Question: Could you ever have imagined that you would be leading twin careers at this stage in your life?
Answer: Absolutely not, but my life has taken so many sharp right turns over the year, that I guess it's not a surprise that my life is so different, and fulfilling, as it is. And it's not that I only go where life leads me. I have goals.
A: I approach life reaching for goals. I go from one goal, to another goal, because I believe that eating the fox is one of the worst things you can do.
Q: What do you mean by that?
A: When you tree a fox, do you eat him? No, you let him go and start running again. The thrill is the chase, isn't it? Our company, for example, is chasing $1 billion in revenue a year, and we expect to get there in two years. We expect to be a truly international company, so we can take care of a client's housing needs wherever they need us. Be a total solution for companies as the world goes global.
Q: Are any of your original partners at Oakwood still involved with the business?
A: No, just me, but we are one of the oldest and largest companies in the country where an original owner is still involved. The sale of the physical properties a few years ago was a way for investors to exit. We had accumulated 40 partnerships over the years with 500 individuals. So through the lease back we manage 4,400 properties directly, and another 4,000 from our affiliate network.
Q: What is your work schedule like these days?
A: I probably work around 50 hours a week. Then I take about two months off a year, mostly vacations that last about seven to 10 days. And I wouldn't want to have one without the other.
Q: What else is going on with Oakwood, aside from the environmental initiative?
A: In addition to our global expansion, here at home there's this growing population of baby boomer grandparents who don't live near the grandkids, and don't necessarily want to stay with their kids while visiting. They typically stay in an extended stay or regular hotel, but we're launching a marketing campaign about the advantages of getting an apartment this is a unit that's twice as big and half the price. I call it the medium-term stay, baby-boomer vacation market.
Q: How many years have you been interested in photography?
A: My first camera was a brownie box camera from Kodak. I took pictures of the kids at my junior high school and sold them. That was one of my first businesses. I'd shoot the football players, and they'd carry them around like baseball cards. So maybe I'm getting back to my roots here, though instead of football players, it's polar bears. All the advances in digital photography have made it much more fun.
Q: Did you ever take any formal training in photography?
A: Well, I did take a one-week course in Yosemite from Ansel Adams 40 years ago. But I've had somewhat of an eye for it all my life. I've gotten so interested in it now, because of what I can do with digital, that I don't mind dropping all of my other hobbies, like golfing and skiing and tennis. I put the time into wildlife photography. That's my vacation.
Q: Ever tempted to go into photography full time?
A: No, no, no. For a businessman, I'm a wonderful photographer. But full-time, among 10,000 other photographers, some of whom are much more talented than I, no. Especially when there's so much competition these days from consumer pros, businessmen and professionals like me who can afford the good equipment and have some talent. They're just shredding the pricing for the people who do it for a living, because they're glad to see something published even for free. But having a purpose for my photography; that's been the real thrill.
Q: To what extent has your photography kept you interested in running the business after all these years? A lot of people in your situation might be tempted to start taking it easy.
A: And spend time in Palm Springs. But not me. My role model for that is Kirk Kerkorian, who is pushing 90 and still doing the big deals. My company and my photography feed off each other. I had an outdoor show for Santa Barbara's Earth Day, but my office is my exhibit hall. Thousands of people get to see my photos through my work in the global warming movement and my Web site.
Q: When did you first become aware of the global warming problem and its effects on polar bears?
A: Three years ago, when I made my first trip to Hudson Bay. I was taking photographs of the polar bears, and became quite enamored of them for their humanlike qualities. I began looking into the whole global warming phenomenon, maybe three years ahead of many of my compatriots, but still 20 years later than some people. I believe the polar bear is like the yellow canary in a mine shaft, sort of an early indicator of big problems for the rest of the world. As a metaphor, they are a powerful symbol of global warming.
Q: I notice that one of your two dogs even looks like a small polar bear.
A: That's Pal, he's a Somayan. He goes to work with me every day and is he's sort of the office mascot. He's also a great politician. Pal can go into an event and work a crowd of 30 or 40 people better than I can.
Q: Since it was your first trip to the Arctic, how did you know that things had changed so much?
A: From what my guides would tell me about how much later in the year it took before the bears could go out on the ice, and how much sooner the ice would start to melt each year. I'm a pragmatic businessman, so when the boat captains, the helicopter pilots who have been out there for years tell me how things have changed, I put more faith in that than in what 50 scientists say. So I did my research. And when people like Kirk Kerkorian, who know what the Arctic used to look like, see my work they are shocked.
Q: So maybe you're turning Kerkorian into a greenie?
A: You never know. He's a good friend of my wife's, and we get together for dinner. He flew in the civilian air command over Greenland to England, during the lend-lease days before World War II. After dinner one night, I was showing him my photos from that area and he told me, "Howard, 50 years ago you could not see anything but white from Canada all the way over to Iceland." He couldn't believe it.
Q: Now that approach isn't going to work with every business leader.
A: There are companies that want to be good corporate citizens, know that their customers and employees value that, but don't know how to go about it. What we plan to offer through the foundation are off-the-shelf programs, with materials we'll provide at cost, that they can use to make changes in their community and train their employees to go into the schools and community groups, as our employees have been doing. And a company like Wachovia or Warner Bros. is very happy about doing business with a company (Oakwood) that has taken up this cause. It's certainly not the reason we became involved, but it's been a positive side effect.
Q: You said that your life has been full of twists and turns. Give me an example of another dramatic change?
A: When I was 48, I went to France, learned how to speak French fluently while I was developing tabletop photo-processing business in the early 80s. That's when I married my third wife, the French countess. And I was still involved in Oakwood back here.
Q: Did you meet your current wife as dramatically?
A: Not at all. I had had a knee operation, 20 years ago, and a friend said I ought to go hiking to build up my knee. And she knew just the lady to be my hiking companion. I said no, no, no no more movie stars, no more models. But she talked me into it. Yvette and I went out hiking, just as friends, around three times a week for the first six months. Then we finally went to lunch. It went pretty quickly after that lunch all the way to dinner and we got married six months after that.
Q: Since your wife talked you into showing your photography in public, does she go along with you on your photo expeditions?
A: Some of them. Not the 60-degree-below-zero ones. But in some ways, my wife is a little more risky on the travel thing than I am. She went to Northwest Africa with her girlfriends for a voodoo festival. I don't go to places where the 8-year-olds are carrying AK-47s.
Q: When you go on these photo trips, what kind of entourage do you take with you to carry all that equipment?
A: I have a photo assistant, a young man from Australia that I found through Craig's List. He is a technical wizard, and he goes on all my trips with me. There's a thrill, not only in making the photo, but figuring out what to do with it, marketing it, and he's a partner in that.
Q: What other creative projects are you involved with right now?
A: We're working on a children's book about the polar bears and global warming. My second book is going to be about puffins. I think they are the most amazing little birds. They have a wonderful story to them, how they mate for life. So Puffins and Their Pals is going to be about sea birds, and how their habitat is being affected by pollution in the water, which is killing their food supply. That's going to be a couple year project; photographing them in their mating grounds.
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