When John E. Anderson visited China a few years ago, he saw thousands of women wearing colorful nylon hats with wide brims. He especially liked the hats because they folded up compactly, so the attorney and entrepreneur made arrangements to import them to the United States.
But when he returned home to Los Angeles, Anderson, an avid mail-order shopper, discovered Bloomingdale's had beat him to the idea--the New York retail chain featured the hats in one of its mail-order catalogues.
"I could have greatly undersold Bloomingdale's and still made a profit!" Anderson said with a big grin during an interview last week in his office atop a Century City skyscraper.
Despite that little setback, Anderson has plenty to keep him busy. He is founder and sole owner of Topa Equities, a holding company for more than 20 companies whose interests range from insurance to beverage distribution to selling Mercedes-Benz cars. Topa owns Bel-Air Savings & Loan Assn. and the building at 1800 Avenue of the Stars, from whose top-floor office he commands a view of the Los Angeles Country Club. His privately owned empire generates annual revenues of $350 million.
Yet until last week, when Anderson and his wife, Marion, gave $15 million to the UCLA Graduate School of Management, he had succeeded in keeping a deliberately low public profile. That gift--the largest single donation from an individual to the UC system and the third-biggest given to a U.S. business school--is the cornerstone of a campaign to raise $50 million to build a new facility for what will now be known as the John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.
"UCLA is very important to me," said Anderson, who left his home town of Minneapolis to attend UCLA on an ice hockey scholarship and earned a business degree in 1940. "It got me started on the right path."
Anderson later received an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. After World War II, he worked in the Los Angeles office of the Arthur Andersen & Co. accounting firm and earned a law degree at night from Loyola University.
In 1953, he founded the Los Angeles law firm of Kindel & Anderson with another UCLA alumnus, James H. Kindel. As Anderson tells it, he was "Mr. Outside," making speeches and contacts for the firm, which now employs 70 attorneys. Then 15 years ago, he reduced his participation in the law firm to concentrate on starting or acquiring companies.
His first sole ownership came in 1957 with Ace Beverage, a distributor based in Los Angeles. Today, Topa Equities--named after his sprawling ranch at the foot of Topatopa Mountain near Ojai--operates a number of drink distributors in California, Hawaii and the Virgin Islands.
They distribute a variety of beverages, including mineral water, soft drinks and beer. His firm is the exclusive Southern California distributor of Tsingtao, a beer Anderson spotted on his trip to China and decided to import.
A soft-spoken man, Anderson began his entrepreneurial career by selling popcorn in front of his father's barber shop. "I tend toward businesses that are easily understood. They are simple businesses in that at the end of the month you know where you stand."
Early on, he expanded into financial services, although it was only last December that he completed the purchase of Bel-Air Savings & Loan. "We began modestly, carefully and prudently, and moved as the opportunities came," he said.
Anderson's method is first to learn about a business thoroughly, then back off and let his staff run the show. "Right now I'm learning the S&L; business, but I'm a slow learner. I tell them they have to give me time and teach me the business." He keeps a black, three-ring notebook for each of his different companies.
He attributes his success to his staff. "It's basically a recognition that people can do things better than I can. I hire good people and let them go full steam. I have no office in the 22 individual companies, and I don't sign checks." His wife Marion is a director of a number of the companies.
Setbacks Amid Successes
He added, "My role is to try to select and motivate (people) and be part of setting goals . . . We apply the UCLA management style, management by objective." Anderson teaches classes for other executives at the business school.
Not every venture has been successful. His company acquired 17 small retail stores when it purchased a wholesale beverage distribution business in the Virgin Islands from Host International in the early 1980s. Anderson sold the stores after only 18 months. "It didn't take long. We still have a net operating loss on it."
A retail business takes lots of personal attention, he said. "It's like a restaurant; you always have to be there."
At one time in 1970s, Anderson was also the largest distributor of wines in California, but he has dropped out of that business entirely. "There was a surplus of competition; margins kept shrinking" as more retail outlets preferred to buy directly from the wineries. "We folded our tent (and) took our losses."
Anderson is philosophical about such setbacks. "Nothing really endures in life but change. You have to manage change . . . . There is nothing wrong in making a mistake. The important thing is to squarely face up to it and either correct or take losses."
Anderson said he likes the flexibility of operating a private company and "managing for the cash flow." Publicly owned companies find it easier to raise money, but pressures to show short-term profits often retard performance. "We manage for reality."
His Century City office is filled with clocks, automatic pencils and a painting by nun-turned-artist Sister Corita. Despite his wealth, he has maintained a low public profile because "it was the right thing to do. There's nothing to be gained from shouting from the mountaintop."
Money Only a Byproduct
And he likes to recall his humble beginnings. "I used to eat 26-cent dinners at North American (Aviation)," where he worked while attending UCLA, he recalled. Fridays were special because he paid 31 cents to have sweet milk instead of buttermilk. "That was a real treat . . . I still have trouble paying 75 cents for a Snickers."
He believes that, "You can't concentrate on money as a goal. It's got to be a byproduct; you have to concentrate on providing service."
More importantly, businessmen must keep their integrity, according to Anderson. He pointed to a huge carved eagle in his office that once belonged to Stanley Goldblum, chairman of Equity Funding Corp. of America who went to prison as the result of a massive fraud at that Los Angeles company 14 years ago.
Anderson bought the eagle at an auction one rainy Sunday. "It reminds us to keep our feet on the ground."