Click photo to enlarge
Construction magnate Ken Behring photographed at his Danville office.
BLACKHAWK — Leaning back in his office chair on a recent sunny afternoon, Kenneth Eugene Behring, 78, is an imposing figure.

Short, but solid, Behring speaks in a soft, yet commanding tone. Unlike many people who make their money in sales, Behring appears genuine in conversation and smiles easily — a large grin from ear to ear.

"I enjoy selling, I enjoy meeting people very much, which is my life now," said Behring, who used his talents to become one of the richest people in the United States.

"(I enjoy) trying to determine who they are, what they are. And through life you find that, sooner or later, you can smell a phony a mile away."

Behring's personality only begins to explain how he made his fortune, beginning life as the son of poor Midwestern farmers and eventually earning enough money as a land developer to buy the Seattle Seahawks in1988 from the Nordstrom family for $79 million. Failing to convince Seattle area officials to renegotiate the Kingdome's lease or contribute financially to a new stadium, Behring threatened to move the team to Southern California.

Feeling pressure from enraged fans, local leaders convinced Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to option the team for $200 million. The deal was closed at the end of 1997.

"Once again I was starting over — without football, but with the money and time to look for real purpose in my life," Behring recounts in his 2004 memoir, "The Road to Purpose.


Advertisement

"

For Behring, this meant giving much of his fortune away.

Take a tour of Ken Behring's estate in Blackhawk. [video]

He now spends most of his time traveling the world in his MD-80 private jet, meeting foreign dignitaries and some of the world's poorest people through his work with the Wheelchair Foundation — a charity he founded in 2000 with $15 million.

Behring hoped to distribute 1million free wheelchairs in five years to disabled people worldwide; on June 13 of this year, his foundation passed the 500,000 mark.

Like other great philanthropists, Behring has given millions away in the form of donations to museums, universities and charities, including the largest single donation — $80 million — in the history of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. (His $80 million gift in 2000 to the National Museum of American History was preceded by a donation of $20 million to the National Museum of Natural History three years earlier.)

In his business career, Behring has a similar tendency to set his aspirations high.

Behring made his mark on the East Bay with his role as developer in the 1970s of the elite Blackhawk gated community, located just east of the town of Danville and directly south of Mount Diablo.

Behring describes in his memoir how he negotiated the best possible deal.

"Five years after we had bought the land, our strategy finally paid off," he wrote. "By asking for everything, we received something, and that was enough to win approval of the project."

Now one of the East Bay's most desirable and affluent neighborhoods, Blackhawk has also become the Behrings' home.

Today, Behring and his wife, Pat, live in the largest house in Contra Costa County, a nearly 30,000-square-foot estate perched on a hill overlooking the elite Blackhawk gated community of approximately 2,500 upscale homes.

Charismatic, controversial

Born on June 13, 1928, in Freeport, Ill., and raised in the small farming town of Monroe, Wis., Behring had a distant relationship with his parents from the start.

"I respected them but they were farmers and they had lost their farm in what was called The Depression," he said. "They didn't understand me, nor did I understand them. The relationship was fine, but I never ever remember being reprimanded or any guidance being given to me, so I had to do it on my own. When you start out making decisions when you are very young, it is easy the rest of your life to make decisions. You hate to say it, but in some ways they were kind of ... in awe of me."

In high school, Behring came to a discovery about himself that would prove invaluable in his business career. People trusted him and he could convince people to follow him — even in less than noble pursuits. He relates in his memoir when he and his buddies began skipping gym class a few months before graduation to attend a local bar. Returning late to his next class one day with alcohol on his breath, Behring and his friends were suspended.

Instead of sulking or accepting his punishment, Behring decided to fight back. In retaliation, he organized an unrelated, student strike in support of his football coach who was set to be replaced by an older coach returning from duty in World War II.

The strike shut down the school, and the superintendent agreed not to punish Behring for the drinking incident if he called off the strike. The strike was over and Behring and his classmates were back in class.

Behring, who dropped out of the University of Wisconsin after one semester, quickly put his charisma to more practical use — as a used car salesman, Florida home builder and Bay Area developer.

Fighting to earn his first dollars in a muddy Monroe used car lot, Behring found success after a few short years.

By 27, he was earning $50,000 a year and had $1 million in assets.

In its October 1998 issue, Forbes Magazine listed Behring's fortune at $495 million. He was 70 years old.

"He has given a tremendous amount away," said Matt Miller, an editor at Forbes who oversees the magazine's annual list of the 400 Richest Americans.

Miller said Behring has since fallen off the list — the cut-off is currently set at about $900 million — but the magazine continues to track his wealth periodically.

"He conceivably has a couple hundred million dollars," Miller said.

Pat, Behring's wife who raised the couple's five boys, said that she was confident in her husband's business decisions from the start.

"I always knew that he would be a success, but not to this extent," she said. "I think from the very beginning, I always put my complete self into his hands so to speak. I just trusted his instincts. I see him as a visionary. If he said he could do it, he usually did it."

'Blackhawk Wars'

In 1972, Behring purchased 4,000 acres of ranch land near present-day Danville to undertake one of his most ambitious projects to date.

