Billionaire developer Rick Caruso, 55, traces his love of real estate back to when he was five years old or so.
In his home above Beverly Hills, he and his dad — who built a car sales business and founded “Dollar Rent a Car” — would look down at Greater Los Angeles and the young boy would point out the high-rising buildings he’d like to own some day. He also remembers going by places on the street and how he could pick out designs he liked and those he didn’t, and know why.
The philanthropist can also explain the roots of his charity, which includes St. Lawrence of Brindisi School, Verbum Dei High School, and Operation Progress in Watts as well as Para Los Ni√±os on L.A.’s Skid Row plus the California Medical Center and Children’s Hospital, also in Los Angeles.
“I’m a big believer in giving back. I was raised that way,” he told The Tidings during an interview in his third-floor Caruso Affiliated office at The Grove, his development in the Fairfax district at the Farmers Market that reportedly draws more annual visitors than Disneyland. “You know, my grandparents were very poor immigrants coming over from Italy. Both went through Ellis Island.
“And even without much money — one grandfather was an elevator operator, and the other was a coal miner — it was always about helping others. My parents raised us that way. It was just ingrained in us. So it’s always just seemed very logical. But I believe everybody should give money, and I think they should give their time and get involved and help others.”
A few years after graduating from the University of Southern California and Pepperdine University’s School of Law, he’d made the switch from attorney to developer. His first purchase was a small rundown duplex in Westwood. Overnight, he became the maintenance man, gardener, painter and leasing agent. With rising apartment prices, however, the decision was profitable and would lead to others, and then whole new developments.
Today, besides The Grove, Caruso Affiliated owns The Americana at Brand in Glendale, The Commons at Calabasas, The Promenade at Westlake and many other properties. They’re known for not only being imaginative shopping and entertainment places, but also being centers of their communities.
Along the way, Caruso has been a civic leader, too. When Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him commissioner for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power in 1985, he became the youngest commissioner in L.A.’s history at 25. In 2001, Mayor James Hahn named him to the city’s Police Commission, where he was elected the commission’s president. Twice, in 2009 and 2013, he seriously considered running for mayor himself, but declined because of family obligations.
“I could have assuaged my kids’ fear, but I thought, ‘Is it fair for me to take away their youth and their moments in time?’” he told an executive leadership and lifestyle magazine earlier this year. “And I said, no, being a dad comes around once. It was a tough decision, but it was the right decision.”
Caruso and his wife, Tina, created the Caruso Family Foundation in 1991. From day one, it’s been dedicated to supporting local organizations that improve the lives of children, with a special focus on education and healthcare. And as with his business and civic endeavors, he and his family are hands-on givers, whether it’s a parochial school in Watts or an urban hospital in L.A.
“I couldn’t imagine just writing a check and saying ‘thank you,’” he said. “Now, do we do some of that for some local schools? Sure. But in terms of the things that we’re trying to do that are transformational, we’re very involved. We’ve been involved down there at Para Los Ni√±os, it must be 15 years at least. And our kids [Alex, 24, Gregory, 23, Justin, 19, and Gianna, 14] work there. That’s the thing that’s most impressive. They also volunteer at St. Lawrence.
“That’s one of the great gifts. I think it’s important to say, why do I do it? Part of it is as a human being you’re obligated to give back. But what comes back to us as a family is the real beauty and the humility and the grace that comes from helping others. Just watching my kids who are very fortunate work with children who have terrible misfortunes in their lives, not by their own doing.”
Caruso talks about his daughter, Jianna, coming home from volunteering at St. Lawrence School and saying how the students have nothing, but come to the Catholic elementary school with big smiles on their faces. He describes how his wife, Tina, every year after the Christmas party they throw at Para Los Ni√±os, gets in the car and bursts out crying not from being sad but seeing the kids and their parents so happy, “and just being involved in their lives.”
One of his most recent transformational projects is the Caruso Catholic Center and Our Savior Parish Church on the campus of his alma mater at USC. Caruso endowed the completed project by a reported contribution of at least $7.5 million. And he just hired a new CEO, Jamie Cappetta from the Catholic Chapel at Yale University, to run the center.
“I want it to be recognized nationally, hopefully, internationally,” he stressed. “Not only for the kind of support and care that we give from a Catholic viewpoint of the students and the broader community, but also for the dialogue, the debate, the sense that everybody’s welcome. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life — you’re welcome at the Caruso Catholic Center.
“But there’s a research component of it, and a thought-leadership side of it, too. So that’s why we’re spending the money to bring in a chief officer to really drive the level of excellence that puts us as a national face of dialogue of what it means to be a Catholic. And to develop and nurture the next generation of young Catholic leaders.”
When asked what exactly he means by “transformational,” Caruso paused for a moment. Then he looked up and said, “I want to make people’s lives better.”
He spoke of the critical importance of philanthropy in today’s post-recession economic landscape. “You know, government is going to continue to cut back,” he pointed out. “It’s just the reality, unfortunately. So that’s why at every level people need to be engaged. You just have to get engaged.
“I’m a great lover and a fan of the City of Los Angeles, but the city can only be as great as our weakest community. That’s why Skid Row is important to me and Watts is important to me. You’ve got to strengthen those communities in order for the city to be really great. And you’ve got to stop the cycle of poverty that goes on.
“So it’s all about kids,” he added. “It’s about helping kids that could not otherwise get the same education or the same kind of healthcare benefits that most other kids can get. There’s an innocence to them, and they’re our future.”
Part II will focus on Rick Caruso’s support of a “living” minimum wage.