Opinion

The go-to guy: Peter Ueberroth

So here's Peter Ueberroth, L.A.'s Olympic champion, chairman of the Newport Beach investor company the Contrarian Group, sharing his office with someone else -- his border collie, Koot, for Kootenai, the Idaho county where Ueberroth found him abandoned. Koot can be regarded as a small-scale version of the rescues that Ueberroth has been called on to make in his career. Besides formidably managing the 1984 Games, he has ridden to the help of South Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, run Major League Baseball and arranged the buyback of the Pebble Beach golf course from the Japanese. Ueberroth's a Californian by choice, not by birth, like another eminent Californian, John Wooden, whose name is on an award Ueberroth receives next week, one he regards more as encouragement than reward.

You're not much for interviews, and you're doing this because you're receiving the John Wooden Global Leadership Award next week from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

I have an aversion for [interviews]; I'll grow up one day! We do owe UCLA a great debt of gratitude for the Olympics because they provided us so much to allow us to be effective. And John Wooden deserves to be more like Alfred Nobel: He's not a sports figure; he's an integrity figure. That's why I'm doing this. Think of the people he helped and directed and influenced. I'm not in the first 1,000 [of those], but I had a personal relationship with him and he made a huge impact.

Has Major League Baseball called to ask you to put on your white hat again to help sort out the Dodgers mess?

I enjoy being friends with the commissioners of baseball, football and basketball, and I want to keep that relationship [so] they can call me from time to time and I can privately give them [my] thoughts. It's the old thing; I haven't been asked, and if I was asked, I wouldn't serve. It wouldn't be a good role for me.

You once said baseball is a kind of public trust; can you say anything about the Dodgers and their future?

All baseball teams are private sector investments, but they are individually and as a group, unofficially, public trusts. They have a responsibility, like a private hospital. [Baseball] belongs to the fans, and there's a great equity in the fans and the community, [and] commissioners in all the sports take that seriously.

Los Angeles voters were determined not to foot the bill for the 1984 Olympics, so you led the way to make them privately funded, and in L.A. they even turned a profit. It's a model that changed the Olympic Games.

Our group changed the Olympics. To single out one person -- it's a long list. I was selected as the leader, but I wouldn't have had the opportunity if it weren't for [Mayor] Tom Bradley, [L.A. Olympics committee founding Chairman John C.] Argue, a bunch of others. And then the [more than] 20,000 volunteers who gave us a big part of their lives, and the institutions that came forward, like UCLA.

At San Jose State, you tried out for the1956 Olympic water polo team. If you'd made the team, you might not have had as big an impact on the Games as you did out of the water.

That's right, but failure is always a good lesson. There's lots of good lessons in there. My teammates, those who made the Olympic team and those who didn't, are still good friends. I think that's a good omen.

After the Olympics and Major League Baseball, you headed Rebuild L.A. as a co-chair, to put South Los Angeles on its feet after the riots. What's the legacy there?

We did a private sector initiative. As I drive through the areas that were most affected, we take pride that there's been improvement almost everywhere. If you look at the murder rate in that year in Los Angeles, it was over 1,000, and [in] 2010, it was around 300. You keep making improvements in a community. History is forgetful that Rebuild L.A. was financed by the private sector. It was a fresh start [for] areas in L.A. The companies stepped up, individuals stepped up, the private sector was really the only [one] who came to the party. They didn't ask for anything back; they just wanted to make it better. So I think the legacy is, when the private sector comes together, you have a tremendous force. You needed some reason to have people quit shooting each other. It was thrown together in 24 hours, and Rebuild L.A. had in my view real success.

Some business pledges went unfulfilled, and neither federal nor state commitments to help came through. And there are still not enough grocery stores, laundromats and the like in South L.A.

Although twice as many [now], and doing a good job and better than the case was.

You lost in the governor's recall election in 2003. Do you think, "Boy, I dodged that bullet" or "I really could have done something''?

It's the latter. The three-year partial term and the commitment not to run again -- an individual who has some skills [and got] that assignment could have been very, very effective and could have blocked some of the problems that the state faces. I would have liked that assignment. Obviously Arnold had this enormous appeal, and it became obvious he was the choice.

