By JILL ROSENFELD
Two facts become crystal clear upon delving into the exclusive world of L.A.’s richest people: First, there are lots of them, and second, their collective wealth is growing rapidly.
Plenty of Angelenos are acquainted with and even socialize with millionaires, but far fewer regularly interact with the super-wealthy those with personal fortunes in the hundreds of millions or even the billions.
The Business Journal interviewed several people who routinely mingle with the super-wealthy to get a view of what they’re really like.
Our panelists: Ali Kasikci, general manager of the Peninsula Hotel; Bee Canterbury Lavery, longtime chief of protocol for former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, who acts as a consultant to dignitaries and international business people; Barry Munitz, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, who circulates among the cultural elite; Sheldon Sloan, a well-connected Republican lawyer who serves on the L.A. Coliseum Commission; and Greg Gibson, owner of Gibson Construction, which builds opulent residences for such clients as theater magnate Ted Mann and Hilton Hotels CEO Stephen Bollenbach.
Q: What are wealthy people like?
Sloan: A lot of it depends on how they acquired their wealth, and how recently they acquired it. People who’ve had it for generations act differently than people who’ve inherited it recently. When it’s passed generation to generation, parents teach their children how to deal with it. People know how to handle the burden and the celebrity a little better.
Sometimes you see people who have recently acquired wealth driving Rolls Royces and wearing Rolexes and so on. That’s a different class of people. Some are just fine, some are rough and tough because of the way they’ve made their money. Some haven’t yet acquired the ability to deal with other people. It’s hard to adjust if you’ve grown up with certain folks and all of a sudden you make a couple hundred million dollars. People who have recently acquired it don’t always have the same training and the same background passed on to them.
Kasikci: They have two eyes, two ears they are wonderful people and they keep us all occupied. They can be difficult if they don’t get what they expect, and very easy the minute you deliver or exceed their expectations.
Gibson: To become really wealthy, you have to be ruthless. You have to be willing to sacrifice personal life and personal relationships. Money comes first, ethics second, and friendship third. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes: manipulate the rules, stretch the truth, lose friendships. There are always exceptions like my clients Ted Mann, Steven Bollenbach, Hal Gaba and others who haven’t compromised their ethics to get where they are but generally speaking, that’s the biggest thing that I’ve noticed.
Have you ever sat at a stop sign and watched a guy in a Ferrari go all the way into the oncoming lane just to get around you? You don’t do that in a Honda. You do that in a Ferrari because you don’t care about the ticket. You do whatever it takes.
Lavery: There’s no haughtiness, if that’s what you’re looking for. Queen Elizabeth, for example, was lovely to work with. It was pouring when she arrived, and of course we had red carpets everywhere and they got extremely squishy. She very nicely stepped off the carpet and walked down the stairs. The Queen was probably the biggest celebrity in the world at the time, and I was a little afraid of her. She’s so grand you think if something doesn’t go right it’s going to be a catastrophe. But she turned out to be very human, like the rest of us.
Q: What do wealthy people worry about?
Sloan: A lot of people with money are besieged by people who have ideas about how to separate them from their wealth. I have some clients who won’t return phone calls from people they don’t know. And wealthy people are always worried that they’ll be targeted by criminals.
Q: What do the wealthy expect?
Kasikci: They know exactly what they are looking for, and they may not care how much it costs. They want a blimp ride, they want a dog flown to Saudi Arabia, they want Nieman Marcus opened after hours, they want a bungalow at the Mirage Hotel. They also expect the simplest thing that you and I would expect: a prepared hotel room, breakfast at a certain hour. And their expectations aren’t outrageous. Let’s say a medium steak takes 15 minutes to prepare. They know it takes 15 minutes, and they don’t expect it to take seven just because they’re wealthy.
Munitz: This generation of philanthropists wants to know what’s happening with their money. They want accountability, they want performance standards. They can be very thoughtful and very demanding while being very generous. When they make a commitment, they want to know what the commitment is for: we’ll build this collection, we’ll help this community, we’ll cure this illness. They want to know on the front end what the objective is, and how they’ll be able to tell if the goal was met.
Sloan: They expect to win. Not a lot of talk, they just expect you to do it, and in a professional manner.
Gibson: They want to control other people through you. The biggest problem is when clients try to manipulate you or try to force you to make decisions that have to be made by an architect or an interior designer or a spouse. Time is money. When the interior designer is indecisive, the money escalates. It can get very ugly, a knock-down, drag-out yelling profanity-filled fight on a multimillion-dollar project. Screaming. “Make my wife pick a color for the outside of the house.” I cannot make your wife pick a color. “Yes you can.” No I can’t. “You’re the expert contractor, you’re supposed to be able to do these things.” I’m not a miracle worker.
Q: What is it like to deal with very wealthy people while receiving a working person’s salary?
Kasikci: It’s very, very easy. You just resign yourself to the fact that you are there to satisfy them, not to educate them. As soon as you think you’re in their league, just because you’re there and rub shoulders with them, that’s the end of it. Because you can only belong to their league if you are independently wealthy yourself. Until then, you are there to serve them, and you have to recognize that fact.
That’s the nature of the business I’m in, and that’s the requirement. One of the things about us hoteliers is we actually enjoy serving the rich, the famous, the tired, the hungry. I can summarize it by saying we have the thick skin of a rhino, the staying power of a mother-in-law, and so much charm we could charm a snake. That’s what makes us hoteliers.
Sloan: I’m fairly successful myself, and I don’t aspire to that kind of wealth. You have to give too much of yourself to make it, and I don’t feel like doing that. I have enough for me.
Have you ever been out with a friend who had a lot more money than you did? It makes you uncomfortable when you can’t afford to do what they want to do. After a while, unless they’re sycophants, people tend to move away from wealthy people. Most people don’t want that; they want normal lives. They want to be liked, and taken for what they are.
Munitz: I never think about it. You have to live inside yourself, and know what you value, without comparing yourself to other people.
Any particularly unpleasant experiences you’ve had with super-wealthy people?
Lavery: Well, once I did have an international visitor who was very difficult: Sergeant Doe. He was the military man who took over Liberia in a coup. He had lined up the old government officials on the beach and shot them. He and his entourage were very militaristic and demanding. We hosted a breakfast for him at City Hall, and I guess he didn’t like the food, because he took one bite of his scrambled eggs and spit them out all over the place. He finally met his end when there was another coup and he was shot too.
Gibson: I’ve had clients who won’t pay the last 15 percent. They’ll look you in the face and say they won’t pay. They know you’re not going to sue them, because it will cost you too much just to get the lawyer and fill out the paperwork. They play the odds, the percentages. He who has the gold rules. That’s the golden rule.
How are wealthy people in L.A. different from wealthy people elsewhere?
Munitz: Much of Los Angeles wealth is new, whereas in Boston or New York it’s fourth- or fifth-generation money. Here, it’s first or second, and only rarely third generation. Wealthy people in L.A. have worked very hard in an entrepreneurial way. They’ve controlled their personal destiny, they want to control their philanthropic destiny.
Sloan: Some of wealthiest people in L.A. drive Volvos, and drive them themselves. Their children learn to give time and money to charity, and to act in a certain way, to not be ostentatious about their wealth. A lot of people who are very rich suspect that people only like them for their money. And if they’re smart, they teach their children not to get into that situation by not acting like they’re rich.