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Monday, September 28, 2009

Don Fisher: Union Buster, Egomaniac, Rube, In His Own Words

Posted By on Mon, Sep 28, 2009 at 3:59 PM

Published memorials for the death of Gap, Inc. founder Don Fisher have described a pioneering entrepreneur, major philanthropist, civic leader, major political donor and major art collector.

But few captured the hatred many locals felt for this man, who dedicated his later years to causes and campaigns aimed at making San Francisco live up to memories of an idyllic childhood in the exclusive Seacliff neighborhood.

"We lived in a time of innocence that almost seems bizarre by today's standards," he said in his 2002 ghostwritten autobiography Falling into The Gap. The book reads as if it was written to establish Fisher as a great man at the center of world events. Though the book was published at great expense, only a few copies were distributed to family and friends.

But the book also illustrates traits that have made him unpopular locally. He expresses his contempt for local politicians who aren't in his pocket, his loathing for labor unions, an eagerness to rid California of public schools, a cynical attitude toward his own philanthropy and his role as a patron of the arts, and an extraordinary regard for himself.

In San Francisco, parents anguish annually as the city announces seemingly every year that it must close a handful of neighborhood public schools. It's often reported that the closures occur because families are exiting San Francisco. But that's not the whole story. Public schools are actually losing a portion of their students to charter schools, which a Fisher-backed law says get to obtain facilities from public schools.

Fisher provides the back story. He spent millions of dollars backing charter schools such as the for-profit Edison Schools, and the nonprofit KIPP schools.

"Charter schools... were not unionized. So they could hire the best teachers and fire the worst ones, which brought a high level of accountability," he writes. In 2000, Fisher and other charter school backers recognized a need to obtain facilities for charter schools. He writes:

"In order to gain a toehold that would enable us to secure public school facilities, we had to get financially involved in supporting favorable political issues, like California's Proposition 39. This issue, which passed in 2000, reduced the supermajority in bond issues from 66 to 55 percent of the vote and was strongly backed by the California Timber Association Union.

But that wasn't the real issue for us.

A charter school bill was attached to the proposition that required a public school to give a portion of their facility to a charter school if the charter school could get a minimum of 80 students to sign up with it. A group of us joined with the unions supporting Proposition 39 because of the charter school language included in the ballot initiative.

So if a public school had four hundred students, and a charter school could sign up eighty kids to attend that school, the school district had to give the charter school 20 percent of its facility. If you could sign up another eighty kids the following year, you'd be given 40 percent of the facility. Eventually, if you could sign up all the four hundred students, you had the entire facility for the charter school."

Over the years, Fisher was the target of protesters who objected to working conditions in overseas factories supplying The Gap. Fisher, his autobiography tells us, is a longtime union buster, who's worked hard to make it easier to move U.S. manufacturing jobs offshore.

He recounts an episode form The Gap's early days when workers in his San Jose warehouse indicated they wanted to joint a union.

"[Fisher associate John] Carver called me on a Wednesday night to tell me we had union problems. He said the union representative had talked with our warehouse workers and signed them up to join the ILWU. I immediately had John set up a meeting with Ray Vetterline, a union consultant. Ray was a tough, fast-living ex-union executive, whose life could have inspired a TV action series. He was definitely the Rambo of union negotiators. He suggested we move our warehouse to San Francisco over the weekend and make a deal with a friendlier union than the ILWU, which had a reputation for being inflexible...

We took his advice, and made plans to move the entire warehouse from San Jose to our newly-rented Kansas Street location on Sunday morning, before the store opened at noon. John rented four U-Hauls, rounded up about 50 rolling canvas laundry hampers from our warehouse and hired a bunch of college kids to do the job.

When our warehousemen and the Teamster rep showed up at the San Jose warehouse Monday morning, they found it empty. We thanked them for their past efforts, paid them, and let them know we no longer needed their services. I then made a sweetheart deal with the Shoe Clerks Union, Local 410, in San Francisco. If we had to be organized, I felt we should be in San Francisco with an accommodating union."

Fisher boasts that he was influential in the negotiation and passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In 1986 Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Advisory Committee on Trade, a vantage point from which he advocated including Mexico in NAFTA, he writes.

