Charles Cohen

Charles Cohen Photo by Ringo Chiu.

There was something inevitable about Charles Cohen coming to Los Angeles.

The New York native was always interested in moviemaking. And like most people, he also had a thing for warm weather and sunny beaches.

But it wasn’t until he had amassed an impressive portfolio of Manhattan office buildings that Southern California finally pulled him in. Cohen is now putting the final touches on one of the area’s most distinctive developments, the Pacific Design Center’s Red Building in West Hollywood. That is, when he’s not busy with his film production company.

With a condo nearby and his own private jet, Cohen, whose personal net worth is likely north of $1 billion, is now coming into town from New York every few weeks.

“L.A.’s a great place. It’s attractive for a lot of reasons,” he said. “The weather is wonderful, the physical beauty of the place is spectacular, the lifestyle is attractive and the business opportunities are as good as anywhere else, if not better.”

Heard it before? Maybe so, but Cohen is one of a number of out-of-town business titans drawn to Los Angeles for such reasons. Many of them have second homes and business interests here but have opted not to establish Los Angeles as a primary residence.

Some, like Philip Anschutz – the Denver billionaire who has stakes in the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings, and is behind the L.A. Live development – are well known, but others are less so.

Take Michael Dell, a computer magnate who resides in Austin, Texas, but backs both L.A.’s largest bank and its largest landscaping company. Or Stanley Kroenke, a Missouri billionaire and husband of a Wal-Mart heiress, who owns one of the premier shopping centers in Malibu. Or Timothy Headington, a Texas oil baron who has produced Hollywood films – and we’re talking Oscar winners, not straight-to-DVD titles.

Call them L.A.’s part-time billionaires.

L.A.’s huge economy, which would rank as the world’s 15th largest if it were a nation, has drawn such folks for decades. Now, some experts, like Todd Buchner, head of the L.A. private banking office of Credit Suisse Group, believes they are on the rise. The office, which caters to the ultrawealthy, is seeing as much as 20 percent of its new assets coming from people who don’t live permanently in Los Angeles.

“That’s a very real trend,” he said.

Whether the trend is real or not, experts said there are several factors that discourage the super rich from establishing residency here, including high tax rates and the perception that crowded Los Angeles is not a great place to raise a family. At the same time, many wealthy people now have two or more homes, making it less likely for them to leave their longtime residence. And the Internet has made it easier and more common to do business across large distances.

The influence of outside wealth is not only bringing plenty of dollars into Los Angeles, but experts say it is reshaping the community – though perhaps not for the best. At least one prominent intellectual believes it could slow the emergence of business leaders truly interested in the betterment of the community.

“People from the outside are now dominant,” said Joel Kotkin, an author and Chapman University professor who has been studying demographic trends for three decades. “But is their involvement a positive or a negative? You would like to have people who are invested in the community.”

Money magnet

Consider three of the most famous names in American business, who each have second homes and other stakes here but are relatively invisible in the L.A. business community.

Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison, whose $36 billion fortune makes him one of the world’s wealthiest people, has bought a dozen properties in Malibu and owns multiple homes on Carbon Beach, dubbed “Billionaire’s Beach.” He also owns a hotel in the area and two restaurants, including Nobu, a celebrity-backed sushi restaurant set to open this summer.

Yet for all his investment in Malibu, Ellison has a very low profile in the beachside community.

“There are people that you do see out at dinners a lot. I don’t see him around there,” said Jay Luchs, a top retail broker with CBRE Group Inc. who is active in the Malibu market.

Similarly, Malibu Mayor John Sibert told the Wall Street Journal in October, “We don’t see him around town very much.”

One of Ellison’s newest neighbors is Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, who bought a Carbon Beach home in 2010 for $25 million. Allen, whose net worth is estimated at more than $14 billion, also has owned a Beverly Hills mansion for more than a decade.

Allen for years was the majority owner of L.A. ticket seller Ticketmaster before selling his stake for more than $200 million in 1997. And just this past year, he announced a partnership with Hawthorne’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the company backed by billionaire Elon Musk better known as SpaceX, to develop a spaceship launch system. Allen has suggested he will put $200 million into the venture.

But despite the second homes and substantial business ventures, Allen’s deepest ties remain in the Pacific Northwest. Not only is his primary residence on Mercer Island, Wash., but it’s there that he’s seen out and about as owner of both the Portland Trailblazers basketball team and Seattle Seahawks football team.

And there’s Dell, founder of Dell Inc., who has a net worth of nearly $16 billion. Most of his private liquid capital is invested through his MSD Capital, which has offices in Santa Monica in addition to New York and London.

