Nader Agha’s holdings span Monterey County, but he’s looking to conquer the world.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
On a Tuesday afternoon at his Monterey Antique and Gift Center, Nader Agha holds court in a mahogany armchair beside a startled-looking Bulgarian photographer. Two reporters lurk near a $2,400 fairy statue, on deck for a scheduled interview.
But Agha is on his cell phone, blasting the Monterey city manager. “Fred Meurer,” he’s saying. “I’d really like to get that son of a bitch out of office.”
When Agha hangs up, photographer Jacko Vassilev – renowned for his portraits of emaciated Bulgarians under Communist rule, and now working on a photo book about the U.S. – takes a moment to admire the self-made mogul, whom he was inspired to photograph years ago.
“He is the dream of America. He carries that spirit,” Vassilev says.
Others might describe him as a nightmare. Agha is known for his charm as well as his quick temper; his loyalty to his allies is as fierce as his grudges against those who cross him. He’s been involved in more than a dozen lawsuits in the past decade (for a list of his courtroom battles click here).
During the course of a 90-minute interview, Agha talks in circles and dashes rather than straight lines, lacing his stories with morals (“God blesses those people who buy and sell”) and flattery (“You have beautiful teeth”). In his thick Arabic accent, the Syrian-born entrepreneur subs b’s for p’s and drops g’s.
He makes frequent interruptions to handle business – signing a $4,200 check for an alarm system; taking a call from his oldest son, Mahir, to talk real estate; running out the door to thank a man who’d just sold him a Rolex.
Agha’s antique store in Monterey, and a second one in Pacific Grove, are temples to the ornate: Oriental statues and Baroque furniture, rare jewelry and gold coins, Tiffany lamps and French oil paintings of dog-headed aristocrats. It’s hard to find a price tag of less than four figures.
But Agha describes his antiques as a hobby, saying they don’t turn much of a profit. His real money-making ventures are in real estate.
Charles Chrietzberg, president and chair of Monterey County Bank and Agha’s banker, pins him as one of the wealthiest men in Monterey County, with a net worth at more than $100 million. (Agha won’t confirm that figure, but doesn’t deny it.) For at least three decades, he’s been consistently in the local news for a string of high-profile real-estate acquisitions and business proposals.
Most recently, he’s gotten ink for his pitch to build a $128 million regional seawater desalination plant at his commercial park in Moss Landing. Other tenants of the 180-acre property include green-concrete venture Calera and Desal America, a company that makes containerized desal units, and of which he is board chair. Agha’s also made recent headlines by purchasing the remains of Green Vehicles, a bankrupt electric car manufacturer in Salinas. (For more business and property holdings in Agha’s name, visit www.mcweekly.com/agha.)
At 68 years old, and with an empire this vast, Agha might consider retirement. But to hear him talk, he might as well be a thirtysomething entrepreneur.
He wants to convert the historic Holman Building in Pacific Grove, which now houses his second antique store, to a big hotel and conference center with a mini-desal plant in the basement. He’s hoping to revive and transform Green Vehicles into an industry leader for alternative cars, and manufacture lithium-ion or magnesium batteries to power them. He’s talking about building an $8 million, 6-megawatt solar power plant at his commercial park, and using both the solar and desal plants as pilots for similar systems worldwide. He’s even eyeing desal’s ultra-salty byproduct: “There is money in the brine.”
Agha’s wife, Nadia, watches the interview from the coin counter as his ex-wife and business partner, Durell, pulls up a chair to quietly sit in. Soon Agha’s public-relations team, Wendy Brickman and Barbara Howard, join the circle.
Vassilev darts over to snap a few parting portraits. His lens focuses on a stout, olive-skinned man with a prominent nose and receding black hair, gray slacks riding up over beige socks, and a thick ring on his left pinky. Agha straightens up and smiles.
“Just be real,” Vassilev says.
“Just be surreal,” Agha echoes.
“Strong character, it’s in you,” Vassilev says. “You’re the real American.”
~ ~ ~
Agha was born in Damascus, Syria, in 1943, the oldest of 12 children. After finishing high school with high marks, he considered opportunities to study in Socialist countries across Europe and the Middle East, national allies at a time of major political upheaval in Syria.
But it was his father, a military man, who planted the seeds of capitalism in his oldest son, telling him to go to America and follow the money to color-television manufacturing.
