we hit some pretty good timing.”
Striking a few deals in the valley, the company suddenly found itself with a supply of nearly 100,000 acres of nut trees. What it needed to create was demand.
“The banner of our company and the thing that ties everything together is transparency,” Lynda proclaimed. “We’re on this planet for a reason and it’s not to make it worse.”
She spoke to the Business Journal from her office – an impeccably appointed corner office with midcentury furniture, modernist paintings and a wide view of the San Gabriel Mountains.
A muckraking book about the wealthy families in Los Angeles once labeled Lynda and Stewart “vulgarians” with garish tastes. When asked about it, she gestured to the room’s pricey accoutrements, her bracelets jangling, followed by a “whatever” shrug.
“I’m pretty secure about my taste,” she said.
Like Stewart, Lynda has a smallish stature, a sly verbal patter and a tendency to punctuate jokes with a quippy, “Ya think?”
Unlike Stewart, that persona is hitched to a deep and abiding love affair with the media.
“Lynda has an incredible capacity with intimacy and friendship,” said close friend Arianna Huffington. “She’s someone I turned to in difficult moments in my life.”
Stewart might represent Roll’s capitalistic virtuosity, but Lynda endeavors to be its human face.
She greets with a soft handshake and flirtatious wink. With eyes, brown and sharp, and eyelashes, tastefully mascaraed, she presents a face that’s well-suited for a hostess of L.A.’s high-minded salons.
Her voice seamlessly goes from an expressive whisper to a girlish laugh, and she has a politician’s ability to make it sound like what she’s saying is the most important, personal thing you’ll hear.
Agriculture, Lynda explained, “is a wonderful business to be in because people have to eat.” Then without missing a beat, she pushes forward a plate of cookies from Roll’s cafeteria, “Eat, darling.”
Born Lynda Harris in Baltimore, she grew up in Philadelphia and came out to California with her family as a teenager in the 1950s. Her father, Jack, was a movie distributor and produced 1958’s alien invasion classic “The Blob.” He’s now 95 and working on a remake of the movie.
Lynda’s original plan was to become an artist, but after her father refused to pay for school, she enrolled at Santa Monica Community College.
She dropped out at 19 – “it was one miserable year” – and went into advertising; in high school, she had drawn cartoony print advertisements for a local dress shop.
That business soon turned into a full-fledged advertising agency and by 24 she had more than a dozen employees with billings in the millions.
“I’ve always been very secure about business,” she said. “I may have insecurities of ‘Do I look fat in this dress?’ but I’ve never had insecurities about my ability to work.”
This time of her life was not without challenges, though. Divorced from her first husband, she was supporting two sons from the marriage. Complicating matters was a post-divorce relationship she had with a man who was close to Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg, who had worked for the Defense Department and Rand Corp., asked to borrow her office photocopier on nights and weekends because he wanted to keep his copying activity unknown to his employer. Ellsberg’s leaks found their way to the New York Times as the Pentagon Papers, and resulted in what Lynda said was a two-year period of being in and out of court – she was considered an unindicted co-conspirator – that ended only when the case against Ellsberg was dropped.
On the rebound from that episode, she was introduced to a rising businessman who was in the janitorial business. She went to his office to pitch her agency.
“I lost the account,” Lynda has mentioned in multiple interviews, as well in “Rubies in the Orchard,” her 2008 marketing memoir. “But I sure got the business.”
Not long after they married in 1972 – Stewart had three children from a previous marriage – they moved into Sunset House. They now have four grandchildren.
Their first venture together was reviving Teleflora. As Lynda recounts in “Rubies,” the company at the time was dwarfed by FTD’s massive florist network. Her plan to lure flower shops away from FTD and have customers think of Teleflora was to offer a special perk with each delivery. One that would give lasting value to gifts with a finite lifespan.
The company began adding collectible vases to each flower delivery and launched a massive ad campaign. It caught on, and over the next 20 years, Teleflora’s network grew from 7,000 sellers to 21,000. By 2008, it had surpassed FTD, which the company later unsuccessfully tried to acquire.
That strategy was later applied to another property, the Franklin Mint, a Wawa, Pa., direct marketer of an array of collectibles, such as coins, dolls and other memorabilia.
Franklin began focusing on collectible tchotchkes under Lynda and Stewart’s leadership – die-cast cars and Scarlett O’Hara dolls – calling them certified replicas and selling at a steep markup. It cut costs by outsourcing much of the manufacturing to China.