Among its local investments, the firm backs OneWest Bank, the federal savings bank in Pasadena that ranks as Southern California’s largest depository institution. He also owns the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica and holds a $126 million stake in Glendale restaurant operator DineEquity Inc. He even has a majority stake in ValleyCrest Cos., the nation’s largest landscaping business. He hired the Calabasas company in 2006 to work on his Austin home and was so impressed by the job done that he invested in it.

Yet for all those interests, Dell, like Ellison and Allen, is not exactly a prominent member of the L.A. business community.

There are exceptions. Among the newest outsiders is Mark Walter, the head of Chicago investment bank Guggenheim Partners. He partnered with Earvin “Magic” Johnson and others to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2.15 billion from Frank McCourt, beating out Kroenke and Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban.

McCourt, a Boston native, moved to Los Angeles after buying the Dodgers in 2004. Walter, who has an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, isn’t quite doing that, but he has promised to buy a home here and get involved with the city, reflecting the team’s status as a community asset.

“It sounds trite, but sports are a draw,” said L.A. -based wealth manager Richard Jones, managing director of the private banking and investment group at Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch. “There are very few places in the country, or in the world for that matter, that can match what Los Angeles has in terms of the weather, the culture, sports, recreation and the business climate.”

Hollywood pull

As for L.A.’s signature movie industry, it has always attracted the wealthy who enjoy the glitz and socializing with stars. Some of L.A.’s wealthiest residents – including former eBay President Jeffrey Skoll and real estate heir Steve Bing – moved here and turned moviemaking into a second career.

But not every aspiring movie mogul feels the need to live in Hollywood – or even give up their main job.

Cohen is pursuing his lifelong interest in Hollywood through his Cohen Media Group. The company has produced several films, such as 2008’s acclaimed “Frozen River,” and has about a half-dozen movies either in release or coming soon.

“I’m really fascinated with (filmmaking) and I want to purse it,” he said.

Right now, though, he is focused on leasing out his Red Building, and he is best known for owning four upscale design centers around the country, including in Houston and suburban Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. So he plans to stay at his West Hollywood condo just when in town for business but maintain his primary residence in New York, where he also owns 11 office buildings.

Headington also is feeling out Hollywood from afar. He built a $2.7 billion fortune through his Dallas oil firm, Headington Oil. He now co-owns GK Films, the Santa Monica production company behind Oscar-winning films such as “Hugo” and “Rango.”

Headington, who declined to comment for this article, claims to be deeply involved in the filmmaking process, assisting in everything from casting to editing. But he doesn’t seem to want to follow in the footsteps of Marvin Davis, the Denver oil tycoon who bought 20th Century Fox in 1981 and became a dedicated Angeleno.

Lon Morton, who handles money for wealthy clients as chief executive of Morton Capital Management in Calabasas, said one reason many well-off individuals establish primary residences in other states these days – often Texas or Florida – is to avoid California’s notoriously high tax rates.

“It is a beautiful state for people to come and perhaps have a second home or third home or beach house, (but) this is not the kind of state that is a welcome oasis for wealthy entrepreneurs to establish residence,” he said. “We do see people that are coming here, but they don’t want to pay state income tax.”

According to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, California has the second highest income tax rate in the United States for the highest income earners, at 10.3 percent, trailing only Hawaii. Seven states have no income tax, notably Florida, Texas and Nevada. And the rate could go higher. Gov. Jerry Brown is campaigning for a November ballot measure that would increase the top rate to 12.3 percent in order to close the state’s huge budget deficit.

Taxes are a major concern for many billionaires. Dell, for instance, is notorious for his efforts to reduce his tax bill, including reportedly classifying his suburban Austin home as a farm to qualify for more than $1 million in agricultural tax breaks. Dell could not be reached for comment.

Morton said there used to be more ways for wealthy people to avoid certain state taxes in California, but “there aren’t near as many tax shelters today.”

Indeed, it is notable that two local billionaires recently moved their primary residences to states with no income taxes, dropping off the Business Journal’s annual Wealthiest Angelenos list. Biotech entrepreneur Alfred Mann, founder of Valencia’s MannKind Corp., now considers Las Vegas his primary residence, though he retains a large Mulholland Drive house he designed himself.

And real estate mogul Jeff Greene calls Palm Beach, Fla., home even as he spends several months a year in Southern California. He told the Business Journal it was a lifestyle choice, denying it had anything to do with taxes.

“I would never live anywhere because of a state income tax,” said Greene, who made good money investing in L.A.-area apartments but earned his fortune betting against subprime mortgage-backed securities during the real estate bust.

Troubling trend?

Whatever the reason, the 2010 move reduced his presence in Los Angeles. When Greene lived the L.A. life, owning a 43,000-square-foot home in the Hollywood Hills, he threw parties that reportedly drew the likes of Paris Hilton.

Since moving to Florida, he launched a high-profile but unsuccessful bid for a U.S. Senate seat. Now, when he’s in Los Angeles, he quietly spends time with his wife and two young children at his 3,000-square-foot second home in Malibu.