So 22-year-old Nader made arrangements to stay with an uncle who worked at Monterey’s Defense Language Institute. Plane ticket in hand, he sold all his belongings and scraped together $27 to bring on the trip. But his limited English stuck him with an accidental $10 food tab at his London layover, leaving him with just $17 on arrival to the U.S. in 1965. He immediately sent $1 to his mother in Damascus, instructing her to spend it on stamps so they could correspond.
Desperate for a job, Agha went to the Salinas fields. He vividly remembers a five-day stretch picking strawberries and thinning lettuce, hungry and exhausted.
“Hey, this is not for me,” he remembers thinking. “I told my aunt, ‘I should never slow down with anything I do, or else I’ll go back to the strawberry field.’”
He sought work among the wealthy, cleaning a Pebble Beach house and waiting tables at an upscale restaurant. He literally saved his tips: rare and uncirculated dimes, quarters and half-dollars, some of which he still has today.
At his father’s urging, Agha studied electronics at Monterey Peninsula College. But he never put those skills to work. Instead, he took up as a bagger at a grocery store on Lighthouse Avenue, worked on his English and got promoted when the boss noticed his knack for catching shoplifters.
During those job-hopping first months in Monterey, at the behest of mutual friends, Agha wrote a letter in Arabic introducing himself to a girl who worked at a local jewelry store. Durell Decker had gone broke pursuing a master’s degree in Islamic studies at UCLA, and come home to Carmel to save money. She met Agha three weeks after receiving his letter, and they held hands on a walk down Ocean Avenue. Less than two months later, they were married.
With a $2,500 down payment, the young couple bought a house on Archer Street in Monterey and cultivated a chinchilla farm in their basement. They originally planned to sell pelts for $10,000 chinchilla coats – but then Durell started naming the affectionate rodents, which look like a cross between squirrels and bunnies, and they had a change of heart. The chinchillas sold as pets for about a grand each; the Aghas traded them for refrigerators, cars, a Rolex watch.
In one of Agha’s greatest early victories, he swapped two chinchillas for a duplex on Meyers Court in Salinas. Then he borrowed $2,500 on it to buy a six-unit building on Hebron Street. Working in partnership with a Chinese-American businessman, Agha kept borrowing and buying and flipping until, at age 25, he owned more than 100 housing units.
He was already a big deal when Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce President Moe Ammar moved to Monterey in 1986. “Everybody was saying, ‘Nader Agha this, Nader Agha that,’” Ammar says. “You can tell he is a very shrewd businessman. He can sniff a good deal.”
By the early ’70s, Agha was capturing media attention. He speculated on real estate in Salinas, Pebble Beach, Monterey, Carmel, Carmel Valley and Soledad; at one point, he says, he was involved in more than 30 simultaneous projects, including affordable housing.
“We left earmarks all over Monterey County,” he says – an idiomatic slip-up, though his political contributions include the campaigns of former Sheriff Mike Kanalakis, county board of education Superintendent Nancy Kotowski, late Supervisor Jerry Smith and Supervisor Dave Potter.
On a recent phone call from the chilly third floor of the Holman building – which Agha uses as a warehouse for furniture and taxidermied animals, including big-horned sheep and a bear – he pledges a donation to Seaside Republican Byrl Smith’s campaign for county supervisor. Even though, he tells the campaign worker at the other end of the line, he’s offended Smith didn’t call him personally.
Although Agha’s political sphere is centered on the Monterey Peninsula, it stretches as far south as Soledad, where he has overseen the development of some 2,000 homes as a licensed general contractor. He started in the ’70s by cutting a $1 million deal on a napkin, acquiring 100 acres of farmland where he built hundreds of houses. He acquired more lots from Thomas Hambey, and named his partnership with retired Monterey attorney George Schroeder after him.
HMBY today owns 10 properties in South County, including 300 acres of row cropland and 50 of vineyards. It also owns the Moss Landing Commercial Park, which it purchased out of bankruptcy for $7.5 million in 2003. Chrietzberg estimates it’s worth 10 times that price today, though County Assessor Steve Vagnini thinks that’s high.
Another of Agha’s companies, Holman Building Associates, has seven properties to its name. Most notable among them is P.G.’s Holman building, which Agha purchased in 1995 for under $3 million – less than half its assessed value – by partnering with a rival bidder rather than letting competition drive up the price. A few months later, Agha bought his partner out.