At its most outlandish, the Franklin strategy led Lynda to bid more than $200,000 at auction for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ fake pearl necklace. The company then used it to sell knockoffs of the necklace, complete with certificate of authenticity, for $200 a pop. In her memoir, Lynda said the string of ersatz jewelry sold 130,000 copies, minting the company a cool $26 million.
Brazen marketing also had its downside. Franklin began selling Princess Diana dolls and commemorative plates soon after her death in 1997. The princess’s estate and charitable fund sued Franklin, referring to Lynda and Stewart in the court documents as “vultures feeding on the dead.”
The estate lost the case. Franklin countersued and won, giving the resulting settlement of $25 million to charity.
Changing tastes and the rise of eBay led to a drop-off in sales and Roll in 2006 sold Franklin to a group of private investors.
“We rode a crest of excitement for a long time. We really did well,” said Lynda, who conceded that ultimately the industry of selling cheap collectibles was never going to last. “The thing you have to learn is you have to be in a business that has a good model.”
‘Everybody has to eat’
Agriculture, especially in California, is a highly specialized industry, with the growers, distributors and marketers largely operating independently of each other.
Historically, the arrangements among these parties are contract based. But the shift in modern agriculture has favored companies that are vertically integrated and can market their product as more than a bulk good.
“There’s no effective way to compete on price if you’re a commodity,” said Rich Sexton, chair of the agriculture department at UC Davis. “If you want to charge a premium price and not be subject to this ruthless competition, then you’ve got to come in and make yourself different.”
Paramount might be one of the most vertically integrated companies in modern agriculture. Stewart proudly explained the structure for his pistachios business, counting off each step of the virtuous circle on his fingers:
“We take them from nursery, we plant, we farm, we harvest, we process, we package, we ship, we merchandise, we advertise and then we collect the money.”
Indeed, even those zeitgeist-chasing commercials for Wonderful Pistachios are done on the third floor of Teleflora Plaza.
It’s a break from the traditional model, where the marketing of commodities traditionally has been done by cooperatives or product-specific commissions, with individual growers pooling their money as they try to buy consumer attention. Think of the ads for California avocados or the talking California cows.
Stewart, to put it mildly, does not think highly of commissions. He made it a personal quest to dismantle the California Pistachio Council, a feat he achieved in 2007.
“Farmers put together a commission so that they can market their product, then the farmers get on the board and they tell people how to market the product that they didn’t know how sell in the first place,” he scoffed. “It’s just like the government: totally inefficient.”
That attitude rankled some of the smaller growers, embroiling Roll in lawsuits during Stewart’s war with the council.
But Stewart argues that the rising tide from a dominant brand lifts all ships. When a crop is made up of handfuls of faceless growers, the marketing task becomes infinitely more difficult.
“When’s the last time you saw an ad for Brussels sprouts?” he quipped.
Paramount boasts that it’s responsible for getting pistachios ranked among the top 10 most consumed salty snacks in the country. The company owns 60 percent of that market; Stewart’s case is that Wonderful’s ad campaign, including Super Bowl spots with South Korean pop star Psy and comedian Stephen Colbert, was a near act of charity for all the other growers.
“Was it hard getting (pistachios) to that place? Well, we spent $50 million marketing and merchandising the nuts last year. I’d say it was $50 million hard,” he said.
But the rise in pistachio sales can also be attributed to factors unrelated to marketing. The United States is one of two countries that grows pistachios. The other is Iran, and sanctions against that country, including a 2010 U.S. ban on the import of Iranian pistachios, has been a boon to all domestic growers. That’s been coupled with a dramatic increase in pistachio consumption in Asian markets. Tapping Psy was more than just a pop-culture play for American audiences.
As with Franklin Mint, aggressive marketing has also caused Paramount to make enemies. With POM, that enemy has been the government.
When the company entered the pomegranate business more than a decade ago, it sold POM Wonderful as refrigerated, 100 percent juice so as not to dilute its supposed curative properties.
The science behind these beliefs is, at best, unclear. The Resnicks have funded studies at multiple universities, including the Technion in Israel and at UCLA, which subsequently published studies hailing the fruit’s high concentration of antioxidants. These nutrients have been linked to any number of benefits, such as lowered cholesterol and anti-carcinogenic properties.
