A Billionaire’s Story
Net Worth: $2.2 Billion
Wealth Origin: Real Estate
Birthplace: Detroit, Michigan
Education: Bachelor of Arts/Science, Chapman University
Orange County International Airport
With the United States government announcing plans for the closure of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station by 1999, the early to mid-’90s saw Orange County residents locked in a visceral debate regarding the fate of those 4,700 acres.
One proposal focused on using the land to build schools, housing, visitor-oriented attractions (think theme park or sports complex), meanwhile, setting some space aside for out-door recreational use. Another plan mentioned using the airfields to alleviate nearby John Wayne Airport of cargo flights so that it could then handle even more commercial passengers.
The most controversial proposal for the retired airbase, however, was to transform El Toro into an airport roughly equivalent to San Francisco International. At maximum capacity, it would average 50 hourly takeoffs or landings around the clock, and would lead to the eventual conversion of John Wayne Airport into a general aviation facility.
Fighting for a Future
Newport Beach resident and famed Orange County real estate developer, George Argyros, poured millions into getting this international airport constructed. “I don’t want the county to give away its opportunity here for the future of this community over the next 100 to 200 years. I think we need to be very forward-thinking,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1998.
Opponents would argue that Argyros had unique financial incentives available were the airport to go up, not to mention, he wouldn’t have to deal with airplanes dumping fuel exhaust all over his multi-millionaire ridden Newport Beach neighborhood anymore.
Mission Viejo Mayor, Susan Withrow called him “a big bully.” Irvine Mayor, Christina L. Shea, commented, “He thinks he can muscle his way around because he’s been a chief executive officer at a big company.” Both had good reason to be critical; imagine SFO or Chicago O’Hare showing up in your backyard.
“They’ve checked the records, pal, and there’s nothing,” Argyros said while responding to the rumors. “Look, we’ll benefit the same way everyone else will in Orange County. I don’t own any land there. I’m not developing there.
Throughout the personal criticisms, he persisted, “It’s just too important an issue not to try to do the right thing,” he says.
Defending Argyros’s intentions, John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, said, “I’m astonished that the public gives people like George so little credit for doing things because they’re the right things to do.”
So the fight for Orange County’s future ensued.
The fate of Orange County
After a series of legislative measures aimed at striking down the development of the airport passed, slowly but surely, any hope of Orange County International Airport dyed away. Ultimately, the Navy auctioned off 3,718 acres to developer Lennar Corp. for $650 million, then the city of Irvine annexed the area, swiftly driving the final nail into the airport’s coffin.
To this day, only about 230 acres of the airbase is accessible to the public; this plot of land features attractions such as an orange balloon ride, athletic fields, festival space, and an arts complex.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “El Toro was named to the Superfund list in 1990 because of contamination caused by decades of aircraft maintenance and repair, which left the soil laced with compounds known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.”
Plans are in store to construct nearly 10,000 homes on the land and a sprawling 1,300 acre “Great Park” in the middle of the base.
In 2014, 1,900 acres of El Toro was removed from the Superfund list. “It will allow us to move forward with development of the Great Park in an accelerated manner,” said Jeff Lalloway, mayor pro tem of Irvine and chairman of the Great Park board of directors.
In the End
It isn’t common for George Argyros to not get what he wants – especially when he’s fighting so vigorously for something. That’s the kind of spirit it takes for an aspiring real estate developer working overtime as a grocery store clerk to claw his way into this world.
Some might call this attitude bullish, others, brilliant. Either way, let’s discover the timeless tale of a penniless young man who shaped his own destiny one bag at a time.
Argyros describes his families journey from Greece to America and early childhood in an interview with Greek Reporter:
They are from Smyrna, Asia Minor and also Thessalonica, in Northern Greece. My grandfather came on a steamer. He jumped ship illegally in the NY harbor around 1898. He made it to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and married the first Greek girl that he met, my grandmother. They got married in the first Greek-Orthodox church that was built in down town Pittsburg. Their marriage was the first to take place in that church.
They started a grocery store in Oakmont Pennsylvania, and raised seven children together, my father being the oldest. On my mother’s side my grandparents came to America through Ellis Island in the early 1900’s. They eventually settled in Pontiac, Michigan. As immigrants coming to the U.S., both families worked hard for a better life. My parents’ names are Leon George Argyros and Olga Argyros.
