George Marcus: Tycoon with a Mission to Preserve Hellenic Culture

NEW YORK – When Greek Americans think of real estate magnates in California, they usually think of Alex Spanos, George Argyros and Angelo Tsakopoulos. But there’s another Greek American real estate success story in the Golden State who is also in that league: George Marcus.

Mr. Marcus, 68, is very well known in California. He counts House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein among his friends. He is also friends with Bill Clinton, and is a member of the former President’s foundation.

But Mr. Marcus is also a Greek American who is deeply concerned about preserving Hellenic culture and heritage in America. That’s why he co-founded the National Hellenic Society, an organization that sponsors and organizes programs and activities which “promote and preserve the values and ideals of Hellenic culture, thereby enriching our community and nation (www.hellenicsociety.org).”

The first event NHS co-sponsored, along with the Onassis Foundation, is the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent production of Euripides’ “Ion,” which has been running at Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, DC since March 10. The last performance is being delivered this weekend (see Goings-On section on page 2 for details). NHS helped raise some $300 thousand to support STC’s production of the famous Ancient Greek tragedy.

“I’m very involved with the National Hellenic Society, and trying to put that on the map. It’s an organization I started with George Stamas and George Korkos – the three George’s (chuckles). We believe our community is due for an updated heritage organization that will attract and maintain the interest of a group of Greek Americans who are deeply committed to our culture and traditions; and reach out to our young people,” Mr. Marcus told the National Herald during an extensive interview.

Mr. Marcus started NHS with Mr. Stamas, a successful attorney from Baltimore, and Dr. Korkos, the well-known plastic surgeon from Milwaukee who was very good friends with the late Telly Savalas. The Society now has around 40 members, to include some of the country’s most prominent Greek Americans: George Behrakis, Charles Cotros, Michael Jaharis, C. Dean Metropoulos and Mr. Tsakopoulos, among them (Drexel University President Constantine Papadakis also joined the Society recently, but passed away suddenly last Sunday evening, see story on page 1).

The Bethesda, Maryland-based organization’s board of directors consists of Mr. Marcus, Mr. Stamas, Dr. Korkos, Theofanis Economides, Anthony Saris, Tim Maniatis, Art Dimopoulos, Tim Joannides and Endy Zemenides.

Mr. Marcus is also on the board of directors of the Elios Society, a San Francisco-based organization of successful Greek Americans who support cultural activities.

“Elios has about 75 members. We help local museums collect ancient Greek art; we’ve been supporting the annual folk dance festival of the churches in the West for the last 12-15 years or more; and we hold a major event every other year honoring prominent artistic people in our community like (Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman) Jim Gianopulos,” he said.

This past November, Elios honored five distinguished and award-winning Greek Americans in the entertainment industry: stage and film actor Michael Constantine; actress Olympia Dukakis; Motion Picture Arts * Sciences Academy President Sid Ganis; singer Tony Orlando; and film and television producer Anne Thomopoulos.

Mr. Marcus’ interest and involvement with NHS and Elios seems quite a switch for a man who, due to cultural pressures in America, changed his name from Moutsanas to Marcus after he graduated from high school, something he now regrets having done.

“I wanted to be ‘American’ so badly, I looked at things in ways I shouldn’t have: ‘My parents speak this funny language; they have a funny name; they have this funny religion.’ That sort of thing. I grew up being ridiculed by everybody at my high school. I was the guy with the funny name. They used to call me Montezuma and anything else you can think of (chuckles), so I contracted my name to Marcus. It was stupid. I should never have done that. But my parents did not, and my son changed his name back to Moutsanas,” Mr. Marcus said.

“In my neighborhood, there were almost no Greeks, so from the time I was 7-8 years old until the time I graduated high school, I wanted to be more American and less Greek. I eventually started regretting all that. What was I thinking? My heritage is so rich and beautiful,” he said.

“I care very much about our community, and I want it to prosper. But I’m worried. We’re all faced with 2nd- and 3rd-generation dilution. My own kids aren’t as in-touch as they could be, and I want to do everything in my power to help them understand and appreciate their rich heritage, so I’m tugging at them,” he said.