Giddy off these findings, the company rolled out a billboard campaign featuring the bulbous POM bottle over a hangman’s noose underneath the words “Cheat Death.” Other ads purported that POM can help fight prostate cancer, heart disease and erectile dysfunction.
The Federal Trade Commission was unimpressed with the studies, and even less so POM’s miracle claims. It censured Roll and demanded the company pull the ads.
What followed has been a protracted legal fight and bitter exchange of words, with POM claiming its ads fall under First Amendment protection.
The dispute is ongoing, with a hearing scheduled in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in May. In a recent filing, the FTC bluntly maintained that POM “had not substantiated any of its disease claims with positive results from even one well-controlled clinical trial.” It went on: “That was not for want of trying.”
Lynda is not one to tread lightly on the miracle nature of her products. She and Stewart drink a bottle of the juice and take a pill of pomegranate supplements every day.
“All I know is that my bone density has gone up 25 percent in the last seven years, and I’m an old lady and that is not what happens to bone density,” she said, incredulously. “I assume it’s the Fiji, Stewart says it’s the POM. You figure it out.”
But her charm offensive grows cold when the topic of POM’s legal battle is broached. More than any other product, POM is her baby (she’s called herself the POM queen) and the FTC’s censure is one she takes personally.
“It was unfair. It was really unfair,” her voice growing quiet.
The recrimination between the Resnicks and the outside world might be ripest in the battle over Cuties.
Berne Evans III, founder of Pasadena’s Sun Pacific, first brought the Spanish-origin clementines to California in the mid-’90s.
Knowing that he needed to reach scale with the new fruit, he reached out to Stewart to get access to the acres of Paramount Citrus land.
“It looked like it was going to hit and I wanted to have the supply to go big time. I guessed right for once in my life,” Evans chuckled.
As their contract stipulated, the two would be co-owners of the new citrus brand, with each planting roughly the same number of acres. Sun Pacific would do all the packing and distribution while Paramount Citrus handled the marking.
It takes clementine trees seven years to go from planting to bearing fruit, and in the intervening years, Paramount went about creating a brand. The now-accepted story is that while in a brainstorming session, Lynda held one of the little oranges in her hands and remarked out loud that it looked “cute.”
The marketing campaign for the sweet, easy-to-peel fruit would be directed at kids, and adopted the tagline “Kids love Cuties because Cuties are made for kids.” The boxes featured a smiling clementine unzipping its peel.
The fruit was an almost immediate hit when it hit produce sections across the West Coast in 2005.
A sack of Cuties retails for between $5 and $9, higher by weight than the cost of most bulk citrus. Paramount offered a consistent product, created at scale and charged at a markup – small fruit as a symbol for modern agriculture.
“People were going into the store and asking for it by brand name,” said UC Davis’ Sexton. “That’s the produce version of hitting the jackpot.”
In the 2011-12 growing season, 75 million pounds of Cuties were packaged in Sun Pacific’s facility, according to the Wall Street Journal. Today, based on the value of the fruit it produces, the land where Cuties are grown is, acre for acre, the most valuable farmland in the country.
But the partners have sharply contrasting takes on why, exactly, the tiny citrus became such a hit.
The Roll people point to the marketing, including TV commercials and a social media blitz.
“You gotta promote it and make sure you have good product and good service,” Stewart said. “(Evans) was a commodity guy and he couldn’t understand what you’ve got to do.”
Evans attributed Cuties’ success to Sun Pacific’s in-store demos and the company’s far-reaching distribution network.
Whatever the engine behind its success, the partnership officially went sour in 2011 when Roll presented its new advertising budget. Sun Pacific initially balked at the amount and Evans hired an outside consultant that he said proved the money spent on TV marketing was slicing into its profits.
The feuding over budgets eventually reached an impasse. Paramount filed suit against Sun Pacific and the case eventually went into arbitration, where a judge dissolved the partnership.
Roll has since partnered with another grower, giving it control over 60 percent of the clementine market. Last fall, its unveiled Halos, a new brand bolstered by a five-year, $100 million marketing campaign. Halos boxes look nearly identical to Cuties, and the two sit uncomfortably side by side in the produce aisle.
Stewart said the push is already working. Even though Halos and Cuties are virtually identical in packaging, he claims his fruits are outselling his erstwhile partner’s 3-1.
“By next year, you won’t even see Cuties,” he flatly predicted.
But later, Stewart changed his tone a bit, backing off the bluster and becoming almost somber.