I was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. I was very fortunate to have loving and supportive parents. When I was 11 years old, we moved to Pasadena, and I became a paperboy for the “Pasadena Independent.” I was up at 5:30 am to fold and deliver papers to over 100 subscribers. I took a second job at 14, earning 25 cents an hour in a grocery market called “Good Foods Market.”
A fairly average student in high school, George continued working at the grocery store in order to support himself and help out his family through to his senior year. Grandma lived in their house too, fueling his ability to speak Greek.
Despite living in a home filled with deeply rooted Greeks, it seems like he didn’t have a hard time integrating into Southern California culture. Richard Hicks book, If You Think You Are Beaten, You Are, tells of when George met with his former high school sweetheart Phyllis, the text reads, “over some expensive wine they reminisced about old times and old friends…”
Not to be misinterpreted, he wasn’t attempting to rekindle the fire, Phyllis reached out to him looking for a charitable donation – which he happily gave to her. He’d later even arrange a V.I.P. tour of the United States Embassy in Spain for Phyllis and friends! As far as ex-boyfriends go, ladies, Argyros is the man!
Choosing to leave Pasadena for Orang County, George began attending classes at Chapman College. He paid his own way through school by busting 50 hour work weeks at a local grocery store. Due to working late nights, he sometimes had trouble staying awake during class.
The Los Angeles Times shares the time, “he slept so soundly in one early morning philosophy class that fellow students carried him, desk and all, into the hallway outside the classroom while he continued to sleep.” Regardless, Argyros maintains that he did quite well in his business courses.
His college years also brought the love of his life into the picture, a young woman named Julie Henderson. They are still married to this day.
At 22 years old, George graduated from Chapman with a major in Business and Economics.
Continuing his work in the grocery business even after college, Argyros took on a management role at another supermarket while figuring out what he was going to do with his life. “During that time, I realized I did not want to work for someone else – I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he says.
Experimenting with various industries, Argyros got licensed in real estate, insurance, and securities. Real estate gave him more control of his own destiny, so he borrowed $900 on the hunch that Orange County would experience a property boom and got to work.
At the age of 26, he opened his own brokerage firm. For a brief period at the beginning of his real estate journey, he’d sell land to developers and help put together commercial deals for others.
In hot pursuit of “real serious money,” Argyros chose to become a developer. His first project of note was a strip mall in Tustin.
Arnel Development Co.
Sensing Orange County’s housing boom, he soon began developing and acquiring apartment complexes throughout the area. He launched Arnel Development Company in 1968 at 31 years old.
According to Forbes, the company now owns 5,500 apartments in Orange County, California and nearly 2 million square feet of commercial real estate throughout the entirety of southern California.
Argyros’s entrepreneurial curiosity led him to become involved in various industries.
He bought the Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners in 1981 for $13.1 million. The team was arguably the worst in the league – he explains in one interview, “I didn’t consider it as an investment. I was never really interested in it from a profit standpoint. It was a sport that I love. It’s a part of our American fabric.”
“I played baseball as a kid, and I loved it. It was a wonderful experience to own a baseball team. I believed there was an opportunity there, and in addition I was having a mid-life crisis so I had to do something different to keep myself going,” George adds.
Nearly miraculously, he managed to get the organization to turn a profit by the end of his tenure as owner – raking in $2 million in 1989. That same year, he sold the team to two Indiana businessmen for $76.1 million. Despite substantially increasing the Mariner’s value, they were still one of the worst teams in the league.
Deron Johnson, a coach in Seattle from 1985 to 1986 says, “He [Argyros] didn’t spend that much money. He didn’t want to pay them [players]. If he’d have kept all the people that got away, they’d have an awesome team. . . . All I know is that winners have got bigger payrolls than losers–and there’s a reason for it.”
Of anybody involved with that baseball club during the 80s, it’s clear that at least one person walked away a winner – that’s George Argyros. Explaining his departure, he told the Los Angeles Times, “I want to relax my life style. I have some other commitments. I’d like to devote a little time to my family for a change. It is a life-style issue. It became increasingly difficult to spend the time in Seattle that I wanted and needed to.”
Only months after purchasing the Mariners, Argyros partnered with fellow Orange County real estate magnate William Lyon to purchase AirCal for $61.5 million. The company’s parent company was going into bankruptcy, however, the AirCal arm of the business still showed promise to the two men.
