How rich are members of the Spanos family, the NFL owners asking San Diego city voters to hike the tax on hotel visits and hand it over to subsidize a $1.8 billion professional football and meeting venue downtown?
By absolute numbers, their wealth is staggering — and growing ever greater. According to the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, the Spanoses rank 1067th, up from 1500th last year. Among America’s super rich, they place 372nd, with a cool net worth of $2.4 billion.
But what may seem like a lot of money to average San Diegans — whose median household income is $66,192 and more-or-less holding, according to the census bureau — is not enough to keep the growing brood of ultimate heirs to the fortune of family patriarch Alex Spanos in private jets and caviar for the rest of their lives.
Thus, they have turned to the giant Wall Street investment bank of Goldman Sachs, the gold-plated institution which during the last decade alone has done 30 stadium deals with team owners of the National Football League.
A so-called limited liability company, set up in the state of Delaware by the Spanos family on July 5, is widely believed to be the vehicle of choice through which Goldman and the Chargers owners will wash untold millions of dollars of annual profits and an equal amount of paper losses for avoiding taxes, as they soak up their yearly subsidy from San Diego city taxpayers.
The operation is on the Q.T., with family spokesman and Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani declining to respond to questions about its purposes. The nondescript-sounding Sports, Entertainment, and Tourism, LLC, has the potential to expand the family fortune to dimensions unimaginable to the family’s founder, now sequestered at his estate in Stockton, suffering from terminal dementia.
In November, 2010, it was widely reported that Goldman was shopping an undisclosed percentage of team ownership to unidentified Los Angeles investors.
“In a family-owned business, it’s common as the parents get up in age to attempt to diversify and generate cash to handle estate issues, and that’s exactly what’s happening here," Fabiani told the Union-Tribune. "I think if you look around at many family-owned businesses, you’ll see the same thing.”
Insiders say a new stadium would likely boost the team’s value to outside investors by hundreds of millions of dollars. But no deal was ever announced, and, according to Fabiani, the Spanos family continues to own 96 percent, with two other individuals holding the remaining 4 percent. They have been previously identified in news accounts as retired restaurateur George Pernicano, with three percent, and ex-TV executive Bill Fox with 1 percent.
Twenty-some years ago, when Spanos, then in his late sixties, was healthy, full of energy, and at the top of his big money game, he instilled in his children the unwavering belief that they had a birthright to be super rich.
“A few hundred cars wove their way through Stockton to the spectacular new home of millionaire builder-developer Alex Spanos and his wife, Faye, for their 50th anniversary dinner-dance Saturday,” reported the August 26, 1998 Stockton Record. “The Spanoses, who like everything to work smoothly, had 35 parking valets to handle the horsepower. Then guests were transported in golf carts to their home, Villa Angelica, where 16 Walt Tolleson violinists fiddled away.”
Hollywood fixture Bob Hope, Alex’s longtime show business crony, arrived in a limo. “Bob made his way past the swimming pool filled with roses — you could almost imagine him saying, ‘I’ve heard of putting Four Roses in water, but 25,000 of ‘em?’ — to find his place at the head table.”
A former mayor of San Diego, who had become a United States senator and then governor with Alex’s financial backing, also paid tribute. “Governor Pete Wilson began his remarks with, ‘It’s nice to be in a typical Stockton home.’”
Noted the paper, “The home — with marble floors and terraces, a chapel, three guest bedrooms and a master bedroom suite with dressing rooms that are bigger than most people’s living rooms — is set in a grove of shrubs and trees, most of which were brought in full grown.
“There were 450 guests at the dinner, 450 three-tier wedding cakes (chocolate, vanilla or coffee) were served for dessert, and there was dancing under the stars to the music of Les Brown and His Band of Renown from a stage that had been covered and framed with lemon leaves.
“Then there were the favors: Faberge eggs that opened to reveal Faye and Alex dancing just as they did to the ‘Anniversary Waltz.’ Thanks for the memories.”
Homespun grandiosity was Alex’s calling card. “He was named for Alexander the Great,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in a 1985 profile. “Actually, his father planned to name him for a Greek warrior, Leonidas, but at the baptism, his godfather conferred the name Alexander, and it stuck.”
“I like to think I am the best there is at what I do, and so I have conquered the world like Alexander. But I don’t believe I am the reincarnation of Alexander the Great,” observed Alex.
A big-screen color television devotee, his favorite show was “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” London tabloid writer Robin Leach’s paean to the ubiquitous ostentation of the 1980s. “Damn, I wish I had taped that show,” said Spanos of an episode about a wealthy Asian investor’s newest nautical toy. “Can you imagine putting so much into a boat?”
