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Profile of: “I’ve often been described as being
Andrew E. Stevens
‘a rebel with a cause’”
—Andrew E. Stevens
By John L. Seitz – Courier Managing Editor
From such a relatively small country, it is amazing the contributions emigrees from Hungary have had on California industry through the years. In Hollywood alone (where to date more than 140 have been nominated for Academy Awards), the list includes studio founders Adolph Zukor of Paramount and William Fox plus names like Korda, Curtiz, Lugosi, Houdini, Rozsa, Lorre, Eszterhas, Laszlo, Pal and Gabors way too numerous to mention.
When Andy Grove, the man behind Intel, congressman Tom Lantos and so many others are added, some might question the accuracy of a sign that hung at the old MGM commissary: “Just Because You’re Hungarian Doesn’t Mean You’re a Genius!”
One Beverly Hills resident of the past 55 years would seem to fit the same pattern. Andrew E. Stevens started off as a document forger in his native land and later rose to become a major success story in California land development (not to mention being CEO of a half dozen other businesses he built here and abroad). That unlikely dichotomy of vocations can be easily explained.
During the middle of his teen years, becoming a counterfeit pro was simply a matter of life and death. He had joined the underground movement as a teenager to fight Hitler’s Nazis who had overrun his country.
“I became quite adept at forging signatures on documents and passes which was helpful in allowing countless Jews to escape as well as keeping many other compatriots out of harm’s way,” he stated. “I’ve often been described as being ‘a rebel with a cause’ to paraphrase the old movie title.
“Indirectly working for that great Swedish humanitarian and diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who is credited with saving the lives of more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews during World War II, I successfully faked all sorts of protection passes from the authorities but eventually they caught on to me. While being taken for interrogation which undoubtedly would have been followed by the firing squad, I escaped from my two guards and hid out on the floor of a phone booth.”
Following the war, he studied chemistry at the University of Munich in southern Germany for a short time until, like so many others from Eastern Europe to avoid the arrival of a new and brutal communist regime, emigrated to the United States from their ravaged homelands. He arrived in New York as a displaced person in 1949 and came across the country to California virtually penniless.
Though his ambition was to become a chemist, he started out at 19 as a busboy at the old Mama Weiss restaurant at 224 So. Beverly Dr. (now the site of Ruth Chris Steak House) and then as a waiter’s assistant at the Cock’n Bull on the Sunset Strip, learning the English language as he went along.
His day jobs included photography, pumping gasoline and working in a downtown lamp factory. From there, he ended up at White Lighting on La Brea designing light fixtures and lamps for tract homes (then going up all over the Southland).
“After a couple of years at White Lighting, I got fired as what is known in the trade as an ‘economy measure’ and that’s where I got involved in my first entrepreneurial experience,” explained Stevens.
“A friend and I scraped together some money, bought a small parcel of land near LAX and opened a gas station. We ended up promptly going broke as our take was only one cent out of the 20 cent per gallon gasoline price, a far cry from today. It was just too cheap to make a go of it there.
“In the little spare time that was available, I went to real estate school and got my sales license. From an office of the M. Penn Phillips Co. in Azusa in the east San Gabriel Valley, I started selling graded land for homesites which they had developed in Hesperia way out in the desert. Since I’ve always lived in Beverly Hills and there were no freeways, this often turned into six hours on the road.”
With so much driving involved, it didn’t take much for Stevens to jump at the chance at becoming manager of the firm’s realty office in Montebello where his next emphasis was popularizing the Salton Riviera. By age 28, he had already obtained a broker’s license and set up his own shop.
“I always preferred specializing in developed rather than raw land because, in most cases, the grading was already done and the permits obtained so there weren’t all the hassles of starting from scratch,” claimed Stevens.
“Because of established land niche and a reputation for being able to actually make sales in such then barren locales as Hesperia and the Salton Sea, it wasn’t long before our company was being sought after to assist the marketing efforts of some large developers whose inventory was stagnant.
The late John Hadley of Beverly Hills gave him his first big break by turning over his Whispering Forest tract in Big Bear Lake to the fledgling company.
After that, Stevens was hired by National Gypsum to market its Tri-Palm Estates project in Thousand Palms, near Palm Desert. (Eventually, he would end up buying the entire development from that corporation , building 27-hole golf course there and managing it throughout its history up till today.)
The land there had been originally owned by McCulloch Properties. Prior to Stevens’ appointment, National Gypsum had hired McCulloch’s real estate sales force with the latter firm now forced to split its time between Tri-Palms Estates and McCulloch’s own Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Unfortunately, both projects began to suffer from stagnant sales but once the Stevens’ group began to evidence success marketing Tri-Palms, this caused the ripple effect of them getting the attention of McCulloch executives.
In 1963, Robert McCulloch bought a 26-square mile parcel of barren desert, the largest single tract of state land ever sold in Arizona at a cost of less than $75 per acre.
This was to become Lake Havasu (derived from the Mohave name for “blue water”), now a vibrant city of almost 50,000 residents, 1,000 businesses and a college. In those early days, the first residents often had to live in tents and make do with kerosene lighting and other primitive conditions until completion of a hotel, which became a virtual oasis, offering a spectacular view of the lake, surrounded by lush greenery and towering palms.
McCulloch had purchased a fleet of 11 Lockheed Electras to fly prospective buyers in from all over the country. Splashy magazine ads enticed potential snow-weary customers to take a free flight to “paradise” and some 137,000 of them did just that.