“They took large risks, invested their time and money and worked very hard to make it a successful company,” said Robert W. Clifford, AirCal’s former president and chief executive for 11 years until Lyon took over the top job in December, 1982.
By 1987, the airline had tripled in value and was sold to American Airlines for $225 million – $90 million of which was split between Argyros and Lyon, per the New York Times.
In a 2010 interview, George revealed to Greek Reporter a number of other businesses he is involved in:
I borrowed $900 to go into the real estate business so I could survive for three months. I guess I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time, but I had the drive.
I am currently Chairman and CEO of Arnel & Affiliates, a West Coast Investment Company, with corporate offices in Costa Mesa, California. I am also a General Partner in Westar Capital, a private investment company. Our Westar group currently owns Doskocil Manufacturing Company (Petmate) located in Arlington, Texas, a leading non-food pet products manufacturing company in the U.S.; Candle Lamp Company, based in Riverside, California one of the largest companies in the tabletop light and chafing fuel products segments of the foodservice equipment industry; and Lifecare Solutions, Inc. based in San Diego, California, a provider of integrated home healthcare services, including infusion therapy, respiratory therapy, and durable medical equipment.
Argyros first began getting into politics when he worked for President Nixon’s campaign – the two even became quite good friends. George now helps oversee the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda.
“I have been fortunate to know the Bush family for a number of years – President George H.W. Bush and Barbara, as well as President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. In addition, I have had the pleasure of knowing Governor Jeb Bush. The Bush family has given much to our country,” he says.
When visiting the area, George Bush Sr. would often stay at the home of George Argyros. There was the time the latter took President Bush out for a boat ride in Newport Harbor! “President Bush promised the Secret Service detail that he would go incognito and have a hat and a jacket and nobody will know who he is. I don’t know how or why, but somebody recognized him and started screaming, ‘That’s President Bush!’ recalled Jim Doti, president emeritus of Chapman University.
“It didn’t take long before the whole bay knew it was President Bush. … [It was] a very special moment in Newport Beach,” he added.
To be clear, George Argyros’s involvement in politics went further than just donating millions to any particular candidate; he enjoyed fostering relationships with these people.
Argyros served as a member of the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations for the U.S. Trade Ambassador, resigning that position in 1990, when President Bush appointed him to the board of the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FreddieMac). He completed his term on the FreddieMac Board in March 1993.
Appointed directly by President George W. Bush, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Spain and Principality of Andorra from 2001 to 2004.
“George Bush is really a fine human being. He wasn’t as experienced as his father when he took office, but he is a good solid man. He has good values and is good family man. I know his presidency was somewhat controversial to some people, but I think he tried his best, and he accomplished some things,” he says.
From 1976 to 2001, Ambassador Argyros set a record as the longest-serving Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Chapman University, one of the West’s finest private universities. He currently remains on the Chapman Board while also serving as a Life Trustee for the California Institute of Technology, where he formerly served as Chairman of the Investment Committee.
George Argyros has donated millions of dollars to Chapman, moving the university to rename their school of business and economics after him. In addition, the campus fitness center is named after his wife and fellow alum, Julianne Argyros.
USC News ran the headline, “Argyros Family Foundation names peristyle plaza at renovated Coliseum,” on January 16, 2018. The peristyle plaza at the to-be-renovated Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum will be named the Julia and George Argyros Plaza in recognition of a $7.5 million gift from the Argyros Family Foundation.
“Through their generous support of the restoration of the Coliseum, Julia and George Argyros ensure that this historic structure will remain a treasure for the USC community, the nation and even the world for generations to come,” USC President C. L. Max Nikias said.
“On behalf of our entire family, we are very excited to have the opportunity to participate in the renovation of this beautiful and iconic stadium,” Julia and George Argyros commented. “The Coliseum means so much to the Trojan Family and the residents of Southern California. This gift reflects our belief in supporting important institutions that have an impact across communities.”
Eisenhower George and Julia Argyros Health Center
In 2008 he made a $20 million gift to Eisenhower George and Julia Argyros Health Center and will feature an urgent care center, imaging technology, a health and wellness center, physician offices, pharmacy, physical rehabilitation services and radiation oncology services.
For more on the Argyros Family’s philanthropic efforts, as there are many, be sure to check out their Inside Philanthropy profile.