South Coast Plaza's Henry Segerstrom
By Kedric Francis
When guests arrived for an alfresco dinner party held beneath the Hotel Bel-Air’s towering sycamore trees a few months back, some among the 100 invitees might have wondered why they were in LA for the 45th anniversary of an Orange County shopping center. But South Coast Plaza’s powerful patriarch, Henry Segerstrom, doesn’t subscribe to such narrow thinking.
“I believe in a borderless Southern California,” says Segerstrom. His customers come from around the region, and indeed the world, to shop, do business, and enjoy art and culture in the empire he and his family created, so why not celebrate in a center of SoCal luxury?
And it’s a small indication of his power and prestige that guests came from throughout California to join Segerstrom and his wife, Elizabeth, in Bel-Air, where he reminisced about some of the major turning points in South Coast Plaza’s evolution into one of the world’s premier shopping destinations and cultural centers.
Covering 140 acres with approximately 2.8 million square feet of retail and dining space, it’s the highest grossing planned retail center in the US, with sales set to top $1.5 billion in 2012. The center features a roster of the world’s top brands, from Assouline to Ermenegildo Zegna, with Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Cartier, and some 243 other big names in between. So it’s difficult to picture South Coast Plaza as it opened in 1967, still surrounded by lima bean farms and fields, with the adjacent 405 freeway under construction.
Still stately at nearly 90, Segerstrom has piercing blue eyes and the strong, matinee idol-worthy mandible that’s iconic in the offices of C.J. Segerstrom and Sons LLC. That’s the private family company that owns South Coast Plaza and the rest of the extensive real estate portfolio, which includes, of course, the much ballyhooed Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Despite a legacy of real estate prowess and great arts patronage, the family’s fortunes started in agriculture. Segerstrom’s grandfather leased and then bought farmland in the area starting in 1898. Henry joined the family farming business (by then one of the most successful agriculture operations in California) in 1948, after recovering from a war injury, which resulted in his being awarded a Purple Heart, and then graduated from Stanford.
“I like to think of the first 50 years from 1898 to 1948 we were in the farming business,” he says. “The second 50 years we were in the business of bringing in people.”
Of all the key dates in South Coast Plaza’s history, the most important, according to Segerstrom, was in 1975, when he made the personal decision to bring designer clothing to Orange County, introducing Mark Cross, Courrèges, Halston, and Yves Saint Laurent to the center, with the latter three boutiques owned and operated by Segerstrom himself.
“Nobody had done that in the shopping center industry before,” he says. In subsequent years, Segerstrom would use his legendary powers of persuasion to convince Nordstrom to open its first location outside the Pacific Northwest and Tiffany & Co. to open its second store in Southern California.
His top staffers call it a “build it and they will come” philosophy, wherein Segerstrom has courted international designers and global brands to open at South Coast Plaza that some didn’t think would succeed. And the mix of luxury retailers at the center is always evolving, with big names vying for top spots in the geography of the place, sometimes waiting decades until a preferred position becomes available. Upcoming openings include Vacheron Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Patek Philippe, Lanvin, and Barbara Bui.
The Segerstroms live in Newport Beach on a contemporary estate that takes up seven lots acquired over decades from old-money OC families (one prime lot was purchased from a granddaughter of Andrew Carnegie). They have a New York City apartment overlooking Central Park and often travel the world, with Paris and St. Petersburg, Russia, being favored destinations. Segerstrom is quick to praise his wife as a partner, providing him a “good sounding board.” She is clearly his biggest fan, while being a powerful force in SoCal fashion, art, and cultural circles in her own right.
Indeed, Segerstrom’s influence reaches well beyond retail. As one of Southern California’s most important patrons of the arts, he counts cultural icons like Plácido Domingo, Valery Gergiev, Richard Serra, Cesar Pelli, and Isamu Noguchi as friends, having commissioned works from most of them. The Segerstrom family and its foundations, partnerships, and corporations have given multiple gifts of land and cash to OC arts programs since 1974, with an estimated total of more than $150 million of Segerstrom gifts helping to create the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Personal cash gifts of $50 million came directly from Henry, plus another $20 million that was his share of partnership donations.
And no doubt there’s more Segerstrom largess for the arts yet to come. Plans are well underway for the Orange County Museum of Art to move from Newport Beach to a Thom Mayne–designed building set to be built next to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall (named for Henry and his late second wife), on land that’s already been donated by (of course) the Segerstroms.
photography by brad swonetz