Today: Ben Weingart orphaned at 4 and with only a 3rd grade education, made a fortune and then lost it during the 1929 stock market crash. Now middle aged, could he make a comeback?
Ben was just 6 years old when he was adopted from an orphanage by poor sharecroppers who were struggling to keep a roof over their heads. As a child, he worked in the fields, and later as a boy, he worked long hours in downtown industrial Detroit to help support his family.
Yet instead of being bitter about his childhood, he harnessed the extreme poverty and hunger of his youth, eventually becoming a rich Los Angeles businessman. But just when he was on top of the world, at the age of 41, he lost nearly everything he owned in the stock market crash of 1929.
Ben had made a fortune largely by owning and smartly managing apartments and hotels. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Ben saw opportunity where others saw only disaster. And he wasn’t going to let a lack of money stop him. He had built a top reputation as a property manager and as Los Angeles apartments and hotels were going broke, he took action.
Ben met with Western Mortgage Company, at the time the nation’s 2nd biggest mortgage lender and he cut a deal with Morgan Adams, the head of the firm. Lenders then (as now) don’t want to own and operate commercial or residential real estate.
Ben convinced Morgan Adams to write-off a large portion of the mortgages on certain hotels, which slashed the monthly payments on them. Ben under contract to Western Mortgage would then run those hotels and with their newly lowered monthly payments, they would turn a profit which he would keep, while paying Western Mortgage their monthly mortgage payments.
Knowing he was an outstanding property manager, they proceeded with Ben. But he would only proceed with them if he could later buy those hotels cheaply, at Depression pricing. For Western Mortgage (and other lenders), this was their best option. Taking a write-off but getting dependable monthly income from Ben at a time when many other businesspeople were going bust.
But how would Ben attract paying customers in such bad times? He knew most renters were hard pressed for cash, so he converted many of the hotel rooms to small, clean inexpensive apartment units. Many tenants could afford then, they stayed and their money poured in.
And during World War ll (1941- 1945), most new home construction in America stopped as the nation put its resources into fighting the war. This created a shortage of housing which meant Ben and other smart property owners could rent their properties to a market strongly in demand.
When World War ll ended, Ben exercised his purchase options and on his 57th birthday in 1945, he owned nine downtown Los Angeles hotels, totaling over 3,000 rooms and most of them had been at or near full occupancy for years. The rents had long flowed in and he was wealthy again, having made his fortune using the lenders’ money.
But the best was yet to come. In the late 1940s, Ben now in his early 60’s saw the huge post war growth of Los Angeles and decided to build his own a city!
Builder Lou Boyar had an option to buy 9.42 square miles (0.13 square kilometers) of farmland near Long Beach, CA. But he didn’t have the money to create a huge project. However he knew Ben did and brought him in.
Ben was fascinated by the idea of a master planned community. Soon Ben and Lou were joined by builder Mark Taper, to build on a grand scale. They named their new town: Lakewood.
Ben got construction financing and convinced giant Prudential Insurance and Trust Company to insure $250 million in mortgage loans. Using advanced mass construction techniques developed by the Levitt family in New York after the war, they built inexpensive homes and within four years, sold a staggering 17,500 of them.
To accommodate all of those new homeowners, in 1952, they opened the Lakewood Shopping Center, then one of the world’s biggest shopping centers. Two years later, Lakewood became a city, and with its 57,000 people, was California’s 16th largest city. Today, it has 80,000 residents.
Meanwhile Ben kept buying troubled hotels and apartment buildings and other properties at steep discounts and then operated them very profitably.
This 3rd grade dropout, a man with seemingly little future, had used the harsh lessons of his tough childhood to become one of America’s richest people.
But of all Ben’s accomplishments, the greatest one was yet to come: The Weingart Foundation. As a deeply caring person, he was determined to use his money to help others, especially those who were "down and out" on Skid Row, and the “forgotten ones,” those who had no-one else to care for them. And he did.
His Foundation created the Weingart Center, where homeless men and women live safely and receive a full range of health care and other services, in an alcohol free environment as they put their lives back together.
But his Foundation is doing far more. It converted some of his hotels to living facilities for poor families with children. Other Foundation funding pays for grants to children with kidney failure, who need dialysis to live, pays for a battered women’s shelter, pays to feed destitute seniors whose average age is 84 and pays for medical research into birth defects and other diseases.
The list of the Foundation charity work is very long and active and although Ben passed away in 1980 at the age of 92, today it continues to offer a huge helping hand having donated over $850 million. It still has an asset base of $600 million.
One memorable donation was a gift of a downtown Los Angeles property to Loyola Marymount University on behalf of the Missionaries of Charity, an organization founded in 1948 by Mother Teresa. On that property are homes, which are now used to care for the broken and abandoned people who had been formerly living on the streets of skid row.
After that donation, John Poag, then president of the Weingart Foundation received the following letter dated 4/6/82: “Dear Mr. Poag, God love you for the love you give and the joy you share through your gift of houses to our Brothers. My gratitude is my prayer for you and your family. God bless you.”
And it was signed, “Mother Teresa”
What a remarkable journey for Ben. A man who began his life with so little and who in middle age went broke and had to rebuild his fortune, but who ultimately used his money and his devotion to help those in desperate need. He made a wonderful difference in this world.
Success Tip of the Week:
In today’s tough times, it’s easy to get depressed. But as Ben found, there are always opportunities if you look for them and take action when you find them, even if you have little or no money.
The major source for this two part series was a compelling book, “Ben Weingart & Weingart Foundation,” by John Farrell, 2002. Thank you to the Weingart Foundation for providing this book. If you would like to know more about them, please visit: http://www.weingartfnd.org/
In the next KazanToday:
Hearing the voice of God.