Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Towers of Gold

I read a large number of business biographies every year.  Most either dwell on the mundane and intricate details of a titan's business machinations in excruciating detail while others offer a few tips on how a mogul made their money but focus more on how they spent it.

Occasionally, a book comes along with the perfect mix of both numbers and advice.

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California by author Frances Dinkelspiel is precisely such a book.  This biography tells the utterly fascinating and largely forgotten story of Isaias Hellman, a Jewish immigrant who arrived in California almost penniless but fifty years later controlled an empire worth more than $100 million (in 1906 dollars).

That is about $2.3 billion in today's money.

Hellman literally built the modern city of Los Angeles, transforming a sleepy and largely ignored town miles away from the booming San Francisco into one of the most important cities in the world.

The enormous wealth and power of this one man was staggering, especially when you realize he came to the United States with virtually nothing.

Hellman started and owned many banks, the most famous of which is today Wells Fargo.

He built trolley and railroad lines, prospected and discovered huge deposits of oil, and was a large investor in the Los Angeles Times newspaper.  Hellman built the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the first Jewish synagogue in Los Angeles, as well as starting the University of Southern California, eventually serving as Regent for the University of California.

His ambition and drive seem to know few limits.  For nearly twenty years, Hellman owned and controlled nearly the entire wine industry of California.  After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he provided not just the capital for rebuilding the city but also calmed the world markets about the calamity.

Author Frances Dinkelspiel writes with mastery, walking the fine line between too much detail and not enough with great precision.  I loved this book so much after reading a library copy I bought one for myself.

Any real estate investor or developer who cannot learn two dozen money-making tricks from this book is not trying hard enough.  I cannot wait to read more from Ms. Dinkelspiel.

This book gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me.  Business biographies just do not get any better than this one.  This is a MUST READ BOOK!