Chrietzberg says he’s lent Agha upwards of $100 million over the past 25 years, making him one of the bank’s top customers. (The reverse is also true: Monterey County Bank’s P.G. branch is a tenant of Agha’s Holman building.)
“I’ve been involved with Nader since early on, and I’ve found him to have the Midas touch,” Chrietzberg says. “We’ve loaned him money on almost every project he’s been involved in. He’s a perfect banking customer. You can trust him 100 percent.”
He’s not the only one who holds Agha’s knack for money-making in awe. His brother Majed says, “Our mom said he could hold dirt, and it would turn to gold.”
~ ~ ~
For all his ruthlessness as a negotiator, Agha gives the impression of a tender-hearted family man. He says he still misses his mother, who died in 1992: “When I think of her, I cry.”
He speaks proudly of his three kids: Mahir, 45, a Carmel Valley real estate appraiser; Sumaya, 41, a graduate student of public administration at Monterey Institute of International Studies; and Laith, 34, a former Herald reporter now in UC Berkeley’s journalism grad program.
Although Nader and Durell divorced in 1983, Durell (who kept the Agha surname) still works as his bookkeeper. She’s also got a small real estate empire of her own, including a Carmel Valley horse ranch and about a half dozen properties, collectively assessed at more than $7 million.
When Durell joins Nader’s interview at the antique store, he kisses her hand and introduces her: “My former wife, the mother of my children. She is the one who stood behind me till this minute; she is our real boss.” He later addresses her on the phone as “mama honey sugar bunny.”
After the Aghas divorced, Nader married his Syrian cousin, Nadia Hawash, and brought her to the U.S. Now Durell works alongside Nadia, and says she thinks of her as a sister.
Agha says he’s lost two siblings; two more are in Massachusetts and one in Paris. The other six are in Damascus, he says, but he’s been too busy to visit them in 20 years.
What Nader doesn’t mention: One of those lost brothers, Majed, actually lives in Seaside and works a few paces from the Alvarado antique shop. More popularly known as “Mr. Falafel,” Majed can be found frying ground chickpeas during the weekly Oldtown Monterey Farmers Market. When Nader passes by, Majed actively avoids making eye contact.
Majed says he immigrated to America to work for Nader, but after a falling out over a girlfriend who later became Majed’s wife, a series of threats ensued between the brothers. In 2005, Nader filed a restraining order – which was denied in court – against Majed for harassment, alleging his brother threatened to kill him. In court papers, Majed responded: “My brother is able, with his vast fortune, to attempt to use the court system to punish me.”
Majed describes an intelligent, controlling older brother who tends toward distrust of everybody but himself. As to whether Nader has made his fortune honestly, Majed will only say, “He’s smart. He’s sneaky.”
~ ~ ~
Agha’s upbringing makes him something of an exception to American business rules. He sings into the phone when a Fresno banker asks him to wire $105,000. “I am in love with you more than anyone else,” he says, pledging to send her the money right away.
He also seems to embrace gifting, like flattery, as a business practice. He offers one reporter $100 for being “good luck” after he made a lucrative antique sale during an interview. When his son Laith worked at the Herald, Agha would send bins of peaches and apricots for the staff.
It’s hard to imagine Agha – an Arab, a Muslim, a Republican who voted for Obama – fitting in among Monterey County’s good old boys. But by most accounts he’s a popular guy, throwing lavish annual Christmas parties with belly-dancers and gift raffles, attended by a who’s-who of local power brokers.
Ammar, the P.G. Chamber president who was born in Lebanon to a Syrian mother and once managed a Sheraton in Damascus, says strategic gift-giving is typical in Agha’s native culture. “That’s how business is conducted,” he says. “You’ve got to give in order to receive.”
Laith sees the cultural differences between himself and his father magnified through his own American-bred lens. “In Arab culture it’s very customary to give, but it’s considered rude to refuse,” he says. “I would never give a supervisor or a mayor a gift as a reporter, because I’m aware of the implication.”
Despite Agha’s effusive approach to networking, business people who have fallen out with him describe an angrier side.
One of them is David Armanasco, who says Agha retained his Monterey public relations firm to promote Desal America. Agha and Armanasco then started talking with Calera founder Brent Constanz about partnering on a regional desalination plant.
