The Fisher Octopus
by Will Parrish, May 25, 2016
The Fisher family's roughly $10 billion in assets are spread across an opaque web of globe-spanning investments. One of their main money vehicles is Sansome Partners, the San Francisco- and Seattle-based investment firm that owns Mendocino Redwood Company and its northerly affiliate, Humboldt Redwood Company. The purpose of Sansome Partners, the company's web site proclaims, is to make “long-term investments in high-quality businesses and assests.”
Best known as owners of The Gap and Banana Republic retail clothing empire, family matriarch Doris Fisher and her sons Robert, William, and John (best known in some circles as the majority owner of the Oakland A's) are all billionaires. Within the Fishers' 440,000 acres of forestland in Humboldt, Mendocino, and Sonoma counties, the family may own more coastal redwood forest than any private entity ever has.
Fishers: William, Doris, Robert, John
Of late, the “long-term” outlook of the Fishers' logging investment has gotten a bit shakier, at least in the minds of the people in charge. I've tracked the money MRC/HRC has spent to oppose Measure “V,” the June 7th ballot measure that would declare standing-dead trees a public nuisance under certain circumstances, for the past six months. As of the last reporting period, they had spent a little shy of $254,000 – nearly $3 for every man, woman, child, and gender-neutral individual on the county census.
When the Fishers started gobbling up the North Coast's timberlands in 1998, many onlookers were mystified. At the time, the trendline for timber real estate seemed to be aiming in a single direction: down. The Timber Wars were still roiling. And the Fishers were already being stung by a wave of bad publicity regarding The Gap's use of sweatshop labor, which made them a target of burgeoning campaigns against corporate globalization.
Sandy Dean, a long-time Fisher family friend, was brought in to oversee the family's timber foray. Dean's most recent gig had been as a financial partner of none other than Richard Blum, the husband of US Senator Dianne Feinstein, a billionaire investment banker. As with the Fishers, Blum's success has largely devolved from the financialization of the global economy, the sort of economic model that has loomed large in the 2016 election season, involving as it does private capital's unfettered dominance of national economies and distant lands at the expense of organized labor and the ecological fabric that sustains life on earth.
As with Blum, it is difficult to know exactly where the Fishers' fortune is invested at any given time. A 1998 San Francisco Business Journal story noted that “San Francisco's real estate movers and shakers don't like to talk about who's stuffing their wallets with cash. Normally chatty developers turn stone-cold silent when the question is asked.”
However, the Business Journal author, “The Fisher family may be at the top of the heap when it comes to real estate wheeling and dealing. Huge blocks of Gap Inc. stock fuel the family fortune, estimated by Fortune magazine at well over $1 billion [sic].” The story author then added that the Fishers' Sansome Partners “does everything in its power to avoid media attention.”
If the Fishers were some of the main movers of the Bay Area's hyper-inflated real estate market in the late-'90s, that is every bit as likely to be the case now, although their wheelings and dealings are virtually impossible to trace because of laws and loopholes that shield the global elite from taxes and scrutiny, most recently dramatized by the release of the so-called “Panama Papers.”
Footloose global capital has had its role in making San Francisco the third most unaffordable housing market on the planet in terms of both rental and home sale prices. Of course, the Fishers are one of countless players in this and other housing markets whereby speculators and landlords intensify the price pressure as they buy properties, evict tenants, and displace people in anticipation of even higher rents.
When I first started writing about MRC, Sansome Partners had no web site, but the company has become a bit less secretive. Their current homepage, active since 2013, lists 10 individuals who hold leadership positions. Three are former investment advisors for Goldman Sachs, the company most popularly known as the Vampire Squid of the 2008 economic meltdown. The others previously worked at investment companies ranging from Morgan Stanley to the Blackstone Group.
The number two man listed on the site, below Sandy Dean, is Charlie Pollnow, who was previously the chief financial officer and executive vice president of the other major redwood timber owner: Simpson Investment Co. of Seattle, which owns Green Diamond Resources Co., which operates about 400,000 acres of timberland in Humboldt and Del Norte counties and large additional swaths in Washington and Oregon.
By now, the public debate about Measure V has played out across numerous forums, including those on KZYX and in venues throughout the county. For years, MRC's foresters and surrogates have always circumspectly avoided referring to the Fisher family by name, instead invoking their existence only through vague terms like “The Ownership.” The Fishers are eternally absent by their presence, present in their absence, and evidently They will leave no employee unpunished who taketh Their name in vain in a public conversation.
But the Fisher family's financial interests and political objectives are crucial to understanding their companies' campaign against Measure V. At its core, the company's fortunes are based on a virulently anti-tax and anti-regulatory agenda.
In 2012, members of the Fisher family plowed more than $8 million into a dark money campaign in California’s 2012 elections, as revealed by partially redacted documents later revealed by California's Fair Political Practices Commission. The money went toward defeating Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase, Proposition 30, and supporting the anti-union Proposition 32, according to the documents, which list donors to Americans for Job Security, a group that handled contributions in the campaign.
Along with other corporate chiefs, the Fishers' illegal “dark money” contributions were funneled through groups in the right-wing Koch brothers’ political network, according to settlement documents.
With regard to Measure V, it's no surprise that the Fishers are willing to spend big to avoid paying a little more to manage the trees they perceive as weeds: tan oaks, madrones, and other hardwoods.