Auschwitz Survivor’s Daughter Becomes BillionaireSeth Lubove and John Gittelsohn
– Vera Guerin, whose late father Nathan Shapell survived two Nazi concentration camps and became one of California’s largest property developers, emerged as a billionaire last week after Toll Brothers Inc. agreed to buy her family’s Shapell Industries Inc.’s homebuilding business for $1.6 billion.
Toll, the largest U.S. luxury-home builder, will pay cash for Beverly Hills-based Shapell, the companies said in a Nov. 6 statement. The deal will more than double the number of California lots controlled by Toll to about 9,200, with most in coastal markets where vacant land is hard to come by.
“The Shapell company has a long, storied history,” Douglas Yearley Jr., chief executive officer of Toll Brothers, said in a telephone interview. “Nathan Shapell, his brother David and their brother-in-law Max Webb from the ’50s on tied up ranches in the best locations in northern and southern California and got those ranches entitled. It’s a perfect fit for Toll Brothers.”
Founded in 1955, Shapell has developed about 70,000 homes and 7,000 apartments in California, and manages more than 2.7 million square feet of shopping centers, offices and other commercial property, according to a Toll investor presentation. Shapell’s homebuilding division had revenue of $274 million in the first 8 months of 2013.
Shapell’s Porter Ranch development, with 1,786 remaining home sites, is the largest planned community in the city of Los Angeles, and its Gale Ranch in San Ramon, east of San Francisco, has 1,538 more lots to build on. Shapell sold 347 homes this year through August for an average of $791,000.
Guerin, 66, inherited her father’s 43 percent stake in the company prior to his 2007 death, according to a person familiar with Shapell’s ownership who asked not to be identified because the information is private. The Toll deal will give her about $690 million before taxes. After the transaction, Shapell will still own 10,000 apartments, according to the person. It also owns five shopping centers and four office buildings, according to its website.
The apartments are worth $1.5 billion, or about $150,000 per unit, and the offices and shopping centers are valued at about $210 million, according to a real estate broker familiar with the company who asked not to be identified because he’s close to one of Shapell’s principal owners. Her stake in those assets is worth about $735 million, giving Guerin a net worth of at least $1.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Guerin’s fortune may be bigger, based on a 2004 loan document filed by JPMorgan Chase Commercial Mortgage Securities Corp., which said she owned more than 10 million square feet of offices, “several thousand” apartments, and “several million” square feet of retail space through partnerships. Shapell’s company website only lists holdings of 113,500 square feet of offices, and shopping centers totaling 629,000 square feet.
Bill West, Shapell’s CEO, said Guerin declined to comment on her net worth.
Born in Poland in March 1922 as Natan Schapelski, Guerin’s father spent World War II in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Most of his family members, including his mother, were executed, according to the program from his 2007 funeral.
In his memoir, “Witness to the Truth,” which was published in 1974, Shapell said he helped smuggle Jewish children out of the Targowa, Poland, ghetto in empty soup pots before he was sent to the concentration camps.
At Auschwitz, he met Max Webb, who would later marry his sister. They worked together after the war with his brother David to build housing in the Bavarian town of Munchberg for former concentration camp prisoners.
They immigrated to California in 1952, where the three worked with a Los Angeles construction company before splitting off in 1955 to form their own homebuilder. Under Nathan, the chairman and chief executive, the company handled land acquisition, zoning, financing, home design and building.
Shapell’s biggest project was the 1,300-acre Porter Ranch housing development north of Los Angeles, best known as the location of several scenes in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.”
“He was an icon, a powerful person who just radiated power and was incredibly intimidating,” said Tim Freund, a Thousand Oaks, California, real estate broker, who worked as a sales rep for the company for 14 years and toured the company’s subdivisions alongside Shapell.
Guerin spends little time on day-to-day company activities, according to a former executive who asked not to be identified because the company is private. Outside of her service on the board, her most visible role is as vice chairman and chairman-elect of the board of directors of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. She also produces musical theater, including “Tom Jones: The Musical.”
She met her husband, Paul Guerin, at her brother’s bar mitzvah, and married him despite objections from her father that he wasn’t Jewish, according to a 2008 interview with a Cedars-Sinai in-house publication.
“I knew I could be self-sufficient,” the magazine quoted her as saying. “I could support myself. I could put Paul through school. We did all that. We had three children and struggled. I think that’s why we appreciate everything we have today, because we worked so hard for it. It was the best lesson ever in our lives and I thank my parents for that.”
The billionaire had to defend her father’s estate against a lawsuit filed in 2008 in California Superior Court by Cheryl Kane, who was Shapell’s girlfriend after the 1994 death of his wife. Kane said she not only lived and slept with Shapell in his Beverly Hills house, she acted as his personal assistant and watched over him as his health declined.
Instead of receiving the title to a house he bought for her and providing Kane with living expenses for the rest of her life, as he allegedly promised, she only received a one-time check for $11,000, according to her complaint. She separately filed a $10 million claim against Shapell’s estate.
Guerin denied most of Kane’s allegations and settled the case for an undisclosed amount in 2009.
Her father’s original partners, his brother David and Webb, both in their mid-90s, still come to the office every day, according to West.
“The homebuilding business is not for the faint of heart,” said West. “You have to have an unbelievable passion to want to deal with the volatility of that business and they just felt that there were others who’d probably do more for the company and more for the employees than they felt comfortable doing.”