“Despite all these costly marketing gimmicks, sales still remained relatively soft at Lake Havasu City and our success in selling at Tri-Palms led to my company becoming involved there,” said Stevens.
“We concentrated our sales efforts primarily in California and the strategy brought results. Of course it didn’t hurt when at the same time Bob McCulloch had made his controversial $2.5 million purchase of London Bridge, which gave the city worldwide fame - good and bad – when it finally opened in Oct. 1971.”
There had been a span of some kind over the River Thames for 2,000 years of recorded history. Like some of its predecessors, this well traveled version of London Bridge designed by John Rennie in 1831 was gradually sinking into the river. Since it now had to accommodate 10,000 vehicles and 100,000 pedestrians using it on a daily basis, it was decided to put the historical landmark on the auction block rather than raze it.
When McCulloch got his prize, he dismantled it brick by brick, shipped it across the Atlantic through the Panama Canal to the docks of Long Beach, and then trucked 300 miles inland to its new home.
With the experience working as a sales agent for various corporations on their land projects, Stevens decided the time was ripe to take the plunge himself. Forming Great Western Properties (then known as GWP) in the early 1970s, he began acquiring the remaining developed land inventory in their portfolios as many of these big players had decided to get out of the business.
“I managed to buy this acreage from National Gypsum, McCulloch, John Hadley and others. Best of all, they financed much of the purchase price as a means of getting it off their books.”
Stevens continued: “For the past 30 years, Great Western Properties has built a number high profile tracts. Besides further developing Tri-Palms, we took on Sequoia Park and the 6,000-acre Yosemite Lakes Park in Coursegold, 20 miles from Fresno. We do the marketing, much of the sales and, after that, maintain the management.
“My sales pitch is now what it’s always been: namely – it’s often cheaper to buy a square foot of land than a square foot of silk or linoleum and you’ll make a lot more money in the long run, too.”
Great Western had sales offices in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Reno and Honolulu and, after adding international parcels to its scope of operations, opened additional facilities in Brussels, Hong Kong and on the Pacific island of Guam.
Besides all the success in his adopted country and abroad, he has maintained especially close ties with his native Hungary. With the 1988 end of the Cold War and the ouster of the remaining vestiges of communist rule, he established one of the first capitalist ventures there – Euro Enterprises, which is still going strong in many ventures such as being the sole distributor of the Biotene toothpaste line of products in the country.
“One of our partnerships is Compexpo, a computer-related trade show and convention organizing and trading firm, Stevens pointed out. “Budapest is not only quite a tourist attraction in Europe but a business center, as well.
“Through the years, we have staged Compfair, the largest computer trade show in Eastern Europe, and expositions on interior decoration, crime prevention, hospital management, and many others.
However, one of his favorite and relatively new activities is College International US whereby he serves as the placement service for students from America and other countries - often with financial or grade problems - wishing to attend some of Hungary's revered universities.
“Many young people actually prefer to experience going abroad for college and, in fact, some like going to several different countries. Since institutions in and around Budapest are among the best, our bureau enables them to cut through much of the red tape, get an answer in a timely fashion as far as their admissions are concerned, and set up their studies, travel and housing," Stevens explained.
Although business administration, psychology, finance, international trade, dentistry and law are among the majors some American youths have asked his assistance with, it is the Hungarian medical schools which occupy the majority of requests.
"Schools like Semmelweis, Szeged, and Pecs are world class and already accredited by US medical boards. They are willing to look at the 'entire student' not just grades as happens in the US," he said. “I love to help young people with their ambition, especially in medicine.
“By not allowing them entry into medical school for subjective or purely financial reasons, the world could be losing some potentially great doctors and I don’t want this to happen.”
As a man who taught himself the language of his adopted country primarily by reading the newspapers, Stevens has another pet project called US English. This aims at strongly encouraging immigrants coming into the United States to learn their new tongue as he had to himself more than five decades ago.
“It’s a 25-year old concept but more relevant now than ever before.”
His office walls are covered by literally dozens of photographs of Stevens with some of the most powerful political and entertainment celebrities as evidence of his business and charitable acumen.
Stevens was chairman of the Holocaust Monument Committee and erected four such monuments: two near Beverly Park in the Pan Pacific area and another pair in Budapest.
One of the biggest honors he ever received was when in 1997 Arpad Goncz, president of Hungary, came to Beverly Hills and presented him with the “Gold Cross of Merit”, that country’s most important accolades, in a ceremony at the Friars Club.
Stevens is VP of ORT, the worldwide Jewish education and training charity, chairing many of its committees. His other activities include in Vista Del Mar; the Beverly Hills Rotary Club; DARE; Los Angeles Crime Prevention Task Force; Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s fund-raising arm, The Medallions; and Emanuel Foundation.
He was the founder of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, Israel, which plays a major role in the area’s healthcare services in collaboration with Columbia University Health Center.
Stevens is the father of two prominent Beverly Hills citizens and BHHS alumni: plastic surgeon Leslie Stevens and attorney Glenn Stevens. His wife of 12 years, Ildiko, whom he met in Budapest, is an immigration attorney. They have a five year old son, Armand.
The Talmud says: “He who saves one life saves the world.” Andrew E. Stevens began saving lives as a teenager and has spent the subsequent years enriching the lives of so many others.
He is indeed a fortunate man.
Andrew E. Stevens and College International US may be reached at 310-276-9080 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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