Alex G. Spanos died today at the age of 95. Most people probably know him as the owner of the NFL Los Angeles (formerly San Diego) Chargers. A lot of people didn't like him for that (owning a sports franchise is a great way to tick off a lot of people for all kinds of reasons).
Spanos made a lot of money owning a football team. His initial $48.3 million investment in 60% of the team back in 1984 is now a 97% ownership estimated to be worth more than two billion dollars.
But it's how he made his first fortune that's easily the more fascinating story. Alex Spanos was born in Stockton in 1923 to Greek immigrants. He worked in his father's bakery and was attending Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo when he enlisted to fight in World War II, serving as an Air Force tailgunner. After the war, he went back to school, this time in Stockton at the University of the Pacific.
In 1951, he borrowed $800 from the bank, bought a truck, a slicing machine, a meat cleaver and started selling bologna sandwiches to farm workers up and down the San Joaquin Valley. That led to a deal with farm owners to provide room and board to the immigrant farm hands. Bologna and beans for $1.75 a day, deducted from the workers' wages by the farm owners and paid directly to Spanos. He started with 350 farm workers. By 1956, Spanos was feeding 7,000 workers a day.
The business was not without controversy, though that largely came later. Scholars digging into the story fifty years later found Spanos was charging about three times more than a diverse and nutrituous diet being served at the time by---the California prison system. Ouch. Still, Spanos' food---and the money he charged for it---was within the guidelines of the U.S. Labor Department at the time.
By the mid-50s, Spanos had made his first million dollars (the government's online inflation calculator says that's a shade under ten million in today's money), and his tax guys were telling him to invest in real estate---and maybe build some. So Spanos started building apartment complexes and within 20 years, he was the largest apartment builder in the United States ( I lived in Spanos complexes in Reno and Las Vegas in the 1980s, so my rent paid for about $30,000 worth of that $48.3 million dollar investment in the Chargers).
Alex Spanos will also be remembered as a philanthropist. He gave back---and big. One of the bright spots in Stockton is the Fox California Bob Hope Theater. Spanos put half a million of his own money into renovation of what was then a run-down and endangered 60-year-old theater....more than the grant money from Congress and the State of California. Because of his generosity, you'll find the Alex G. Spanos Center at the University of the Pacific, the Alex G. Spanos Stadium at Lincoln High School in Stockton, the Alex G. Spanos Stadium at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Alex G. Spanos Sports Training Center at UC San Diego, and here in Sacramento, the Alex G. Spanos Sports and Recreation Center on the Sac State campus and the Alex G. Spanos Heart and Vascular Center at Mercy General, where, after a seven-way bypass in 2000, Spanos made a seven-figure gift.
The Spanos family and the Spanos Companies will go on without him. But Alex G. Spanos made a lot happen in his 95 years on earth. Not bad for the son of an immigrant baker from Stockton.