By DANIEL TAUB
What's the surest route to big riches in Los Angeles? There actually are several, and they tend to mirror the local engines of economic growth.
Many of the richest people in Los Angeles made their money by being successful in entertainment, technology, real estate and finance.
For David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Merv Griffin, it was Hollywood. For Aubrey Chernick, it was software. The Roski and Watson families did it in real estate; Gary Winnick found fortune in finance.
But aside from those billionaires and multi-centimillionaires, many others are pulling down six- and seven-figure salaries in those same industries.
Perhaps the riskiest of these roads is technology. Although it has produced a large number of millionaires quickly, such as Sky Dayton of EarthLink Network Inc., it's also the industry undergoing the most change. Companies are merging witness the recent acquisition of Digital Planet by iXL-Los Angeles others are struggling to survive, and still others are eyeing public offerings.
"Really, anything can happen," said Bill Manassero, executive director of the Software Council of Southern California. "And a lot of people are buying into this industry who have not been in it in the past. Right now it is too much of a Wild West frontier."
Manassero said the volatile nature of technology makes it difficult to predict which sectors will succeed in the long run. He had once written off pen-based computers, he said, but the recent success of the Palm III and other pen-based computer organizers have proved him wrong. "I don't laugh off anyone's idea at this point," he said.
Some sectors provide more obvious prospects, such as biotechnology, where Alfred E. Mann, one of L.A.'s 50 wealthiest people, made his fortune.
Those traveling a more perilous path are developers of Internet search engines and content. Even Microsoft Corp. pulled the plug on its fledgling L.A.-area venture to develop Internet content in conjunction with the Hollywood studios. And, Manassero said, there is little room for a new Internet search engine. "Obviously if someone were to call me right now and tell me they're considering investing in a search directory, I'd say run the other way. There are some markets that are saturated," he said.
Another industry where potential riches abound is real estate, which is currently in a strong upcycle. L.A.-based real estate investment trusts like Kilroy Realty Corp., Arden Realty Inc., and Alexander Haagen Properties Inc. have made some of their early investors rich, but don't expect REITs to be a lucrative path to riches in the years ahead.
"The volume of new (REIT) formations has slowed," said Kenneth H. Townsend, managing partner of the L.A. office of E & Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group. "That's because the prime portfolios have been taken public, or decided to remain private. We've already had decisions made by the holders of the prime portfolios. So you're not going to see many more prime portfolios go public."
Townsend said the success stories over the next few years will be those who develop top-quality properties to satisfy demand in prime locations, and without taking on a lot of debt.
"To me, the future millionaires are going to make their money the old-fashioned way by generating properties that are on the right side of the street, are the right color, and can meet the demands of what is already a very strong market," he said.
One of the strongest and most perilous roads to riches in L.A. has been entertainment, and that is unlikely to change. The industry is as dynamic as ever, with digital TV being introduced, more foreign markets opening, TV converging with computers, and foreign broadcast media being privatized. While these represent more potential channels for Hollywood programming, that situation may change. Many foreign markets such as mainland China are developing their own sophisticated production infrastructure and talent, and foreign audiences are increasingly wanting indigenous programming, said entertainment adviser David Davis of Century City investment bank Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. "I think that's going to be a challenge" for local entertainment companies, he said.
The entertainment niche where Angelenos are making the most money is TV syndication, especially for shows like "Seinfeld," "Home Improvement," "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill." "The top-end sitcoms are just incredible," Davis said. "Hundreds of millions of dollars are made for different people talent, producers."
Yet another well-traveled road to wealth in L.A. is finance a safer pursuit, many believe, than technology, real estate or show business. Leveraged buyouts, initial public offerings, and mergers and acquisitions have been transacted at a frenetic pace in recent years, and that pace is expected to continue for awhile longer, providing riches to those who broker the deals.
"If I look back on it, decade by decade, I don't see a lot of difference," said Tom Weinberger, executive vice president of West L.A.-based Sutro & Co. "The volatility people talk about today is no different than the volatility of the '50s, the '60s, the '70s or the '80s."
One industry that will continue to be the focus of big deals is health care especially health maintenance organizations, which will continue their wave of consolidations, said Michael Dwyer, principal and managing director of consulting firm BDO Seidman LLP.
Financiers who can help health care companies consolidate and become more efficient will be the big winners in the years ahead.
"If you look at who's done well in health care, it's the people consulting the health care industry law firms, investment bankers, accounting firms, even boutique consulting companies," Dwyer said.
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