I was interested in [heading the cleanup for 2005's Hurricane] Katrina, but I think the politicians at all levels decided each one wanted to play a role. The city, the parishes, the state and the federal; both parties using it for whatever they wanted to use it for; so that's the excuse for stagnation. You really don't get reform under that environment.

You were on Gov. Pete Wilson's Council on California Competitiveness in 1992. What has changed?

The report is out of date only on the cover page, the date on it. The report was bipartisan -- it was labor, it was Democrats, it was Republicans. Willie [Brown] was very supportive. When everyone's talking about jobs, the general public thinks we should just have a lot of government jobs and that's going to be the answer. Obviously that's an economic fallacy. You need private sector jobs to generate money so that the government [can] pay the bills. It's so simple, but the electorate sometimes misses the big subject.

Today there should be private sector partnerships competing for companies to move here and not move out. There should be an offense and a defense -- the offense should attract business to the state, but they have to have ammunition to do it. Other states come and feed off California without any restraint. We don't have either an offensive team or a defensive team, and that's scary.

What's at the root of the state's leadership problems? Term limits? Redistricting?

I don't think that's any of it. I think it's people. The idea of serving has taken a second importance. Of primary importance is running. Everybody's immediately jockeying for their next position.

It grieves me to see California go from "can do" to "can't do."

We're exactly in the same place. I'm not going to give up, and I'm not going to leave. There are some who are leaving and some who are giving up, but I won't and I think many, many Californians won't either. This is still the best place to live, period.

Speaking of best places, you worked to get the Pebble Beach Golf Course on the Carmel coast back from Japanese owners.

Absolutely. In perpetuity. We're proud of that. Contrarian made the initial transaction, and I reached out to my partners. We bid against many other very, very much more substantial groups, but [the Japanese] wanted to sell to a group that would not break it up, so history [wouldn't] say, "The Japanese owned it and then they sold it and it broke up."

We brought together [people] like Arnold Palmer, who stands for integrity in golf, and Clint Eastwood to join us. The rest is history. It won't be resold or broken up. That's a totally private sector initiative, but it's made those commitments. People's great-great-grandkids can have the same experience in that part of California that people had in 1919. Anybody can play.

You're on the board of the Irvine Co., another big California institution. If and when its chair, Donald Bren, decides to retire, is his a job you'd be interested in?

No, no. Don Bren is a good friend and that company has incredible leadership. He will determine how it'll be led whenever he doesn't want to anymore. My best guess is it will remain a private company, and it should. It'll be doing the same kind of good citizenship it's done. When you take half of the property [and dedicate it] to permanent open space, then endow the money to maintain it for the public into perpetuity -- that's a big gift.

Back when you were a kid, you started at the ground level in the travel industry, even doing a stint as a baggage handler before going to work for Kirk Kerkorian, who got his start with an air charter business. What do you think of how the travel industry has changed?

[It] progressed and then leveled off. Security events have changed it a lot. I think the opportunities are better for people to become international citizens. My wife, Ginny, and I just visited the Middle East, Oman and Bahrain and Dubai. [It] used to be that going to that part of the world was a real chore. Now you fly nonstop from a kind of beat-up airport to the best airport in the world in Dubai, nonstop flight, and it's 15 hours. When I started in the business, a DC-4 would take 10 hours just to go to Hawaii. The seats are the same, the meals are the same, but …

You've got the resume of half a dozen people; what's the best thing you've done?

The real answer is, I don't think I've done it yet.

Still, a favorite has to be when you were co-grand marshal with Rosa Parks in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade, in 1986 in Atlanta, right after King Day was made an official holiday?

It was just a great day. I was freezing; it was 40 degrees. We had two white Cadillac convertibles. The sign on one said, "Peter Ueberroth, Time Magazine Man of the Year, Baseball Commissioner," and the other said, "Rosa Parks, a founder of the movement." She comes over and said, "You seem so cold, why don't we put both signs on one car? I've got a bunch of blankets in the back, you can ride with me."

Let me describe my ride: Somebody hands me a baby, she kisses the baby, I return the baby. We're going very slow -- that's what I did for an hour and a half! There's thousands of pictures that will be shown throughout generations of lives and people will be saying, "Who was that guy?"

patt.morrison@latimes.com

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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