Murdock's focus: health
By Seth Lubove
Bloomberg News Service
By Seth Lubove
LOS ANGELES — David Murdock is annoyed. The mayor of Westlake Village, Calif., site of Murdock's new 270-room Four Seasons hotel and health spa, and headquarters of his $6 billion Dole Food Co., has just finished speaking for almost two hours.
Murdock, proprietor of one of the United States' biggest private corporate empires, is impatient to get back to business. At 84 years old, he usually doesn't allow anyone to waste his time. "Two hours, can you believe it," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.
The occasion of the mayor's speech last December was to help celebrate the opening of Murdock's California WellBeing Institute, a product of his late-in-life conversion to healthy living. And the institute is just a curtain-raiser to a much grander Murdock health-focused project: the 350-acre, $1.25 billion North Carolina Research Campus rising from the ruins of shuttered textile mills in Kannapolis, N.C., that Murdock once owned.
The research campus is being built by real estate giant Castle & Cooke Inc., the other pillar of Murdock's vast domain. Three North Carolina public universities, plus private Duke University, have signed on to do food-related research there.
Murdock has been preaching the benefits of a low-fat diet with lots of fruit and vegetables for decades — he's 5 feet 8 and 150 pounds himself. "I think it's pretty obvious that people are overweight," says Murdock, whose personal fortune is valued by the Los Angeles Business Journal at $4.5 billion. "All you have to do is walk around any shopping center to see something is wrong in America."
PASSION FOR GOOD DIET
Murdock has used his ownership of Dole to pursue his passion for improving America's diet. The company, once best known for growing pineapples in Hawai'i, now sells a variety of fruit and vegetables — including bananas, broccoli, prunes and Tibetan goji berries — that Murdock considers particularly healthful. The billionaire has also spent millions of dollars producing books and pamphlets on nutrition.
Bond investors may wish Murdock would spend less time on his health crusade and more improving Dole's bottom line. Last year, the company lost $89 million on $6.2 billion in sales. The assessment of its $2.4 billion in bonds and bank debt by Fitch Ratings ranges from "speculative" to "high default risk."
The company is fending off lawsuits accusing it of selling spinach last year that was contaminated by the E. coli virus. Dole blames the contamination on the packager of the spinach.
The European Commission in July accused the company of conspiring with rivals to fix prices on banana imports, which Dole denies. And the company has been defending itself since July in a Los Angeles Superior Court civil trial against allegations by 12 Nicaraguan banana workers that Dole poisoned them with pesticides, which the company also denies.
Fitch Ratings analyst Carla Norfleet Taylor says Dole's poor ratings reflect its large debt load and flagging profits. "Commodity costs in terms of fuel, packaging and production are way up," Taylor says. "Most of the issues they're going through are out of their control."
Murdock's North Carolina Research Campus is controversial too. The local city and county governments have agreed to underwrite $168 million in water and sewer connections and other improvements to the property. John Day, manager of Cabarrus County, where the facility is located, says the research campus is a profit-making enterprise and doesn't deserve government help.
"Normally, if someone is developing a research park, all the infrastructure improvements are typically paid for by the developer," he says. "It would make this the largest incentive provided by a local government in North Carolina history."
Murdock's California and North Carolina health projects — and even Dole itself — are a sideline to the ninth-grade dropout's main career: real estate development. Murdock acquired the food company as part of Honolulu-based developer Castle & Cooke, which he bought in 1985 from public shareholders.
He split Castle & Cooke and Dole into separate publicly listed corporations in 1995, then took both private — Castle & Cooke in 2000 and Dole in 2003. Today, through Castle & Cooke, he lords over a sprawling portfolio that includes housing developments, hotels, golf courses, offices and brick makers in 23 states.
Murdock's new Westlake Village Four Seasons hotel and resort is his third; the others are on the island of Lana'i. He owns all except 2 percent of the 90,500-acre Hawaiian island.
Murdock keeps a close watch on all of his far-flung real estate, racking up some 200,000 miles a year on his Bombardier Global Express corporate jet. Among his staff he is known for his attention to every detail.
Managers on the entrepreneur's building sites have dubbed his favorite wall covering "Murdock yellow," says Heidi Geier, executive vice president of the WellBeing Institute. She says Murdock also ordered boulders hauled over from Thailand's River Kwai to be built into the man-made waterfall in the garden behind the Four Seasons.
Still, Murdock says he finds time every day to think about health. And anyone who spends even an hour with him is treated to a series of pronouncements on the state of the nation:
Murdock's personal beliefs aren't always reflected in the way he runs his businesses. The managers of Murdock's WellBeing Institute, opened last November, would be happy to sell you a four-day, $2,910, "stress-management package."
The rest of the institute's program is more in tune with Murdock's tenets. It emphasizes weight loss, healthy eating and comprehensive physical exams. Enrollees fill out a seven-page questionnaire called a LifeQuality Profile. Sample questions: "How often do negative thoughts, such as judgmental voices, keep you awake?"; "How many times per week do you eat brightly colored fruits and vegetables?"