In November 2010, Armanasco announced the formation of Moss Landing Water LLC. According to news reports, the company proposed to pull deep water from the Monterey Submarine Canyon, filter out the minerals for use in Calera cement, and desalinate it in Agha’s commercial park.
But the business never got off the ground. Agha says he wanted to rework the idea due to environmental concerns about deep-water intake; in his version, a “double-crossing” and an ethical stand-off ensued. “Because of their greed, they wanted to make more money and I refused,” he says.
Armanasco’s more restrained explanation: “As we developed our conversation we had a difference in philosophy… I’ll let him say what he will. That’s the way he is.”
Constanz and Armanasco split off to form DeepWater Desal, opening offices just down the street from Agha’s business park and leasing a ranch off Highway 1 for their prospective desal plant. Agha later proposed his own venture, The People’s Moss Landing Water Desal Project.
The tension between Agha and Constanz was obvious at an October water supply forum in Monterey, where they presented competing – yet notably similar – concepts for a regional desalination plant.
When asked about their beef, Agha spoke of “a betrayal”; Constanz declined to comment.
Later, Constanz called Agha’s behavior at the forum a political spectacle: “It was sad to see somebody make a fool of themselves.” In response to Agha’s accusations, he says, “I don’t have any comment until he’s saying the world is flat.”
~ ~ ~
In Agha’s telling of his conflicts, he often casts himself as the noble victim of corrupt characters. For example, he says organizers of the Monterey water forum (including the city manager he was cursing on his cell phone) initially tried to keep him out of it.
“They glossed over us, they avoided us because they know we are the only real solution,” he says. “When Nader Agha comes forward and says, ‘Hey, I can help,’ they get very jealous, very nervous.”
Meurer says there was a logic to the invite list: Only projects that had proposed working with California American Water made the original panel.
Agha’s hostilities include Cal Am. In a region where development is severely constrained by water supply, he has called for a public buy-out of the Peninsula-serving private utility, in addition to challenging Cal Am’s Regional Desalination Project.
“I became irritated to the point that I became an activist,” he says. “Everybody knows I am a developer and a businessman, but it’s very easy for a person to become an activist when he knows there’s something wrong.”
Another public figure on Agha’s blacklist is County Supervisor Dave Potter, whom he sued in 2010, accusing Potter of using a $10,000 campaign donation for personal expenses. The case was settled out of court on confidential terms; a state Fair Political Practices Commission investigation found no wrongdoing on Potter’s part.
Potter won’t comment, other than to say he’s still open to Agha’s ideas about desalination: “If he has a viable water project, bring it on. I’d love to see it.”
Agha is more blunt about his feelings for Potter. “If I was wrong, don’t you think he’d be suing me for slander?” he asks. “In my opinion it’s time for David Potter to find something else to do. If he doesn’t, I might start a recall against him.”
Several sources cite Agha’s litigious history in declining to criticize him on the record. But it’s clear some local leaders aren’t fans. An anonymous email showing a side-by-side comparison of Agha and a strikingly similar-looking Grandpa Munster worked its way through Monterey County’s political circles. One source wondered how Agha can continue to do business after clashing with so many in such a small community.
Schroeder, the longtime partner and adviser whom Agha calls “Georgie,” brushes off the hefty stack of lawsuits as part of the cost of enterprise. “Forty-six years he’s been in business,” he says. “You can’t avoid getting into some kind of litigation.”
That’s the kind of back-up Agha expects from an ally. He says he treasures the friends and associates who have stuck with him through the decades. “If you do a good deed, people will always remember it,” he says. “Of course there are people full of envy and jealousy, and there are people who appreciate you and stand by you, and in return you stand by them when they need you.”
That loyalty extends to his adopted country. Agha’s first-hand experience growing up under a repressive government has given him a fervent sense of U.S. patriotism. He’s now working with the County Department of Education to form a nonprofit, the Lillian King Foundation, established by a trust for which he’s executor, to teach local kids about the U.S. Constitution and send them on field trips to Washington, D.C. “And who’s doing it?” Agha asks. “An import kid like me, who came from overseas and recognized the veracity of the Constitution.”
