STOCKTON, Calif. — Ask anybody who has lived in California’s Central Valley over the past few decades if they’re familiar with the name Alex Spanos, and you’re likely to get affirmations and enthusiastic nods. For many people who live in or around Stockton, it’s hard not to notice the effect that this man has had on the area.
Many buildings in central California sport his name. In Stockton, University of the Pacific’s basketball arena is named the Alex G. Spanos Center, in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly’s football stadium is the Alex G. Spanos Stadium, UC San Diego’s training facility is the Alex G. Spanos Athletic Performance Center, and Sacramento is home to the Alex G. Spanos Heart & Vascular Center at Mercy General Hospital. Frequent flyers will recognize the A.G. Spanos Jet Center in Stockton. Even those who haven’t driven by a Spanos-branded building or facility would likely recognize Spanos as the owner of the San Diego Chargers football team.
So what is the story behind this billionaire philanthropist? Who is Alex Spanos, founder of A.G. Spanos (one of America’s largest private companies), and a permanent fixture on Forbes Magazine’s list of The World’s Richest People? Unlike many of the late 20th Century’s billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and even Donald Trump, Spanos has exemplified a much quieter, more private approach to building wealth. The answer to this arguably more humble approach perhaps lies in his upbringing.
Alexander Gus Spanos was born in Stockton, California, to a first-generation Greek immigrant family. His father, Constantinos, owned a restaurant called the Roma Lunch and Bakery, and, in a traditional family-run-business manner, put all his children to work. Like his brothers and sisters, Spanos was enlisted in working the family business from a very young age.
“From the time I was eight years old, I was expected to get up at four in the morning with my brothers and bake the day’s supply of bread and pastry for four hours before going to school,” he recalls in his autobiography.
Despite the hardship of living and working with his physically and emotionally absent father, he credits these early days as a significant milestone in his life, where he learned to work hard and become entrepreneurial.
It was his trust in his own entrepreneurial instinct, in fact, that caused him to eventually lose patience working for his hard-willed father. In a move that stunned the rest of the family and created a relational rift that lasted for decades, Spanos finally told his father that he was quitting.
“You’re going to quit? …you’re going to crawl back here on your hands and knees and beg for this job!” Constantinos yelled at him. “One day,” Spanos recounts thinking, “I would show him.”
So how did this young, uneducated son of an immigrant build a future for his small family and eventually build a business empire that stretched across the USA? Through the unlikeliest of sources: beans and bologna.
With an $800 loan from a friend, he bought a paneled delivery truck and delivered bologna sandwiches and boiled beans to braceros (Mexican laborers) working in the Central Valley. “Faye and I spent our nights making the sandwiches in our kitchen, and then I’d get up early to drive to the farms,” he recalls.
From these small beginnings, he grew his sandwich-delivery business into a full-fledged catering business and eventually increased his offering to the farmers to include housing their braceros. In time, the need for feeding and sheltering so many farm workers grew so large that Spanos began building new structures just to house them all. With initial sales of 250 sandwiches per day, the demand eventually increased to where more than 1,500 braceros were being housed and fed by the A.G. Spanos Agricultural Catering Service.
It was from this modest beginning that Spanos gained entry into the highly-lucrative industry of commercial and multi-family housing construction. And from this humble beginning, Spanos grew his business from the one-man sandwich delivery service to one of the largest construction companies in America.
When people ask him “Who is Alex Spanos?” he replies “I am a man who has lived to see his dreams fulfilled. I am… lucky to see a lifetime of work pay off in success beyond my wildest dreams.”
“But what did I have to begin with? What did I have to sell? Few people started with less than I did. I began with the cheapest commodity available. I began with bologna.”