“I don’t want my kids to feel how I felt, and that’s a big part of the reason why I’m so focused on the National Hellenic Society. I’m concerned that younger Greek Americans are drifting away from their heritage. The American melting pot pushes people into homogenizing themselves, so I hope my kids always remember their traditions; that they remember how my wife dyes 400-500 eggs for Easter; and that we invite a few hundred people to our home to celebrate and eats lots of lamb for a reason. I also think preserving use of our language is important. I don’t think our culture can survive with out it, and I think it should be a requirement,” he added.

Mr. Marcus and his wife Judy reside in Palo Alto. They have been married for 44 years, and have four children: John, Mary, Alexandria and Demetra. Mr. Marcus and his wife grew up in the same neighborhood, and both attended San Francisco State University, “but we didn’t hang out or anything like that,” he said, adding that he met her because he was close friends with her brother, Peter Otten.

Mr. Marcus was born in Greece on the island of Euboea (Evia) in 1941 to John and Maria (Mary) Moutsanas. The Moutsanas family tree includes Greek Revolutionary War hero Odysseas Androutsos. Mr. Marcus’ father was from Agia Anna (Saint Anne), an inland village resting on the island’s agricultural area. His mother was from Limni, a beautiful little village on the side facing the mainland, about two hours north of Halkida. Mr. Marcus still has cousins in Evia, and tries to go back every 2-3 years.

His father left Evia when he was 14 to find work and send money back home.

“That was at the beginning of the 20th Century. My father first went to Argentina because that’s where the greatest employment opportunities were. He was there during the same period Onassis was. He was a laborer on the docks, and worked on the docks for ten years. He learned how to speak Spanish, and then he went to San Francisco illegally through New Orleans. He jumped ship somewhere around 1920-21, and then hitch-hiked and took trains to San Francisco, where his brother, my Uncle Nick, was already working in the grocery business,” Mr. Marcus said.

Mr. Marcus’ father then went back to Greece and entered into an arranged marriage with Mr. Marcus’ mother in the 1930’s; came back to California; opened up a successful cafenio in San Francisco; bought some real estate; and became an American citizen through amnesty for illegal aliens in 1924.

Mr. Marcus’ sister Orsa was born in San Francisco in 1933; his parents then moved back to Greece in 1939 with no intention of returning to the United States. Mr. Marcus was born in Greece in 1941, when his father was 50. Driven by the need to escape war-imposed poverty, however, the Moutsanas family returned to United States in 1945, when young George was four.

IMMIGRANT SUCCESS STORY

“My father’s story is a typical immigrant’s story. Most immigrants – and I’d say 50 percent or more of all European immigrants – wanted to go back and retire in their home countries, and many of them did. The Greeks were no different in that regard,” Mr. Marcus said.

“My father needed to come back here because Greece was economically devastated by World War II. He was moderately successful there, given the limitations of village life, but money evaporated due to the destructive impacts of the War. The Greek Civil War was also beginning to brew, and my father just didn’t want any part of it,” he said.

“But the decision to come back was economic. Economics drove him out of Greece in the first place – to try and prosper for his family – and economics drove him back to the United States to build a more stable life,” he added.

By the time the Moutsanas family returned stateside, young George started attending San Francisco public schools not knowing a word of English. He eventually enrolled at SFSU, from which he graduated in 1965 with a degree in Economics within two and a half years. It is a school to which he remains very dedicated, and yet another place where he expresses his commitment to Hellenism by supporting its Modern Greek Studies program.

Asked what motivated him to complete his studies so quickly, Mr. Marcus said he knew what he wanted to do from the time he was a very young man.

“Ι was always anxious to start my career and start my life. ‘Money matters, and success matters.’ My father drilled that into my brain. My mother was all about Church and family, and my father was all about going to work and succeeding,” he said.

“Even though we never really talked about business at the dinner table, I knew I wanted to go into business. My parents were village immigrants from Greece, as were a lot of their friends. They didn’t have a higher education, so they didn’t have a real concept of what college was about, but I knew that all the professions demanded a college education,” he added.

So Mr. Marcus accelerated his graduation from SFSU; went into business by entering the world of banking and finance; and after a few years, he became a commercial real estate broker. He then formed his firm at 37 years of age – the G.M. Marcus * Company, which evolved into the immensely successful Marcus * Millichap Company (with 60 offices and 15,200 agents selling assets, the company specializes in homebuilding, apartment building, and investing in net income properties) – and then started forming other companies every 2-6 years, allowing them to be run by different people.