Alex, who made his first fortune as a developer of apartment houses for the middle class, told reporters his craving for luxury and ever more money as an adult emerged from his childhood deprivation at the hands of his father, a Greek immigrant baker.
“From the time he was 8 years old, he was awakened at 3 a.m. and forced to prepare pastry for four hours each morning before school. If he objected, he was beaten by his father.”
Said Spanos, “We had to take off our shoes after school to save wear on the soles.” Wrote the Times, “At 13, Spanos had had enough and decided to run away one night. But before he got to the edge of town, he started to feel cold and scared. Returning home, he received one of the more memorable beatings of his childhood.”
Alex told reporters he rarely got physical with his own children, preferring to administer discipline with an iron fist clad in a velvet glove of affluence. “He was never afraid to reprimand his children, but said he administered only one whipping to his son Dean, when he was sassy to his mother,” the Times reported.
Dean, now 66, the eldest of Alex’s two boys and two girls, was called Deno by his father. “It wasn’t until his senior year of college,” according to the newspaper’s account, “that Dean Spanos went to his father and asked to work for him.”
Today, in the patriarchal fashion established by Alex, Dean is chairman and chief executive officer of A.G. Spanos Companies, which holds many of the family’s assets. Whatever business brains are left in the Spanos family, say uncharitable observers, Dean — who runs the Chargers with his own sons A.G. Spanos and John Spanos — has them.
Dean is also known to be the family’s chief political strategist, backing Texas Republican ex-governor Rick Perry’s failed presidential bids of 2012 and 2016. In December 2011, he and his siblings and their spouses threw a lavish fundraiser for Perry at Sacramento’s Park Ultra Lounge, whose website describes it as “an upscale, exclusive destination that’s as much indulgent as it is luxurious.”
“Dean is a good friend and I would be lying if I didn’t tell you, come to Texas and we would love to have their athletic club there,” Perry told the Union-Tribune in August 2013 about his desire to see the Chargers moved from San Diego.
Dean, who favors Italian loafers, is also a big supporter of billionaire North County GOP congressman Darrell Issa, to whose campaigns he has given $5000 and who, in turn, has endorsed the Chargers downtown stadium subsidy plan on November’s ballot.
His hillside La Jolla mansion is equally pricey. “From nearly every room, there is a dazzling view of the coastline,” according to Ranch & Coast Magazine. “Despite its lofty location, the house, says Dean, is very down to earth. ‘What I mean by down to earth is that every room, you can get comfortable in. There’s really no formality to our home — and the views are spectacular.’”
Dean’s younger brother Michael, 55, who is president of A.G. Spanos, also has a taste for the good life. When he got married in 1989, there were 550 guests, “including Bob and Dolores Hope; three chamber orchestras and the Dynatones, and party planner Stanlee Gatti will use 15,000 pink roses in his décor,” noted the San Francisco Chronicle.
Then, in August 2004, Michael anted up $10.7 million to outbid sixteen others for Tekaya, one of Lake Tahoe’s most resplendent estates.
“While the bidding didn’t start until 2 p.m., bidders began arriving in their luxury cars before noon for a last look around the property,” reported the agent handling the sale. “The event resembled a social occasion, complete with hors d’oeuvres and live harp music.”
The mansion boasted “a dual-room fireplace and a wet bar open onto both the living room and an adjacent sitting room,” wrote the Reno-Gazette Journal. “Beyond the dining room are a family room and the kitchen, which is loaded with high-end appliances, including Gaggenau cooking hardware and a separate Sub-Zero refrigerator and vertical freezer.”
“An out-of-the-way door opens onto a curved staircase leading down to a wine-tasting room and climate-controlled wine cellar, from which a shallow staircase gives access to the home’s central computer and mechanical control rooms.”
In January 2010, Michael found himself in the middle of a not-as-pleasant housing situation when A.G. Spanos Companies agreed to spend $15 million to settle a two-year-old lawsuit brought by the National Fair Housing Alliance and four of its member organizations alleging that many of the firm’s dwelling units were not accessible to the handicapped.
“Spanos was shocked that there was a problem at all because he had hired architects and other professionals and had relied on their advice that (the buildings) were being built properly,” company attorney Michael Gurev told the Union-Tribune.
“They were also inspected by local officials and approved. Therefore, Spanos, when he learned of this issue, immediately took steps to address it.”
