To understand how Ezri Namvar attracted perhaps billions of dollars over the years from investors in the Persian Jewish community around Beverly Hills, you don't have to look much further than his father.
Eilel Namvar was a respected hard money lender in Tehran, whose business was destroyed by the 1979 Iranian revolution. But rather than immediately flee his home country as many other Jews did during the Islamic revolt he stayed for a year, calling in his high-interest loans so he could repay his investors, according to sources familiar with the family.
Many of those investors, made whole with cash they had feared they would never see again, later immigrated to Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles carrying with them a respect for the Namvar name, which paved the way for the son's success. Eilel Namvar, now 83, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1980.
"My brother took the same route that my dad did," said Namvar's sister Hilda Bayanfar, who said she is not involved with her brother's business dealings. "He had the same ideas with how to deal with people and how to deal with people's money. That's why people trusted him because of my dad."
But did they trust too much?
The 57-year-old businessman and his Namco Capital Group Inc. investment company are feared to have lost hundreds of millions of dollars after his real estate empire, which was valued at $2.43 billion last summer, fell apart amid the bust.
While some of his investments were funded by big lenders such as GE Capital, much of the money came from Persian Jews in and around Beverly Hills who Namvar was said to have personally solicited. As a result, the losses for investors are unusually personal and in some cases devastating.
His company owes more than a half-billion dollars to creditors, and Namvar presumably owes a large amount, too, although his personal accounting has not been filed in bankruptcy court.
Namvar and Namco both sought Chapter 11 protection in January after first being forced into bankruptcy in December by creditors who feared he was paying off some creditors preferentially.
He also faces multiple lawsuits accusing him of propping up his failing empire by running a Ponzi scheme and stealing money from real estate escrow accounts.
Namvar did not return calls seeking comment. But his attorney, Timothy Neufeld, who has represented Namvar for the past nine years and has come to know him well, said the businessman still wants to pay his creditors.
"With a 29-year history of always paying his creditors until the recent crash of the real estate market, he remains committed to doing whatever he can to pay those creditors just as his father did after the revolution in Iran devastated his business," Neufeld said.
Of course, to point to Namvar's father as the origin of both his success and stated desire to repay creditors is only part of the story. The businessman over the years has carefully established his own reputation in the Persian Jewish community.
Described by those who know him as "shy" and "quiet" at least outside business meetings Namvar has kept a low profile for most of his career, eschewing flashy displays of wealth for a life filled mostly with work, family time and religion, according to his friends, family and rabbi.
"My family has always looked up to Ezri, all the nieces and nephews, even my children. He has always been a mentor to everybody. It is so sad to see what he is going through," said Bayanfar. "We come from a very moral family. Whenever you borrow money, you definitely pay it back."
Namvar, one of eight siblings, left home in Iran in 1969 at the age of 18. He attended the University of Kansas, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. In 1974, he moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA's business school, where he got an M.B.A. in 1976.
By 1980, all of Namvar's siblings and parents had made it to Los Angeles, and decades later, the family remains close, all living in West Los Angeles. While Namvar initially worked as a mortgage broker, he had become a hard money lender and moved into real estate by the early 1980s. Hard money lenders generally borrow at high interest rates and lend money for real estate deals.
According to a 1995 story in Liquidation Alert, a publication that covered the savings and loan crisis, Namco planned to lend $100 million at a loan auction held by the Resolution Trust Co., an entity created by Congress to sell off bad real estate investments made by savings and loan associations. The story described Namco as a "California mortgage bank" and noted it had "originated $5 billion of commercial mortgages since 1979," and was willing to make both mortgage and equity investments.
Scores of properties
In the last decade, however, as previously reported by the Business Journal, Namco and Namvar have acquired scores of properties, from hotels to casinos to raw undeveloped land in California and other states.
One notable local property is the Los Angeles Marriott Downtown hotel, and he has a large stake in Park Fifth, a planned and now-stalled 76-story condo project in downtown, which would be the tallest such building west of Chicago if built.
In fact, it was a far-flung empire that few of his investors understood. However, Namvar was able to attract money with brief promissory notes of just two pages. The notes promised interest rates of up to 8 percent. Some were personally guaranteed by Namvar, but most offered no collateral.
Arash Hakhamian, a 27-year-old creditor, believes that investors were willing to sign such notes based on the family's reputation.
"I don't think most people knew Ezri Namvar, but most people knew his father," said Hakhamian, who invested nearly $50,000 with Namvar money raised by working several jobs.
The investment was meant to pay for his USC School of Dentistry education, but he's only gotten back about $3,000 and has had trouble paying for his final semester.