It was also during that period of time that Mr. Marcus started becoming politically active, and was appointed by then Governor Jerry Brown (1975-83) as a trustee of the California State University system, which has 24 universities, including SFSU. In 2000, he was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents by former Governor Gray Davis (that term expires in 2012).

While he served as a CSU trustee, he was also on the search committee which ended up recommending the current president of his alma mater, Robert Corrigan, and it was around that time that Mr. Marcus got more involved with SFSU’s Nikos Kazantzakis Chair for Modern Greek Studies.

“The Chair was already in existence, but I wanted to make sure that the Greek programs were protected because universities can be very funny. They can move money around. They can move professors around. So I wanted to make sure those programs remained intact. We had just hired a new president; the Modern Greek Studies Foundation asked me to be their chairman; and I’ve supported them over the years. There were other contributors, as well – all Greek Americans. Angelo Tsakopoulos was one of them,” he said.

“The program is doing well. They’re doing what they’ve set out to do. They’ve got a complement of Greek-language courses. They offer a lot of poetry courses. And they have a wonderful professor, Martha Klironomos. I always expect more, of course, but that’s just the way I am,” he said.

“Don’t misunderstand me. They’re doing a good job under the current scheme. But what I really believe Modern Greek Studies programs need to do is engage in more outreach toward our community’s young people, and present more of a total Greek experience. They shouldn’t only have academic programs about Modern Greek history. They should also have dance classes and cooking classes. They should sponsor more lectures and seminars about travel in Greece. They should enhance their exchange programs, and make it more of a university club for Greek Americans,” he said.

“It doesn’t require an awful lot of funding. We’re talking about a lecture or seminar on Greek cuisine, and bringing in a professional Greek chef participate,” he added.

Mr. Marcus and his wife also gave a $3 million gift in 2005 to establish SFSU’s International Center for the Arts, which celebrates some of the world’s most innovative art and artists, with a focus on documentary films and visual art.

“Essentially, I was a typical commuter student. I was going to school. I was working. And I just appreciated being at San Francisco State, like any other alumnus did. I was fortunate enough to become moderately successful – or very successful, depending on your view – and I just wanted to help them out because I appreciate the education I got there. I’m very interested in the arts, so we started the Center, and I gave them some money to do that,” he said.

Mr. Marcus is also on Golden Gate Park’s M.H. de Young Memorial Museum’s board of directors.

“That’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved with in terms of art and architecture. It’s one of the most innovative museums built in the last 50 years,” he said.

Mr. Marcus has served on the Archdiocesan Council; is a member of Leadership 100; and is an archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. His parents were originally members of Holy Trinity Church in San Francisco. Mr. Marcus and his family are now members of Saint Nicholas Church in San Jose, and he tries to help support all area parishes.

“It really depends on what they need. St. Nicholas is my home parish, so I tend to support that community more. (The late) Metropolitan Anthony was a great bishop, and a close friend. And there was a great priest at Holy Trinity, Father Anthony Kostouros, who was probably the longest-serving priest in any Greek Orthodox parish in the United States. He was my priest when I was seven years old, and he just passed away five years ago. So those were my two dreaded calls (chuckles). Whenever Bishop Anthony or Father Anthony called, I couldn’t say no to either one of them,” he said.

Mr. Marcus also co-owns two restaurants, Kokkari Estiatorio in San Francisco, named after his partner Kenny Frangadakis’ wife’s village on the island of Samos, and Evvia Estiatorio in Palo Alto.

“We wanted to own a restaurant which was not a typical corner restaurant – a bouzouki place, where the food was always secondary – but we wanted to open a high-quality establishment where the food and ambience were the primary attraction, a place that would offer a more sophisticated all-around cultural experience,” he said.

Mr. Marcus is also in the newspaper business. He is one of the founders and board members of the Hellenic Journal, a nonprofit community-oriented monthly for Greek Americans on the West Coast.

“It’s not a paper like yours. We’re not as issues-oriented. There’s not as much in-depth inquiry like there is in the National Herald. By the way, what you do for the National Herald is very valuable. It’s extremely important. What you do is critical. It keeps our community informed, and you’re doing an outstanding job,” he said.