The making and sale of fine wine is a pursuit of Dea Spanos Berberian, Alex’s first born daughter, secretary of the A.G. Spanos board. In June 2002, Dea’s husband Ron, from a wealthy Stockton family, announced he and Alex Spanos were buying the Bell Wine Cellars, an ultra-premium Napa Valley winery run by Anthony Bell that has since made millions of dollars each year.
“Alex and I both see excellent potential in building on Anthony’s 25 years of winemaking successes, both at Beaulieu Vineyard and on his own,” said Ron Berberian. “Our goal is to make Bell Wine Cellars a world class wine production facility.”
As the business burgeoned, neighbors began to complain. Plans this year to expand the winery from making 40,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons annually, along with visitor and event expansion from 4000 to nearly 15,000 people met bitter resistance from those who asserted that Napa’s rustic atmosphere was being ruined by big city profiteers.
“Essentially from hearing crickets and maybe a little bit of the rushing wind through the tree leaves, you’re suddenly going to be subjected to hearing a mechanical noise,” said opposition consultant Eric Yee of expanded wine chilling devices to be installed by the growing winery.
Last March, the Napa county board of supervisors overturned the planning commission’s decision against the development and allowed the Spanos-led expansion to proceed.
Another region of the Berberians’ extensive financial realm is Berberian European Motors, a Mercedes and Volvo dealership in Stockton. Taking a page from the Chargers’s subsidy playbook, in 2014 the firm agreed to keep its business in Stockton and build a new facility if the city council agreed to a hefty tax rebate.
“Under the Sales Tax Agreement, the City will rebate fifty percent (50%) of the net new sales tax revenue it receives above $217,000 annually, not to exceed $1.5 Million or a twenty-year time period, whichever occurs first,” according to an October 21, 2014 city council resolution.
“Berberian European Motors, Inc., will make a significant capital investment by constructing a new car dealership within the City of Stockton and will increase its number of employees upon completion of the new facility.”
The Berberians also run Stockton’s lucrative Bank of Agriculture and Commerce. Ron’s father Art, a post-Prohibition liquor dealer who had come out of the Roaring Twenties, first invested in the bank in 1965.
“An Armenian born in Syria, he’d immigrated to the U.S. as a child with his parents,” wrote Alex Spanos of Art Berberian in his memoir, Sharing the Wealth. “Although he was ten years older than I, our ethnic backgrounds gave us a common ground.”
“He was a high-stakes gambler, a familiar face in the casinos of Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas,” Spanos continued.
“Back then, in the early to mid-fifties, he would sometimes win — or lose — upwards of $50,000 a night. Art taught me the difference between a gambler and a player. ‘A player just likes to play, he’s not there to beat the house,’ Art told me.
“’A player tries to make a big show of winning, but he usually loses because he hasn’t taken the time to learn the game. Casinos love those guys. But a gambler is there to win. A gambler knows what the odds are, he studies them, and then he bets. He’s there to beat the house.’”
Berberian’s investment in the Bank of Agriculture and Commerce has paid his heirs many dividends over the years, but not without controversy. In June 2009, the bank agreed pay a $100,000 penalty to the Federal Deposit Insurance Administration to settle charges, without admitting guilt, that it had improperly arranged with a tax software provider to solicit recipients of social security and other federal benefits for deposits.
“The FDIC discovered instances where check cashers, payday lenders, and retailers withheld all or a significant part of beneficiaries’ payments by deducting transaction fees, cashing fees, short-term loans, and repayment of loans, leaving recipients without funds for basic living expenses,” according to testimony at a July 2010 Treasury Department hearing.
“The bank was required to shut down this program.”
As for the fourth Spanos sibling: “My daughter Alexis would marry Dean’s best friend, Barry Ruhl, whom we all had met in 1962, when Dean and I, and Barry and his father, Phil, played in a foursome at Stockton Country Club,” wrote Alex Spanos in his memoir.
After his marriage to Alexis, Barry went to work for his father in law’s company and later became executive director of the Spanos California Tour, until it was shut down as a financial disaster in September 2006.
“We felt that to grow the tour and make it more lucrative for the players was going to take a lot more time and effort than our staff was going to be able to do,” Ruhl told the Stockton Record.
Alexis, who sits on the board of A.G. Spanos as “company liaison to local non-profit agencies,” does charity work to generate good will for the family. In April she was dispatched on the Spanos jet to San Diego to promote a pre-election dog adoption program sponsored by the Chargers to demonstrate that the team, long a laggard in giving to local charity, had changed its ways.
“For the Chargers to do something different like this is really neat,” Alexis is quoted on the team’s website as saying.
“It’s never been done by the Chargers before and it’s important to engage the community. To help save the lives of animals hits people in a certain way.”