“It’s something that if …” he paused to choose his words carefully. “It would have been better for both of us had we both been focused on the same ideas to stay together. But we didn’t, so here we are.”
Speaking with Evans now, any chance of reconciliation seems long gone. Not only does he disagree with Stewart’s sales claims – “How does he know how many we’ve sold?” – he said he was willing to go along with Roll’s marketing blitz.
In his version, Roll broke it off because the company wanted to take control of packaging operations. Last year, Paramount unveiled a massive $220 million Halos facility in Delano that can handle 25 percent more capacity than Sun Pacific’s plant.
Simply put, Evans believes, Stewart could not abide by a partnership that interfered with his quest to keep things vertically integrated.
“He wanted to end the deal and take over sales, which we had a contract on,” Evans scowled. “It was just a power play.”
Evans, who’s been in the citrus industry for more than 30 years, bears all the marks of an embittered ex-partner. It’s worth noting that when a previous deal Sun Pacific had with Sunkist went bad in the late ’90s, there was similar vitriol.
Still, he claims the ag world has grown increasingly disaffected with the fancy L.A. entrepreneur.
“He’s not even that good of an operator,” Evans said. “He’s just a Beverly Hills businessman with a lot of lawyers.”
The opinions of jilted partners aside, the Resnicks do have a lot of lawyers. Roll Law Group has its own floor in Teleflora Plaza (vertical integration) and has become an increasingly important part of the company’s strategy. Beyond just the high-profile litigation the company has been involved with, such as Cuties or the FTC-POM fracas, it’s also used lawsuits to fiercely protect its interests.
In 2006, Roll sued the California Pistachio Council, claiming it shouldn’t be required to contribute to the commission’s advertising campaigns. A few years later, Paramount Citrus was embroiled in a fight with Fresno County citrus growers over honey bees. It claimed the bees that had been brought over to pollinate other orange crops were unintentionally cross-pollinating the two varieties of clementines, causing the trees to bear fruit with a massive amount of seeds. That dilemma was resolved by placing protective nets around the clementine trees, mercifully stopping a case that could have seen Roll charging other growers’ bees with trespassing.
But like all matters in the Central Valley, things inevitably come down to water.
Through a subsidiary called Westside Mutual Water Co., Roll owns a majority stake in the Kern Water Bank, a series of pools, aqueducts and underground pipes in Kern County that holds water reserves. The company makes deposits in the bank by purchasing excess water from state and federal agencies and storing it.
With a capacity of more than 490 billion gallons, the bank is the largest of its kind in the country, holding enough water to serve the city of Los Angeles for almost two years.
The facility was started by the state government but then abandoned. Through a court arrangement, ownership was transferred to Roll plus a handful of water districts, allowing a newly created Kern Water Authority to finish the project.
While its paper value is a modest $260 million, the authority’s real value to the Resnicks’ empire comes from its ability to act as a second source to irrigate their 120,000 acres of farm land. Several parties have contended that the water bank alone has allowed the company to expand massively into a part of the valley that otherwise doesn’t receive much rainfall.
Four years ago, a pair of environmental groups sued Kern Water Authority, the bank’s operator, accusing the group of illegally selling banked water back to the state at a profit.
Stewart bristles at the accusations that have come out during the myriad lawsuits about the water bank.
“There’s quite a bit of (misinformation) out there about it,” Stewart said, using a different word. “If I controlled half the water they said I did, I wouldn’t even have to work.”
Like anyone else in the agriculture industry, he’s concerned by the ongoing drought, but admittedly not as much.
“Look, if we don’t get any rain anymore in California there’s going to be a lot of problems,” he said, then smiled, adding, “We’ll have one of the very minor problems compared to the rest.”
The Resnicks are keenly aware of the enemies they’ve made while building Roll.
At one point while discussing her social activities, Lynda interrupts herself: “I’m interested to know who you talked to for this story,” she said, her eyes bright and inquisitive, her tone coy. “Did you talk to anyone that hates us?”
But far from living in a bubble of self-denial, they’re practiced at deflecting anger. And they rarely ignore it.
Never is that more apparent than with Fiji Water, the luxury brand of artesian water that’s shipped in the recognizable square bottles.
To some, drinking a natural resource that’s pumped from an aquifer in an impoverished island nation and shipped across the globe is the height of crass capitalism. The outrage was compounded in 2006 when the Fijian government was overthrown and a military junta instituted a brutal authoritarian regime.
