What Did Doug Shorenstein Have That Tech Billionaires Don’t?

Doug Shorenstein, CEO of real estate monolith Shorenstein Properties for the past 20 years, died yesterday at age 60. The cause was cancer.

The term “real estate tycoon” isn’t one that gives people the warm and fuzzies — particularly these days, when “development” is San Francisco’s number one dirty word and “landlord” is number two. But that’s the odd thing about Shorenstein: Though he was the biggest of shots at the biggest of San Francisco developers, and a key player in ushering in the city’s most tumultuous era of change and upset since 1906, people liked him.

Likeability can be an elusive commodity for the young, modern San Francisco CEO. You might say it’s the one thing they can’t buy.

[jump] Shorenstein leaves behind a deep thumbprint in terms of how San Francisco looks, who lives here, and what kind of people do business with us, but his best trick — and the one younger entrepreneurs may have the hardest time imitating — is inspiring tributes of genuine goodwill and good humor.

When Shorenstein took over the family business from his father in 1995, he inherited a mantle of public prominence. He wasn’t a fame-seeker like our modern celebrity CEOs, but neither was he ever reclusive or standoffish. Despite his vast wealth and influence, he at least affected the demeanor of approachability, of being a normal businessman going about his business.

(When discussing the sale of what’s now the Twitter building with Bloomberg Business, he described the then-derelict Mid-Market property as “just a cool building.”)

Like almost anyone with enough zeroes in his bank account, Shorenstein was noted for philanthropy, sitting on the board for the Environmental Defense Fund and UCSF Medical Center, among others. But while the public often brushes off displays of generosity by our modern billionaire class as mere publicity seeking (fairly or not), with Shorenstein they believed it.

“Sometimes people look at these things with a cynical eye, but I’m not surprised they took to him, because he was very much a local presence,” says Ruben Orduna, VP of donor services at the San Francisco Foundation. (We should note that Shorenstein never worked with the Foundation directly.) “Consider what his family did keeping the Giants from leaving. There’s a big sense of identity there.”

Even the famously antagonistic SFGate comment section is a lovefest about his Chronicle obituary: “A great man.” “A mensch.” “An Old School San Franciscan.” “God bless you, Doug,” writes one woman, along with an anecdote about his contributions to the elementary school where she worked.

Keep in mind, these are the same readers who are normally so combative that many of them crapped on a fluffy story about my best friend’s Disneyland wedding. And they drag CEOs over the coals every day. The uber-rich scion of an uber-rich company and the man who directly brought Twitter to San Francisco seems an ideal target for their ire.

But they dig Doug.

Maybe the key is another reader anecdote: “I grew up knowing Doug. We played football on the street in the Richmond district. He was a regular kid and always a regular guy.”

Shorenstein kept that “regular guy” veneer. He’s credited with turning Shorenstein Properties from a local developer to one with interests coast-to-coast, but he always referred to it as “a family business.” He personally visited every building the company bid on, telling the San Francisco Business Times in 2012, “If I don’t see it, we don’t do the deal.”

There was something comforting about the presence of a local real estate baron. In a time when we fear that outside forces are changing the fabric of San Francisco, we knew that Shorenstein wasn’t a carpetbagger or a faceless foreign conglomerate. His father and the family name were sometimes vilified for their hand in several high-profile eviction scandals (including the infamous shuttering of the International Hotel), but when the younger Shorenstein said he loved the city, the public believed him .

He wasn’t a saint, but he was an “old school San Franciscan,” our tycoon rather than just a tycoon. As it turns out, that made a difference.

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