“I still have investments out here, so I have a reason to come back a couple of months a year,” he said. “L.A.’s a great city.”

Kotkin, who has written books on city development, believes all these outsiders have weakened the influence of wealthy Angelenos, in turn weakening local business leadership.

In the past, he said, powerful figures such as the Chandler family, which built the Los Angeles Times into a major national newspaper, were as interested in making Los Angeles a great city as they were in their business pursuits. Dorothy Chandler, for instance, was a major figure in the effort to build the Los Angeles Music Center.

“L.A. used to be a town where our business leaders were real leaders,” he said. “Disney, the O’Malleys, the Chandlers – they built this city. Their identities were intertwined with the identity of the city. Do Anschutz or (Chicago-based Los Angeles Times owner Sam) Zell have any real identity with L.A.?”

Kotkin pointed to Houston as a city that is doing things better. Even in market downturns, that city has benefited from major philanthropic donations from its business leaders, such as billionaire Drayton McLane Jr., who have supported everything from the world-class Texas Medical Center to the city’s ballet, which has the largest endowment of any dance company in the country.

Eli Broad, who is a major supporter of arts and education in Los Angeles, is one of the few local exceptions, Kotkin noted.

“Eli is an L.A. guy and has invested enormous amounts in L.A.,” he said. “But for a city of this size, we have a very, very weak business leadership, and we used to have a very strong one.”

The decline has coincided with a dramatic shift in L.A.’s economy, he noted. Los Angeles was once home to many major national corporations, but many have left, including aerospace giant Lockheed Corp., or were acquired, such as Security Pacific National Bank. And it hasn’t slowed. Over the last several years, more Fortune 500 companies have left, including DaVita Corp., Computer Sciences Corp. and, most recently, Northrop Grumman Corp.

John Paul DeJoria, billionaire co-founder of both hair care products empire John Paul Mitchell Systems and tequila maker Patron Spirits Co., lamented the burdensome regulations and heavy taxes that L.A. businesses face. Other states, such as Texas, are far more welcoming. (See interview page 27.)

“A lot of the major companies I deal with moved to Texas,” he said. “If it wasn’t for red tape and being one of the highest taxed areas in the nation, you’d have a lot of (companies) coming to California instead of moving out of California to other cities.”

DeJoria, whose net worth is roughly $4 billion, grew up in Los Angeles but has since moved to Austin, which he and his wife decided was a better place to raise a family. He said he has thought about relocating John Paul Mitchell Systems, which is still in Beverly Hills, but doesn’t want to uproot his employees.

And citing his tough Echo Park upbringing, DeJoria supports L.A. charities, including donating to the Boys & Girls Club of East Los Angeles and Chrysalis, a non-profit benefiting the homeless population.

“I support some organizations that help change the lives of people,” he said.

Global hub

Indeed, it’s not universally agreed that the billionaires who swoop in for the occasional deal or for a week’s stay in their second homes are a bad thing for the local economy.

“You don’t have the same kind of connectivity to the local community because they’re flying in and flying out, (but) why is that detrimental to Los Angeles?” argued Ross DeVol, chief research officer for the Milken Institute in Santa Monica.

He also believes the influence of outside wealth has increased in recent years in Los Angeles, but said it has contributed to economic growth and helped turn the city into a more global economic hub.

The increasing globalization of the economy has made it possible for businessmen such Nicolas Berggruen to make a fortune and get involved in Los Angeles. The European native has made his name as a value investor in companies across the globe.

Known as the “homeless billionaire,” Berggruen lives in hotel rooms around the world and keeps few possessions, but has adopted Los Angeles as a part-time home – the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, to be exact. With a $2.3 billion fortune, he has been able to pursue one of his passions, art collecting, and is now a trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“He’s supported us with gifts of money and loans, and that’s stirred up a lot of enthusiasm for the museum and for Los Angeles,” said Michael Govan, LACMA director.

Berggruen could not be reached for comment.

At the same time, Los Angeles is benefitting as the leading gateway to China and other Asian countries on the Pacific Rim. For example, Korean Air, a unit of the Hanjin Group in Seoul, is planning a billion-dollar reconstruction of the Grand Wilshire Hotel in downtown Los Angeles that will cater in part to Asian business people.

And one of China’s wealthiest women, billionaire Yan Cheung, splits time between Los Angeles and China. She founded America Chung Nam Inc., a City of Industry company that is the country’s largest exporter. It ships containers full of scrap paper and cardboard to China, where her factories recycle it into packaging for the electronics and other exports.

“Los Angeles is a truly global, international city,” DeVol said. “Many of these wealthy individuals, they want to have some presence in different regions of the world. I think Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to be one of the key hubs on that international node.”

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