But the Resnicks say they have addressed some of the complaints. For nearly 10 years, Roll has purchased carbon offsets to combat the emissions from shipping the bottles. It donated $5 million to save a rain forest on the island from logging. And Fiji Water is that country’s second largest taxpayer. Pulling out because of the political situation, they contend, would do far more harm than good.
Where one falls in that argument might come down to how one views the new era of the “socially conscious corporation.”
“Sixteen bottles of Fiji Water equals one steak, my darling,” Lynda purrs. “So eat your steak tonight knowing that you’re doing more harm to the environment than drinking 16 bottles of Fiji Water. But nobody wants to know that. They’d much rather hate us for bottled water.”
But friends say the Resnicks’ indifference to their critics belies how much some of it cuts.
“They’re wealthy and a target, but it definitely affects them,” LACMA’s Govan said. “Ultimately, they’re human beings. Wouldn’t you be hurt if people say mean things about you?”
Lynda serves as vice chair of the LACMA board, a reflection of both the Resnicks’ largesse (the pavilion that bears their name was funded in large part by a $55 million gift from the couple) as well as their standing in L.A. society.
It is a position that has also led to a frosty relationship with Eli Broad, the arts patron and philanthropist who has for years held one of the top spots on the list of wealthiest Angelenos.
The two served on the search committee that tapped Govan executive director.
“Eli and I were running the search committee together, but I had to resign. I couldn’t work with him, basically,” Lynda told Vanity Fair in 2012.
She was also a strong advocate for the proposed merger of LACMA and Museum of Contemporary Art when the latter fell into financial trouble a few years ago. Broad, a lifetime LACMA trustee, is also founding chairman of MOCA and was an advocate of its preservation as an independent institution.
In recent years, Lynda has been shifting her attention toward philanthropic works, with a focus on the Central Valley.
She recently launched a charter school program called Paramount Academy to train high school students in agriculture technology. Students graduating from the academy leave high school with an associate’s degree and, she said, a near-guaranteed job working for Paramount.
So far, the program has been established in four schools across the Central Valley and is committed to more.
This is on top of a school grant program Roll has been running, which gives up to $10,000 to area schools to help purchase supplies.
The crown jewel of her philanthropic work is in Lost Hills. She was in town at the beginning of the year to inaugurate the restored Paramount Park. In total, the company has poured $12 million into the town.
Friends said Lynda has embraced this turn with her typical obsessive commitment.
“The philanthropy is not a kind of detached theocratic large contribution,” said Huffington. “Lynda treats these projects like she does her own children.”
It’s the mix of self-awareness and indifference that marks much of her and Stewart’s ambitions.
They make no apologies for living in one of the city’s most luxurious mansions, hobnobbing with Hollywood studio heads and public intellectuals, all while reigning over the state’s most powerful agricultural empire.
Yet they want to be known for much more.
In Stewart’s speech during the dedication of the Resnick pavilion at LACMA, he looked across the street to Park La Brea. It was the site where his janitorial company got its first contract.
“It took 50 years, but I was finally able to cross that street,” Govan remembered him saying.
“I feel a real allegiance to L.A.; it’s been good to me,” Stewart said from his office at Roll. “I started by washing windows, cleaning toilets. I couldn’t have done this anyplace else.”
Finally, Lynda believes, she has arrived at philanthropy. It’s a synthesis of what she’s learned from marketing, but applied to something she hopes will last.
“I used to pray for an answer, I used to pray for divine intervention that I would find out why are we here,” she said. “Success in business has given me the leverage to do my work and this is my work.”
They’re public figures running a very private company. They shun attention but have hospitals and art wings named for them.
The Resnicks manage every aspect of their businesses’ workings, preferring to cut out middlemen whenever possible. But in philanthropy, they can be remarkably hands off.
Of all the things Resnicks have done for LACMA, what has impressed Govan most was their unfaltering trust during the development of their building.
“In the art world, we hear so much about donors having lots of strings attached,” he said. “But Lynda told me, ‘Once we decided to give the money, the next time we show up will be for the opening.’”
Although Lynda’s work with the Paramount Academy has been going on for some time, she’s declined to speak about it publicly previously. She worries that her critics will write it off as an image-polishing campaign by a controversial couple.
“You know what they would say? ‘Oh, well, she’s just doing that just to cover up for whatever.’ And that would hurt me.”
She paused for a beat and quickly added, “When it’s a huge success, then sure. Then they’ll probably make a film or documentary about it.”