Stanley Black: Businessman, philanthropist, collector

Moses may have brought the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, but he only gave the Israelites one copy — and those stone tablets weren’t easy to lug around.

Real estate businessman and philanthropist Stanley Black, on the other hand, has probably distributed hundreds of copies of the Ten Commandments over his 50 years in the real estate business — and he gives them out in convenient, pocket-size booklets labeled “Thoughts to Live By.”

It’s a tradition that Black’s father, Jack Black, started when he was working in the garment industry. “It was his hope that these ‘thoughts of the day’ would capture one’s conscience and pave the way to a better life,” Black writes of his father in the introduction to the fifth volume of his own booklet.

Black is an omnivorous collector. Over the past 30 years, Black assembled his most profitable collection, a portfolio of investment real estate properties that stretches across 35 states and includes more than 18 million square feet of space. The occupants of Black’s buildings include familiar names: Wendy’s, Burger King and Office Depot, among many others.

The 80 or so pithy sayings that appear alongside the Ten Commandments in the most recent booklet say a lot about how Black considers business and life. “It’s the empty can that makes the most noise,” reads one. “The best exercise is reaching down and lifting people up,” goes another.

By that criterion, Black keeps himself in good shape. Sitting in the Black Equities offices in Beverly Hills, the 78-year-old talked about the ways he has tried, as a philanthropist, to help people get a leg up in the world.

Black is a longtime supporter of Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), which offers training and counseling to help job-seekers in Southern California. “He’s been involved as a donor for years,” JVS’ chief executive officer, Vivian Seigel, said. Black regularly refers people who are out of work to JVS for assistance, and when the organization honored him at a luncheon in 2006, Seigel said that “Stanley publicly doubled his gift, knowing how big the influence is, and how important it is to help people get back on their feet.”

Black is also on the board of Los Angeles ORT College (LAORT), the local branch of the 130-year-old worldwide education and training organization. Since opening in 1990, LAORT has educated or trained more than 25,000 students at its two locations. The LAORT building on Wilshire Boulevard, located next door to The Jewish Federation’s headquarters, is named for Black and his wife, Joyce.

Black helped the nonprofit acquire the building in 1995. “They were asking $3 million. I offered, I think, $2 million,” Black said. He was traveling abroad at the time of the negotiation. “Then I see that they bombed the Jewish Federation building in Argentina,” Black recalled. The sellers had seen the news as well. “An hour later, I got a fax: ‘We accept your offer.’ ”

The real estate business has changed in the past five decades. “When I started, it was easier. I would buy a property with $5,000 down,” Black said. Still, he likes it, and his son and 24-year-old grandson both now work at Black Equities Group. “There’s opportunity out there,” Black said.

Jack Black, President Barack Obama and Stanley Black. Photo courtesy Stanley Black

It’s just a matter of recognizing it — and knowing when to hold out for a better offer. For years, Black and his son Jack have been photographed with prominent local and national politicians. The photo collection includes pictures of the Blacks with Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert F. Kennedy and many others — including the last five U.S. presidents.

Like many real estate developers, Black often supports multiple candidates in a single election. He supported both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain in 2008. He wanted a photograph with Obama, but during the 2008 campaign he was told that it would require a $35,000 donation to the Democratic National Committee.

Black balked. “$35,000 is too much money. I’d rather give it to a charity,” he said.

Last year, Obama came out to San Francisco to campaign for Sen. Barbara Boxer. The price for a photograph with Obama had gone down to $5,000. Even with the cost of the plane ticket from LAX to SFO, Black is pretty sure he got a good deal.

In addition to the pictures, his buildings and his “Thoughts to Live By,” Black has collected countless objects, and nearly every available space in his Beverly Hills office is covered with paintings, sculptures and assorted tchotckes. A sign with Black’s name written in Chinese is affixed to his office door. A soccer ball signed by Bob Bradley, coach for the U.S. men’s national team,  sits on a table in the entryway. Opposite the receptionist’s desk hangs a string of rosary beads in a frame that was presented to Black by L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony.

The office is also overrun with monkeys. In an homage to the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” monkeys that sat on his father’s desk many years ago, Black has accumulated dozens of sculptures and paintings of the primate trio.

The father and son were also photographed with California Gov. Jerry Brown — twice. The first photo of Brown with the Blacks was taken during the governor’s first term in the 1970s; the more recent photo was taken just last year. “I told him not to run,” Black said of his advice to Brown during his last successful campaign.

The 2010 photo shows how the Blacks and Brown have aged — but one look at Black’s “Thoughts to Live By” suggests that he’s probably not too bothered about getting older.

“Sometimes,” one of Black’s thoughts reads, “it is better to be 80 years young than 40 years old.”