George L. Graziadio Jr., the feisty, risk-taking shopping center developer who co-founded his own bank out of frustration with the poor service that large banks offered entrepreneurs like himself and in the process built one of Southern California's largest financial institutions, has died. He was 82.
Graziadio, who was also a major donor to charities and universities, particularly Pepperdine, died of cancer Thursday at his home on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
He was chairman of Comerica Bank-California, which until last year was Imperial Bancorp, the Inglewood-based financial institution Graziadio founded with long-time partner George Eltinge in 1963 to serve small and medium-size businesses.
Detroit-based Comerica acquired Imperial Bancorp for $1.3 billion in stock.
By specializing in loans to niches of key Southland industries such as entertainment and technology, Imperial had grown into one of the region's biggest banks, with $7.4 billion in assets and 15 branches.
In 1996, Graziadio gave $15 million to the business school at Pepperdine University in Malibu--at the time one the largest gifts ever to a business school. Pepperdine later named the school for him.
Born in Vernon, Conn., to Italian and Irish immigrants, Graziadio grew up living above his grandfather's Italian grocery. He began working for his father, a real estate auctioneer, at 14.
Graziadio settled in California after World War II and met Eltinge, who was already involved in commercial real estate development, in the early 1950s.
Graziadio impressed Eltinge by luring a prime tenant to an Eltinge shopping center at Crenshaw Boulevard and Imperial Highway in Los Angeles. Their partnership evolved from that experience. They went on to build about 100 shopping centers in California and elsewhere in the West, mostly for Kmart stores.
The "two Georges," as they were known in business circles, appeared a strange match. The wiry and soft-spoken Eltinge was often described as the dreamer, while Graziadio, a heavyset 6-footer, referred to himself as "the nuts-and-bolts guy." Eltinge died in 1994 at age 76.
In 1963, after years of frustrating encounters with cautious lenders, they founded Imperial by collecting $1.25 million from family and friends.
The bank's lending policies catered to the underserved "middle market" of small and medium-sized companies and created a lucrative business by making loans to targeted niches within California's changing industrial mix, from risky tech start-ups to local garment makers and movie projects.
Indeed, the bank's entertainment division grew to be the largest financer of feature films in the world, and Imperial was an early lender to a fledgling Web portal that became Yahoo Inc.
Imperial also earned a reputation within the industry as a super-aggressive "go-go" lender that often made deals with customers whom other banks would have turned away as bad credit risks.
Graziadio would brush off such criticism, saying his bank tended to think more about business than image.
"I'd prefer to make 10 $10,000 loans than one $100,000 loan," Graziadio told The Times in 1997. "That way you have 10 customers who go tell 10 other businesspeople about you."
Graziadio and his partner had a lot of fun, especially in the early days of running the bank.
For one bank opening, they brought in a full-grown lion (which was the bank's mascot). Another time, they dropped $1 bills out of a helicopter.
Ever the effusive businessman, Graziadio refused to retire even after he entered his 80s.
"The thrill of the chase is more important than getting to the goal," he told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 1996. "Retirement, quite frankly, has never been a goal of mine."
Immensely proud of his Italian heritage, Graziadio donated more than $650,000 to Cal State Long Beach to create a Center for Italian Studies, which also bears his name, and a chair of Italian language studies. The boardroom at Imperial Bancorp's headquarters on La Cienega Boulevard was probably one of the few in America where there was a constant smell of garlic coming from the executive kitchen, observers have noted, because Graziadio served Italian food at company meetings.
An aviation buff, he paid about $25,000 to join 30 other aficionados on a 24-hour trip around the world on the Concorde to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Western Hemisphere.
But it was his contributions to others that may have more lasting value.
His donation to Pepperdine allowed the business school to increase the size of its faculty by 30% and help it become the biggest such school west of Chicago.
At the time, Graziadio praised Pepperdine's "resourcefulness," which he said appealed to him as an entrepreneur.
"His vision and leadership propelled the Graziadio School to a preeminent position among business schools worldwide," Pepperdine President Andrew K. Benton said in a statement Friday.
Over the years, Graziadio was honored for his charity work by dozens of organizations.
He was named the Muscular Dystrophy Assn.'s humanitarian of the year in 2000.
He was also a founding director of the Torrance Memorial Medical Center Health Care Foundation and a member of several local boards, including that of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles.
Two months ago, he received the Horatio Alger Award in Washington. Other recipients have included President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Graziadio is survived by his wife of 59 years, Reva; daughters Mary Lou Area and Alida Calvillo; son G. Louis Graziadio III; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Services will be held Tuesday at Pepperdine's Firestone Fieldhouse.