The man behind the $25-million gift to LACMA once spent years in an orphanage

Eric Smidt was a peddler’s son, rattling through the morning light in his father’s van, hawking jewelry, tape and electrical cords in the San Fernando Valley. He endured a troubled home life and spent two years in an orphanage. But a restless need for the flash of a deal made him a rich man by turning a mail-order business into a corporation that sells power tools, log splitters and chain saws across America.

His company, Harbor Freight Tools, expects to do $4 billion in sales this year. Smidt’s name seldom appears in the media, but his profile will rise Saturday with the announcement of a $25-million pledge by him and his wife, Susan, in a campaign to reimagine the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

“I’m coming to learn that being under the radar may not be a good thing even though I’m most comfortable that way,” said Smidt, whose personal art collection includes works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Vincent Van Gogh. He said stepping more publicly into the philanthropic light “shows leadership. I want to give back.”

Smidt was nudged out of anonymity by LACMA Director Michael Govan. The museum is attempting to raise at least $650 million for a new 368,000-square-foot building by architect Peter Zumthor. Smidt’s pledge puts the drive closer to the halfway mark, the museum said, following a recent $50-million promise from Las Vegas resort magnate Elaine Wynn and a $25-million pledge from former Univision Chairman A. Jerrold Perenchio.

“It takes gifts like this to get to that point of confidence so that others will invest,” said Govan, who has been advising and working on artistic endeavors with Smidt for a decade. “It’s a new generation of people, and that’s what has to happen in the civic environment. The torch has to be passed.”

The relationship between Govan and Smidt symbolizes the intersection of money and culture in which a knowledgeable, urbane curator influences the tastes and responsibilities of the wealthy to shape a city’s aesthetic identity. Or as Smidt, a LACMA board member since 2006, puts it: “Until Michael came along, Los Angeles really didn’t have a public museum that was commensurate with a great city of the world. Today, we do.”

Smidt’s arc from his father’s van to a headquarters in the Calabasas hills that oversees nearly 20,000 employees and 700 stores nationwide has the air of a Charles Dickens novel: an ill mother, an overburdened father and an abandoned boy who found his way through a cruel and at times, splendid world of possibility.  At 56, Smidt is unassuming and ever-questioning, a man who will tell you that in the beginning his interest in art was “for decoration” and that he had no idea what “genre” meant.

“He puts on no airs,” said Allan G. Mutchnik, Harbor Freight’s chief administrative officer.

Smidt’s father, Allan, had a salesman’s soul but quickly had to care for a young son and a wife, Dorothy, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Allan was part of a free-flowing tribe of peddlers who roamed the San Fernando Valley; by the late 1960s many of them had turned to the burgeoning telephone sales trade. When Smidt was 9, his mother’s illness had become pronounced, and his father left him at an area orphanage.

 “It’s so blurry, that part of my life,” said Smidt, who added that he was choked by another boy at the institution and beaten by a staff member. “I really blamed it on my mother at the time. … It was very hard. I was very angry and miserable.”

He returned home when he was 11. But not for long: “My mother wanted him [the father] to be focused on her. She was very frightened.” Smidt added: “I was in the way.” He was sent to live with his father’s sister, Rezella, an Army nurse who had eight cats and four dogs in Clarksville, Tenn. She bought him a small motorcycle, and he enjoyed the freedom of the place. But, he said, it was difficult to reconcile that “I wasn’t really a wanted child.”

“I’m 13. I’ve got my scars,” he said. “I don’t like school. I don’t like being sent away. I felt rejected and all the emotional things that you can imagine that goes along with that. I blamed this rejection on my mother. I always tried to vie for my father.”

He moved back home when he was 15. But, again, not for long. “My dad says, ‘What are we going to do with you? Let’s get you an apartment.’ On the day of my 16th birthday, we got a driver’s license in the morning at the DMV on Kester and in the afternoon, I signed my first lease at 7840 Woodman Av., Panorama City, which was about one mile and a half up the street from where my parents lived.”

He attended Grant High School and worked in the afternoons and evenings at his father’s small phone sales company. In 1977, the Smidts copied the model of another former peddler who was importing tools from Japan and undercutting American retailers. By this time, Eric Smidt was eclipsing his father in business savvy and instinct:  When he was 17 he flew to Japan to make direct connections with suppliers, cutting out importers and boosting profits.

“I got into the bowels of Japan,” he said. “It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”

Sitting in his office — power drills near a board scrawled with notations, as if a sleepless mathematician had been set loose — Smidt’s voice rose from low to high. His hands fluttered when he told a story; he was at once reticent and open, a well-traveled businessman who had overcome much but who, contrary to the brashness and colorfulness of his company’s fliers, was still uncomfortable in the spotlight.

He and his father were equal partners in the small mail order business, but it was Eric’s wider and aggressive vision that eventually led to what Harbor Freight Tools is today. The two had a falling out in 2010 when his father, whom Smidt bought out more than a decade earlier, sued his son over management decisions and accused him of using company money to buy an estate in Beverly Hills and to add to his multimillion-dollar art collection.   

Smidt denied the allegations and the case was settled out of court. Allan Smidt died this year. The elder was shaped by the Great Depression and often worried about money and savings. “He lived in fear his whole life,” said Smidt, adding that during the company’s growth “we were doing great and every penny we were making we put back into the business. Not borrowing a dime from anybody. We lived like paupers until it was a $500-million business.”

Smidt bought an Italian-style villa and became a philanthropist, donating gifts to educational programs, including funding the charter school Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High in Lincoln Heights. He also increasingly turned his eye toward art, starting with the Old Masters and then in 2004 paying $6 million for a Van Gogh. He later switched his tastes to Abstract Expressionism and has been listed by ARTnews as one of the world’s 200 top art collectors.

He mentioned no piece of art that particularly moved him, saying that he collaborated with experts and researched the dates, periods and “sweet spots” in an artist’s career. When he started collecting, he said, “I didn’t know anything about anything.”

But later Smidt knew it was a time for a change from the Old Masters:  “I couldn’t find any that weren’t gruesome, violent, religious,” he said. “It was kind of cool in the beginning and then not so cool. … I wanted to get out of the dark stuff and into the colorful stuff.” 

Times staff writer Deborah Vankin contributed to this article.

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