"From The Gap's point of view, we felt we could start doing a lot of business with Mexico, because of their low labor rates and close proximity to the United States.... I represented the interests of the Gap and became one of the leaders in the campaign to gain Mexico's acceptance. By this time The Gap had become a well-recognized name and my leadership and time spent with the people in Washington turned out to be valuable for the industry, as well as ourselves. We got NAFTA done, getting Mexico included with Canada... It's worked out nicely to our benefit and as of January 2000, Mexico is our second-largest supplier."

... Domestic manufacturers "said that foreign countries with low labor rates would ship too much merchandise to the U.S. and cause their companies to go broke. So basically, we had the classic struggle between consumer-friendly prices from products produced overseas against higher-priced products produced here."

Fisher is famous locally for backing pro-business political groups such as the Committee on Jobs and SFSOS. He was loath in life to make public statements about his hobby of tinkering in local politics. In his autobiography, however, he offers a rationale that echoes Malcolm X's famous 1965 "by any means necessary" speech.

"The business climate in San Francisco at this point couldn't be called friendly. Local government officials didn't have a clue on how to make the kinds of decisions and policies that would benefit a corporate climate, or, at the very least, be neutral to it. Sadly, most of them were really out for themselves and regarded business as a dirty word. We needed to do whatever it took to make the city a great place to do business."

Fisher has been regarded in life and death -- even by his detractors -- as a man with exquisite taste for modern art. In "Falling Into the Gap," he explains his secret.

"One of my principles is to never buy an artist that I can't sell at auction... Buying art pieces in [the $5,000] price category means I might hit one out of 20, where the artist becomes very valuable. So what do I do with the other 19 that are worth only $5,000 each or less? I don't like those odds. I'd rather spend more money on an artist who is worth something right now and figure that piece has a good chance to appreciate. Then, if I don't like it later, at least I can sell it. Good modern art and the business of fashion make great style-mates."

Fisher describes how, while on the board of directors of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he'd worked hard to veto a proposal by Frank Gehry to design what would become the SFMoMa across Third Street from the Moscone Convention Center.

"From what I'd seen, it scared me to death that Gehry might design a building that wouldn't fit into the San Francisco Landscape," Fisher wrote.

Don Fisher seems to have been a hard man to please. But he apparently could be pleased. He devotes a section of his book to recounting an extravagant 70th birthday party put on by family and friends in his honor. The U.C. Berkeley band was hired to perform, and a Hollywood director was contracted to produce a video homage.

"Before we sat down to dinner, I dusted off my cheer-leading skills and did some yells and songs with the Cal band. It was so much fun. Later, after a superb dinner, the lights dimmed. A video began to play on a giant screen at one end of the tent.... The music intensified as a raspy male voice sang, "there's a new don rising in America today..." the sun ascended and slowly came into focus as everyone in the room became aware it was actually my bald head rising up behind the lake, until finally my image, from the shoulders up, filled the screen," Fisher wrote.

The film turned out to be a mock political advertisement, positing Fisher as a candidate for president. It was "filled with heroic shots of people at work and play, Boy Scouts, firemen, Mount Rushmore and finally, the statue of liberty with fireworks all around her. My image set against a waving American flag concluded the spot. At the end of the commercial, Kate Kelly, the anchorwoman of our local CBS television station appeared sitting at her news desk and said, "the political future of this nation has just taken a bright turn. Don Fisher, founder and chairman of The Gap, a six and a half billion dollar casual clothing empire, has rocked the political community with today's announcement of his candidacy for president of the United States. There has been a tidal wave of enthusiastic support for Don Fisher. Here's what America's opinion makers have to say."

Then George Bush Sr. appeared on the screen, looking bewildered. "Don who?" he asked."
Fisher's associates hired a list of celebrities to pay tribute, a gesture The Gap founder seems to have appreciated.

"I watched wonderful performances by Willie Brown... Colin Powell... Pete Wilson... Willie Mays... Dusty Baker... George Schultz... Clark Kerr... Bill Bradley... Thousands of colorful balloons magically appeared. Everyone marched around the tables singing Happy Birthday while throwing confetti and streamers," Fisher wrote.

Fisher rounded out the evening dancing to the Glen Miller Orchestra, which had been flown in from New York. He had the video made into DVD discs, so that his grandchildren could enjoy them, he writes.

"I hope the laughter continues for many generations," he writes.

No doubt it will.

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