He’s especially fierce about America’s economic rivalry with China, often rhetorically mad-dogging the country from halfway across the globe. “I wouldn’t even buy a Chinese spoon. It would break my mouth,” he recently told the Weekly. “The whole USA believes now that China is the greatest competition to our economy, when in fact, in my opinion, China is the worst and the lowest competition. They mimic everybody; they steal our technology.”
~ ~ ~
At the Oct. 26 Monterey Peninsula Water Forum, Agha stood at the podium and said his desalination proposal, the People’s Project, would cost only a fraction of the Regional Desalination Project slated to replace Carmel River water as the Peninsula’s primary water supply.
The Regional Project is estimated to produce potable water at up to $5,000 per acre-foot, but Agha began by saying his project could do it for roughly $1,500. Then he adjusted that estimate to $1,200-1,400 per acre-foot, based on a promised bond rate of 3.5 percent. “Every day we’re saving money and every day we’re going down,” he told the assembly.
Factoring in savings from solar power and grants, Agha then modified his estimate to $950 per acre-foot, closer to the global average price for desalinated water. “There is nothing wrong with our numbers. I have the finest team in the world,” he said.
But he wasn’t done yet. Existing infrastructure at his Moss Landing Green Business Park could bring the cost down further, he said.
The forum’s emcee, Monterey Mayor Chuck Della Sala, signaled for Agha to finish his presentation. “Actually I’d rather you not wrap it up,” Della Sala quipped, “because the longer you’re up here, the lower the price of water becomes.”
As if to flip off the organizers he felt shunned by at the October water forum, the next month Agha presented a team of attorneys, engineers and financing experts at a public forum for his own desal proposal at the Embassy Suites. There, he was free to blast Constanz’s DeepWater Desal on his own turf.
“We had a different team a few months ago, but they got greedy,” he told an audience of 75. “They wanted me to add millions of dollars to the project so they could make millions overnight. So they took a hike, and I’m very glad they did.”
“We are bulletproof,” he added. “We are moving forward and nobody can stop us.”
Agha envisions the Moss Landing project as a pilot for a global franchise of desal plants. “The reason there is no profit, the reason I am taking a loss, the reason I am discounting the land: It will be a promotion for our future business,” he says. “I will grab attention from all over the country and possibly all over the world.”
~ ~ ~
In his golden years, Agha has focused on acquiring high-profile community institutions. In 2006 he unsuccessfully bid $30 million for the county-owned Natividad Medical Center; he also threw in an offer on the nearby county jail and juvenile hall, eventually upping his bid to $90 million.
That same year, he partnered with former Herald editor Lewis Leader in an effort to buy the Knight Ridder newspaper. MediaNews Group took over the Herald instead, but coincidentally Agha’s son, Laith, started working there as a reporter.
“Some people saw that as favoritism and gave me a cold shoulder when I arrived,” Laith says. “I had to go to extra lengths to prove myself.” Over his four years at the Herald, to avoid perceptions of conflict of interest, he frequently recused himself from assignments involving his parents’ substantial holdings.
These days, Agha’s seeing profit potential in green business, the sunny side of dire forecasts on peak oil and water wars. He says he’s assembled a 16-person board to advise a new solar farm business he hopes will go national.
He also sees opportunity in the wreckage of Green Vehicles. The city of Salinas invested nearly $550,000 in the electric car company before it filed for Chapter 7 in August; Agha bought its remnants, a few bodies and transmissions, in November. He plans to make magnesium or lithium ion batteries, and make the entire venture domestic. “We need to bring our jobs back to this country from the Orient.”
Agha’s prohibited by a confidentiality agreement to disclose his purchase price. “I’d love to tell you, but I can’t my dear,” he says. “They’d beat me up. It wasn’t too much. I can tell you we bought it very, very reasonably.”
Whatever he paid went to investor Tim O’Donnell, who claimed he was owed $200,000 – and who says he lost big on the deal.
In the midst of acquiring and developing properties, Agha found a month in 1995 to design a Tiffany-style window for the Holman building. For $50,000, he had his own painting of monarchs flocking over Lovers Point arranged in a semicircle of glass as wide as a car. It shows an observant artist’s touch in the gently folded wings and fragile antennae.
The piece typifies Agha’s big-thinking approach to creative enterprise.
“The sky’s the limit,” he says in his typical hyperbole. “I’ll shoot my arrows to the sky; if it reaches the skyscraper, we will have accomplished a great deal.”