For the better part of half a century, if an issue in Southern California was big or momentous, and it needed organizing, promoting, leadership or repairing, there was one guy who got the call: Peter V. Ueberroth.
He was the local Mr. Fixit in a superhero cape, the engine from Orange County that could. His presence on the job was once wanted so desperately and so urgently that he was chased down in his car by a fire department helicopter.
That kind of demand sprang from a curriculum vitae that documented success after success, the capstone of which was Ueberroth’s helming of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games (earning him Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” honors), and which also included a tenure as Commissioner of Major League Baseball, heading the Rebuild L.A. movement, a run for the governorship of California and buying the iconic Pebble Beach golf properties back from the Japanese.
And, today, at age 77, he’s still rolling.
“I think there have been about six or seven times in my life,” says Ueberroth, “when there’s been some kind of major change or crisis that’s afforded me an opportunity or a challenge.”
“I think there have been about six or seven times in my life when there’s been some kind of major change or crisis that’s afforded me an opportunity or a challenge.”
The first of those came when he was barely out of San Jose State University, which he attended on an athletic scholarship (he lettered in water polo). After earning a degree in business, Ueberroth, at age 22, became a vice president of Trans International Airlines, even working for a time as a baggage handler to get a feel for the company. Shortly after, in 1963, he founded his own travel company, First Travel Corp. By the time he sold the business in 1980, it was the second largest of its kind in North America, eclipsed only by American Express.
In the beginning, he says, “It’s all about getting enough money to pay the bills and make the mortgage. Many entrepreneurs are circumstance-driven. You’re not necessarily born to be an entrepreneur. You can’t find a job, so you start a business.”
One of the strategies that Ueberroth credited with bringing First Travel Corp. success over the years was the hiring of female managers.
“Other businesses didn’t have women managers,” he says. “Women in those days were nurses or schoolteachers. But we’d hire men or women. We started to attract the best women because they knew they could become managers.”
By the time Ueberroth sold First Travel Corp. he had managed to attract more than a little attention, particularly in Southern California, where Los Angeles had been chosen to host the 1984 Olympic Games. The problem: No one wanted to pay for them.
“When L.A. finally got the games,” says Ueberroth, “the people of Los Angeles put a referendum on the ballot and voted not to spend any money on the Olympic games. It passed overwhelmingly. That was tantamount to giving up the games.”
The idea was floated by then-Mayor Tom Bradley, prominent L.A. businessman John Argue and others that the games should be privately funded. The International Olympic Committee, says Ueberroth, was in favor of the idea since it had no money of its own to fund the Olympics. A private committee was formed.
“They had to find somebody to run it and I was selected,” says Ueberroth. “I got a cardboard box from the mayor’s office and we opened up a bank account and tried to figure out how to do it. It was a total startup.”
By the time the games began, Ueberroth and his team of around 150 local businesspeople and entrepreneurs had managed to corral nearly 50,000 workers—mostly unpaid volunteers—to staff the games, as well as about a dozen exclusive sponsors. The sponsorship arrangement in particular, he says, “changed the dynamics of the Olympic movement, and really all of sports. It’s an idea that continues to work.”
Ueberroth’s Olympic legacy was stunning: He had overseen the first Olympic Games ever to make a financial surplus. Approximately $240 million was funneled back to the local community, largely to fund youth sports programs and the United States Olympic Committee.
Time magazine took notice and named Ueberroth “Man of the Year” for 1984.
Ueberroth was surprised by the news that he was on the cover of Time. “I went to the local 7-Eleven, and there it was. There were 10 copies and I wanted to buy them all, but the guy wouldn’t sell them to me. I said, ‘Look, if I prove that I’m the guy on the cover, can I have ’em all?’ I had my hand over the cover photo. He said of course. So I took my hand away and he sold them to me.”
Even before the games began, Ueberroth had attracted the attention of Major League Baseball, and was tapped to succeed Bowie Kuhn as commissioner. He took over the job that October. The big leagues at the time, he says, were “a mess.”
“The agreement I made with the owners,” he says, “was that I would take only one term, and I moved to New York for that period of time. Most of the teams were losing quite a bit of money, and the whole distribution of games on television was a disaster. Also, there was a huge problem of illegal drugs—not performance-enhancing drugs, but illegal drugs in a number of the clubs. We took some very draconian measures, and it got the game back onto an even keel.”
Bradley was still mayor of Los Angeles in 1992 when the city erupted in rioting following the Rodney King verdict. Bradley realized that a comprehensive reconstruction and business boosting effort was going to be desperately needed. Once again, he called on Ueberroth. The riots were still flaring.
“I was driving my car down Pacific Coast Highway when I got the call,” says Ueberroth. “I said I’d come and help right away. I asked for them to find me an entry point where I could park my car in some shopping center and somebody—the sheriffs or police—could meet me and get me through the lines. [Bradley] said, ‘I think we can do it quicker. If you look up, you’ll see a fire department helicopter following your car.’ ”
Soon, Ueberroth and a team of others had built a nonprofit organization called Rebuild L.A., funding it once again with private money. “It was hard work,” says Ueberroth, “but we got a lot done, and again without taxpayer money.”
Ueberroth advanced the same idea when he decided to run for governor of California in 2003: “Get in there and make some real changes and do it for only one term—not run for office again.” Ueberroth’s level of popular support, however, could not match that of the eventual winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ueberroth pulled out of the race in September.
“Get in there and make some real changes…”
Peter V. Ueberroth
Today, Ueberroth lives in Laguna Beach with his wife Ginny, and remains active in business, philanthropy and civic projects on several levels. He serves on the board of directors of The Irvine Company,® and is chairman of the board of a company he helped start 10 years ago, Aircastle Limited (NYSE: AYR), a commercial aircraft leasing company. He invests in cancer research and remains involved with his family’s charitable foundation, now run by his daughter, Vicki Booth.
Ueberroth regularly plays golf at Pelican Hill,® but in the golf world he’s best known for leading the team that purchased the Pebble Beach Company from the Japanese in 1999 that included Clint Eastwood, Dick Ferris, Arnold Palmer and Bill Perocchi.
“And we will not sell it,” he says. “In this day and age everybody has exit strategies and we just don’t believe in that because certain things shouldn’t be sold. They should be preserved and everybody’s grandchildren will be able to experience the same thing. Pebble is a piece of sacred ground.”