Filling the Civic Gap

Meet Donald Fisher, the private billionaire with unprecedented sway over ordinary San Franciscans' lives

"He's got guys scaring him, and he responds to it," says Matt Gonzalez, former president of the Board of Supervisors.

"I don't have a problem with people who have opinions, but being wealthy doesn't make you more important than people who aren't wealthy," says S.F. school board member Jill Wynns, who clashed with Fisher over his attempt during the 1990s to give the for-profit Edison Schools chain a foothold in the city.

Politicos frustrated by the increasing influence of the mega-rich have a lot of hair-pulling ahead of them, however, because those folks are only going to take a larger role in public life. Their time might be better spent examining what makes these emerging power brokers tick.

Though the Gap's headquarters at Folsom and Embarcadero was built with the sale of unassuming casual wear, the suite of Chairman Emeritus Donald Fisher is dressed to impress. The opulence of the office suite is an imposing contrast to Fisher himself, a slender bald soft- and plain-spoken man dressed in the understated style of the company he founded.

On the 15th floor, the elevator bank opens out into a blond-wood-floored art gallery that seems a block long and is the width of a large apartment. To reach Fisher's sanctum, a visitor wends through and past a forest of avant-garde paintings and statues before arriving at an office with a panoramic view of the bay, like the one Fisher enjoyed while growing up in the exclusive neighborhood of Seacliff.

"I remember [Fisher] contacted my husband 15 years or so ago, and he said, 'I want headquarters with an unobstructed view of the Bay,'" recalls Ellen Magnin Newman, a high school classmate of Fisher's who is married to former S.F. Redevelopment Agency President and former S.F. Planning Commission President Walter Newman. "My husband ... knew the real estate market pretty well, and my husband helped him get it."

For Fisher, "getting it" meant cutting a deal with the Redevelopment Agency to condemn and seize the property at 2 Folsom, whose owner didn't want to sell at Fisher's price. According to a 1997 SF Weekly investigation by Chuck Finnie, the Redevelopment Agency's preferential treatment to Fisher was worth some $18 million in property discounts.

"That's the beauty and excitement of this gray area of my life, which might start with Gap business and take me to much broader areas of influence, or begin with something very private, only to bring me back to our business in a new and rewarding way," writes Fisher in his memoir. These themes of intersecting worlds of personal and business life, and of wanting something and getting it by hook or by crook, runs through the 724 pages of Falling Into the GAP, a professionally edited and published book co-written with Fisher's longtime ad man Art Twain, and distributed, as the introduction points out, "solely to family, friends, and business associates."

By his own estimation, Fisher was a champion athlete (he swam in local meets and in college), a ladies' man (beautiful girls were everywhere), a bon vivant (scenes not set in nice parts of San Francisco are set in Lake Tahoe, San Diego, or offshore), and a man deathly afraid of losing.

"If there is an engine that drives us toward success," he writes, "I think winning is the force that drags us behind it, while fear of losing pushes relentlessly from behind. For me, rear propulsion has been my greatest source of energy."

So he trumped his father's middling business successes, first by turning Downtown flophouse hotels into SRO residences. Improvements included ripping out individual telephone lines in the rooms and replacing them with a single phone in the hallway.

Soon after he started the Gap in 1969 as an all-Levi's jeans outlet, Fisher ran into what he calls "union trouble," in the form of a 1971 organizing drive at his warehouse by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. In response, Fisher emptied out his warehouse on a Sunday morning and moved to another facility, so that his employees arrived Monday to an abandoned workplace — and no job.

"I then made a sweetheart deal with the shoe clerks union," Fisher writes.

When that contract was up and the Teamsters organized his workers, Fisher brought in scabs. With the help of some adroit lawyering, Fisher then extended his sweetheart deal with the shoe clerks union.

He also encountered union hassles when making TV commercials for the Gap, so he had spots produced in a nonunion shop in Mexico City. For Fisher, that meant "paying an emotional and financial price in aggravation and bribes."

Working as a retailer of Levi's meant struggling against another meddling organization — Levi Strauss management. In his book, Fisher describes maneuvering his way around the company's stipulations about how Levi's-sponsored advertisements should look; eventually, he got out from under the supply, distribution, and price constraints of Levi's by creating Asian knockoffs of other name-brand clothing. By last year the chain Fisher created included 2,850 North American stores, and the company's various divisions enjoyed net sales of $16 billion.

In 1995, though, Fisher resigned as CEO of Gap Inc. and began focusing more on his role in public life.

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