George Argyros, former United States Ambassador to Spain and one of America’s foremost real estate investors talks about his Greek heritage, his business journey and the key to success.
What part of Greece does your family come from?
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.
Do you speak Greek?
I do speak Greek. My grandmother lived with us for years, and she only spoke Greek. We spoke Greek in our home.
How did you start your business?
I started working in a supermarket as a “box boy” at age 14. I continued working in the grocery industry through high school and then college, graduating from Chapman College when I was 22 with a major in business and economics. The following year I managed a supermarket in Pal Springs. During that time, I realized I did not want to work for someone else – I wanted to be an entrepreneur. After studying to become licensed in real estate, insurance, and securities, I borrowed $900, and entered the growing real estate business in Orange County. By the age of 26, I opened my own real estate broker firm, and in 1968, established Arnel Development Company.
When was the turning point of your success?
When I made my decision to enter the real estate business and the establishment of my own company. In the early 70’s, I started diversifying into other businesses, as well.
I see you were the Co-owner of Air Cal ? How did that happen?
In 1981 I bought a baseball team, the Seattle Mariners. Two months later a good friend called me and told me about Air Cal, and suggested we buy the airline. We went public, and successfully sold to American Airlines in 1987. I was owner of the Seattle Mariners Baseball Club of the American League for nine full seasons.
Although I started in real estate, I continued to diversify by buying different companies.
What propelled you to buy the baseball team?
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!
Where were you born? What was your childhood like?
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.”
What companies does your group own?
I have been in business since 1962, and I started with nothing. 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.
Would you be interested in investing in Greece?
We like to be somewhat involved with our investments. The problem is that it is so far away in order to manage it. I do think Greece has a lot of potential. One of the problems that Greece has is that it is so socialized. I hope that will change for Greece’s sake. I would like to see Greece give people more of an opportunity to succeed. I think too much socialization is not healthy.
Do you think Greece is an attractive destination for investors?
Yes, but the government has too much involvement, and it would be challenging to buy and develop property in Greece. My opinion is that Greece is too bureaucratic.
Lets turn to a new chapter and talk about politics. What is your relationship with President Bush like?
I am a republican by political choice. I believe in free enterprise. I first began to be very active in politics while working for President Nixon’s campaign. He was a real joy to be with and we became very good friends.
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.
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.
What’s your opinion about the new administration?
I look at it as “on the job training”. He doesn’t have a lot of experience. What has he done in his life? He can only be as good as the people around him, and his from Chicago! I wish him well, and want him to do well, but we are concerned.
Do you think Palin would make a good Republican candidate?
I think she could make a good Republican candidate, but I am not sure for what office. I am not ready to make a commitment that I would back her for president, but I think she is a very interesting, smart and also street-smart woman. She has a lot of appeal, and I respect her. I have not made a decision yet on who I would support for president.
Would you like to see yourself running for office?
No, Never! Politics do not appeal to me. I don’t want to run for elective office. I will continue to serve publicly, and continue to help any way I can.
How did your life change since you became Ambassador?
My life was enriched by the experience. It was a unique opportunity to live in Spain. The people were warm and welcoming. The country is beautiful. Julia and I were very honored to be able to serve our country in that capacity.
What was most memorable about being Ambassador to Spain?
The Queen and King are great people and friends. I enjoyed their friendship the most. I am going back with a group of Greek at the end of January. We are going to talk to the EU about some concerns with the Patriarchy in Istanbul. I am really honored to be going on this trip and try to help.
Do you think the real estate crisis can worsen?
Why don’t you ask me about Obama. It is the “Obama crisis” not the real estate crisis. I am very concerned with where this country is going. I am worried about the direction we are headed. We need to be careful not to become socialistic. I am concerned about where Obama is taking us. I want him to be successful, and I want to support him, but if I think he is doing the wrong things I am not going to support him.
The economy is in very bad shape. There is not much optimism. They are going to raise taxes. Currently, the entire economy is the worst in many years, but it will recover.
How easy is it for someone to start his or her own business in the US today?
First, you have to have determination, hard work and patience. In this country, if you have integrity, work hard, treat people right; the future is unlimited. You have to be committed, but it is worth it and it can change lives. American businesses help people everyday providing jobs and opportunities. You can do anything you want to do in America with hard work, education, commitment, and integrity. Someone once told me “if you tell the truth you have far less to remember”. I live by that! It’s a lot easier that way. I can’t remember very many things!
Have you been a donor for many causes? Where do your passions lie?
I graduated from Chapman College, and I give back to them. I admire what Chapman stands for. I am very committed and supportive of private higher education.
What are some of your hobbies?
I enjoy snow skiing, hunting, fishing, boating, golf, scuba diving, and my grandchildren. I love the sea above everything. I am the most relaxed on my boat. It’s a Greek thing!