Mr. Marcus is not much of a sports aficionado, but he was once part owner of the now-defunct USFL’s Oakland Invaders. “Talk about flushing money down the drain. That was just crazy,” he said.

Mr. Marcus also likes to fish and hunt, and sometimes goes hunting with Mr. Tsakopoulos.

“George Argyros also likes to hunt. But he’s a Republican, so he likes to hang out with Alex Spanos (chuckles), and I’m a democrat, so I like to hang out with Angelo. All kidding aside, though. I love George, and I love Alex. And if you’re Greek, you have so much more in common than you do with people of other backgrounds, regardless of your political views,” he said.

As for his political leanings, Mr. Marcus is involved at both the state and federal levels. He supported Barack Obama’s successful Presidential bid, and was present for Mr. Obama’s historic Inauguration. He also held a recent fundraiser at his home for Congressman Zack Space of Ohio. The event raised $45-50 thousand for Rep. Space, a Greek American. Congresswoman Pelosi also stopped by for the occasion.

“I’m not as active as some in our community, but politics is in our blood as Greeks, and financially, I’m now able to contribute. Many years ago, I was not in a position to do very much, but I always believed in open and stimulative government, and that’s why I’m a Democrat. I think government should open the avenues of opportunity for everyone, so I believe in a more activist government than Republicans generally do. I’m relatively conservative and moderate in my views on fiscal policy, but I want to make sure we maintain fairness because my father and I, and all immigrants, benefited from the more open and supportive policies of the Democrats,” he said.

While he is a Democrat, Mr. Marcus is also supportive of Greek American candidates, regardless of party affiliation.

“Absolutely. Gus Bilirakis (Republican congressman of Florida) is a fine gentleman, so I’m supportive of Republicans, too. I think moderates of both parties have more in common with each other than they do with the extreme members of their own parties,” he said.

Asked whether he thinks President Obama’s ideas for getting the economy moving in the right direction will work, Mr. Marcus said, “I think he’s a brilliant person, and we’re very lucky to have him. Given that he inherited an incredibly complex financial system, and given the constraints of Congress, I think he’s doing everything he possibly can to surround himself with the best and brightest, and implement policies to get us back on track. So I’m very supportive of what he’s doing. Everybody wants a quick fix, but it’s just not going to happen. It took us ten years to get here.”

Mr. Marcus also said he himself was caught off-guard by how rapidly the credit market deteriorated.

“I was concerned about it, but I was drinking the Kool-Aid, too. That’s not to say I wasn’t doing some downside planning. I was. But everyone was being bullish, so ultimately, it didn’t surprise me that this happened because one of the businesses I’m in – homebuilding – usually has a 3-4 year cycle. Traditionally, it grows for three years on average, and then contracts for three years,” he said.

“But we had 11 years of growth with homes going up in value, while the volume of new homes was at an all-time high. That was unsustainable. It’s now clear that we built 1-3 million homes more than we needed, and they were being sold to people who couldn’t afford to keep them. And that has created a lot of the issues we’re facing now: The credit situation is extremely serious, and the real estate industry has been devastated because there’s virtually no credit available for commercial properties right now,” he added.

Asked to recall some of his defining moments and explain his rise to the zenith of American success, Mr. Marcus said realizing that innovation in the service sector, and having the courage to offer better service than one’s mentors and competitors, was crucial.

He also said forming solid partnership, as well as stepping aside and letting talented people do what they’re capable of doing without interfering, has been integral to his own success. Offering guidance and support, without being too directly interventionist, is his basic approach, he added.

“Picking and clicking with the right partners is critical. I’m a big believer is sharing the opportunity and sharing the benefits. And I’ve been very lucky. Fortunately, one of my skills has been being able to find the right partners. Without strong partners, you won’t succeed. I don’t know if it’s instinct, but you can tell if someone’s got his feet on the ground; when they’re not too political or too much of a game player; when they genuinely share your interests,” Mr. Marcus said.

“The other thing I realized was that for me to keep good people, I had to step aside and let them perform. Bill Millichap, my partner, ran the brokerage firm. Then I formed Essex Property Trust, a $5 billion real estate investment trust, which sells 1-2 million shares a day. The key here is that talented people want to run their own businesses, and even though ownership might be divided among many people, you still want people running their own show,” he said.