"It was the family name that we trusted, not necessarily Ezri Namvar. I think people give him too much credit," he said.
But sources said that the damage Namvar has done to the reputation of his father and family is one of the things that has upset the businessman the most.
"This is a family that is being attacked from all angles," said Christopher Reeder, an attorney who represents three of Namvar's brothers and his father. "There is one brother whom people are making allegations about, and they don't stop there; they try to implicate the entire family, including brothers and the father. That is just really inappropriate."
Indeed, bankruptcy would appear to pose a particularly unpleasant resolution for Namvar, who has a reputation as a devout Jew. He's well-known for charitable contributions to Jewish causes and sits on the board of directors and trustees of Nessah Synagogue, according to the Web site of the Persian Jewish synagogue in Beverly Hills.
Namvar is said to observe the Sabbath each week and is unreachable by phone from sundown Friday night until sundown Saturday. His large Brentwood home is filled with Judaica and when he dines out, he usually eats at kosher restaurants.
Namvar attends synagogue at Chabad Jewish Center of Brentwood, which is led by Rabbi Baruch Y. Hecht, who counts Namvar as a friend.
Hecht said that Namvar is an "inquisitive" and "argumentative" student of Jewish theology. The rabbi said that he's offered support to the businessman over the last several months.
"I would say Ezri Namvar is a person who is dedicated," said Hecht, who believes the businessman fully intends to pay all his creditors.
But those more familiar with Namvar's business dealings say that for all his devoutness, he was a tough businessman. He has been described as "calculating," "sharp" and often "the smartest guy in the room."
His favorite game is backgammon, a board game created in the Middle East thousands of years ago that remains a popular pastime throughout the region. The game requires a handle on various strategies, some luck, but perhaps most importantly, a willingness to take risks.
Namvar ran a complex business that involved lending money to limited liability corporations that he mostly controlled. Those entities would then use the money to make real estate purchases often financed by conventional bank loans.
"I can't speak for what was in his heart, but I think he was doing well financially for some time," said Benjamin Efraim, whose family is suing Namvar and Namco for allegedly failing to repay a $1 million loan.
Warren Silverberg, a Tarzana developer with three decades of experience, remembers a meeting he had in 2006 with Namvar to negotiate the purchase of a building.
Silverberg said that during the 30-minute meeting at Namvar's West L.A. office, the businessman moved the meeting from his desk to a smaller table in the corner of his large office, interrupted the meeting to take phone calls, and alternated between a gentle and angry demeanor. But what Silverberg remembers most is the container of cherries that Namvar ate throughout the meeting, spitting the pits into a napkin.
"It really was quite a picture. Ezri is a true character," said Silverberg, president of Silverberg Development Corp. "He displayed a very wide range of emotions, at one point yelling, at other points very gentle. Very shrewd he definitely had an agenda."
Namvar's tactics served him well but it all changed in September when the collapse of the commercial real estate market imperiled his investments, many of which were made during the real estate boom.
"A very smart guy a very calculating guy," said A. David Youssefyeh, an attorney who is advising several clients who claim they are owed money by Namvar. "But the problem is he also has a big ego, and that's what gets him into trouble."
Hakhamian has met with Namvar a handful of times in the last six months to negotiate the return of his money. He described the businessman as a "great actor" who displayed a great range of emotions the sort of tactics Namvar employed during real estate negotiations.
"I've seen him cry on a whim," Hakhamian said.
These days, though, his sister paints a very different picture of her brother. Namvar doesn't spend much time at his Wilshire Boulevard office, instead staying at home, where Bayanfar often visits him, and the two go on walks and talk about family.
"When we came to this country we were going through a hard time, but we all stayed together and worked together and made it happen," she said. "It is very important to remember those times and know that it is going to change. I keep telling him, 'You are going to come out of this.'"
Still, it's understandable why the businessman would stay home with his wife and children. When he goes out, he's likely to face enraged creditors at every turn. Earlier this year, Hakhamian started protesting in front of Namvar's synagogue and the courthouse when the businessman is there, holding up signs that read "Shame on Namco Capital" and "Ezri Namvar Please Return My College Money."
While protesting in front of the synagogue on a Saturday in early February, Hakhamian was asked by Hecht to come inside the building and participate briefly in the service with Namvar and the other congregants. Hecht said he told Hakhamian that his participation would perhaps bring him a blessing.
"To tell you the truth I was in tears I felt very bad. I didn't want to be there," Hakhamian said. "That was the last thing I wanted to do. I sensed a communal obligation to be there, rather than a religious one. I believed that God was on my side."
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.