East Bay Regional Park Director Beverly Lane — a former mayor of nearby Danville and Danville councilwoman from 1982 to 1993 — moved to the Danville area in the early 1970s, as Behring was finalizing plans for the Blackhawk gated community.

"At the time Behring purchased the ranch, there was not much housing development at all in the communities around the I-680 corridor and the location of the ranch," she explained recently in a telephone conversation.

"At that time it was the largest development proposed in the county ever. There was quite a bit of controversy, in part because of the size, and in part because (residents) thought it would be a leap-frog development."

Lane remembers the ensuing "Blackhawk Wars" well.

"I know in Danville we don't approve gated communities," she said. "We felt that doing that encouraged people to be cut off from the community at large. But at that point Danville didn't exist. From an economic viewpoint ... it usually means that houses do have a higher value if they are behind a gate."

Other areas of contention, in addition to general fears of environmental degradation, included concerns over traffic congestion and insufficient contributions to parks in the area.

"Blackhawk (Corp.) said it would take care of all the recreational needs (of the community)," Lane said. "Therefore (Blackhawk residents) didn't need to join" the county's parks and recreation district and pay into the county fund.

In addition to a lack of contributions to support parks in the county, Lane said that one entrance to Mount Diablo State Park is now open exclusively to Blackhawk residents and their guests.

"The only park that really went to the public was the soccer field," she said. "Certainly by the people who were trying to look ahead for large parks that would meet family needs, it was a great disappointment."

Yet in the end, after years of lawsuits, the development left a good impression on many in the community.

Behring helped his own cause by donating more than 2,000 acres of the property to Mount Diablo State Park and scaling back the project to about 2,500 homes — about half of what was originally proposed.

Those fortunate enough to have secured a spot in Blackhawk now enjoy its peaceful, wooded setting, meticulously landscaped gardens, a country club, club house and two golf courses.

And the value of Blackhawk's land and homes has sky-rocketed.

Eighteen hundred to 2,300-square-foot homes, which originally sold for between $175,000 and $350,000, now sell for upwards of $1 million in Blackhawk.

"It's very difficult to find anything less than $900,000 in Blackhawk today," said Behring's son, David, who has worked with his father in various capacities, including former president of the Seattle Seahawks and is the current president of the Wheelchair Foundation. "The big custom homes, which went for $500,000 to $700,000, are now selling for $3 million."

Eric Hasseltine, who served as Contra Costa County supervisor from 1977 to 1981 when Blackhawk was beginning to be developed, said he thought the gated community was well designed and fulfilled a need for housing as executives and others began moving to the area.

"It was a ... good land plan," Hasseltine said.

Jay Bedecarre, executive editor of Bay Area Home Builder, said Blackhawk was the first upscale community in the area and was widely acclaimed in the building community.

"That was a landmark project in the East Bay," Bedecarre said. "It was actually nationally renowned. It provided many of the local architects and home builders an opportunity to design upscale homes in the area. It won many awards. That was the standard by which others were judged."

Blackhawk, which broke ground in June 1977 and was almost completely finished by the early 1990s, paved the way for further Behring developments, including nearby Canyon Lakes in San Ramon with 4,500 homes and a public golf course.

"(Canyon Lakes) was completed in three years and made more money than Blackhawk," wrote Behring in his memoir. "But our Blackhawk negotiations helped streamline the process. Later, I would build two developments on the other side of Mount Diablo, retirement communities similar to Tamarac (one of Behring's developments in Florida)."

'A business sense'

"So money is not the object, but everything I do still has a business sense to it," Behring said, back in his office. "In other words, whatever charity or whatever philanthropy I'm involved in I do it the same way I did all the business."

As an example, Behring points to a new water purification venture he hopes to launch in the near future.

"I've been working two years on water, which is such a big item that it's almost overwhelming," Behring said. "The main (purification) machines we will use will weigh 300 to 400 pounds. (They) will make about 3,000 gallons a day."

His business acumen and contacts have proved invaluable in this effort, which he hopes will bring clean drinking water to millions in developing countries.

In another instance, Behring has developed useful business contacts in China through his work with the Wheelchair Foundation and other philanthropic endeavors.

"I've become very, very active in China," Behring said.

Behring, who is doing little business in this country except for a small Brentwood development, is in the beginning stages of a large project on Chong Ming Island, in the Yangtze River north of Shanghai. The project will be designed by Doug Dahlin — a Pleasanton-based architect whose firm designed the Blackhawk community and Behring's home.

"Our first phase will be 11,000 living units, golf course, a hotel, marina," he said. "There's an island right off of Shanghai that (the government) kept as a garden island. (The development) will be low-rise, first stories, because most of the island will be kept for plants and flowers. (The government wants) to keep (the island) as a showplace because Shanghai is so dense."

Clearly, however, Behring now gains the most pleasure from his philanthropic work, something he discovered late in life.

"Money is only good if you can put it to use," he said, with his characteristic grin. "It is probably a nasty way to say it, but money is like manure. If you pile it up, it smells. If you spread it out, it grows things."

Ben Semmes can be reached at (925) 416-4723 or bsemmes@trivalleyherald.com.