The Interview: Judy and George Marcus, Peninsula Power Couple

By Janet Reilly

George and Judy Marcus pose together in George’s Palo Alto office, the headquarters of a sprawling real estate empire. (Spencer Brown / Nob Hill Gazette)

He’s Greek Orthodox. She’s Roman Catholic. He immigrated to the United States when he was 4. She’s fourth-generation San Franciscan. He’s gregarious and talks a mile a minute. She’s effortlessly elegant. Together, they’re the billionaire Bay Area power couple Judy and George Marcus.

Whether it’s in the City or on the Peninsula (they live in Los Altos Hills), in the political arena or in philanthropic endeavors, the Marcuses make a big impact in all they do. Case in point: Last year, the couple gave San Francisco State University, their alma mater, a $25 million gift to benefit the school’s liberal arts programs. Added to the $1.8 million athletics scholarship they previously gave, it’s the largest gift in the school’s history.

It must have been impossible for the pair, who come from humble beginnings in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood, to imagine giving away that kind of money earlier in their lives. In 1971, George, a young, ambitious real estate broker, founded Marcus & Millichap, now one of the largest commercial real estate brokerage firms in the United States. What started with a spark of George’s imagination has now become a constellation of blue-chip real estate businesses, spanning Essex Property Trust,Hanover Financial, Pacific Urban Residential, Meridian Property Company, SummerHill Homes and SummerHill Apartment Communities. And Judy, a former PE teacher, was by his side every step of the way, raising their four children.

On a recent afternoon, I sat down with Judy and George at Marcus & Millichap’s Palo Alto headquarters. We talked real estate, Greek heritage, what patriotism means to the duo and giving back (locally, if you can).

George, as a young broker, nearly 50 years ago, you set off on your own to start a company and in the process revolutionized the business of commercial real estate. Tell me about that. George: When I started out in the commercial brokerage business, [most companies] had abroad base of services, but, mainly, it was leasing and property management. Occasionally they would sell investments, but there wasn’t organized investment activity. So, when I went to work for Grubb & Ellis, I looked around and thought, “This is strange,”because a lease is important, but ultimately, they’re going to sell this office building, apartment building or industrial building for multimillion dollars, but they didn’t have a process [for selling it]. They didn’t have the building appraised. They didn’t really have accurate information. They didn’t have a representation agreement. That’s crazy. And, that’s exactly what was going on.

So, you went out on your own? George: Ultimately, I left and started my own company in Palo Alto, right around the corner, in an office about half the size of this room. And, basically, I instituted a process where we worked with the owners, appraised their asset, worked with them to polish it up — make it look good — and then exclusively listed with them.

“It took me a long time to figure out George needed a lot of space. No one was going to come home at 5 o’clock.”

—Judy Marcus

Judy, were you involved in the business in those early days? Judy: Well, one time I did manage a six-unit building.

George: You’ll love this story.

Judy: I got to know all the people in the building and I had six different rents …

George: I said, “Judy, you haven’t touched this lady’s rent in three years!” And, she says, “She’s really sweet and she can’t pay it.”

Judy: It didn’t quite work out. No, I haven’t been involved.

George: But, she had the most vital responsibility of my career. [When you start] in the commercial sales business, it’s a commission business. It generally takes a year or two to start the process. Judy was a schoolteacher so she gave me the support I needed to start the business.

A vintage photo of George and Judy, courtesy of the pair, who own the beloved Kokkari Estiatorio in San Francisco as well as Palo Alto’s Evvia.

How did you two meet? Judy: George was best friends with my brother, and we grew up in the same neighborhood [Potrero Hill] in San Francisco. So, I’ve known George since …

George: … the beginning of time!

Judy: Fifth or sixth grade, but my brother’s younger than I am, and I didn’t associate with any of my brother’s friends.

George: True.

Judy: And then George went into the military directly from high school, which mostly everybody in our neighborhood did. Or they ended up in jail. And then I went on to college. I’d graduated and he came back to finish SF State. My brother said, “Why don’t you guys go out?” We went on a date and then we were married two years later. … We were both very young when we got married.

George: Yes. Twenty-three.

Judy: It took me a long time to figure out George needed a lot of space. No one was going to come home at 5 o’clock.

George: If you want to succeed, there is no other answer. I don’t know anyone who has a really nice, buttoned-down job who can just work seven or eight hours [per day]. I was working probably six days a week, 10 to 15hours a day. And that’s the only way it works. It’s not going to work any other way.

George, you emigrated from Greece as a boy and assimilated very quickly into American culture. You wanted to be American. George: I wanted to be more American than anything in the whole wide world. Even though there were a lot of different ethnic groups in our area, everyone got along. We had Italians, Spanish, Central Americans, the Russians, the whole group. [San Francisco] was just a nice place to grow up.

So, George, you’re Greek Orthodox and Judy, you’re Roman Catholic, right? Judy, are you involved with Catholic organizations? Judy: Yes, I’m on the Catholic Charities Board down here.

You have a family foundation and are well known for your philanthropy. Judy, was that desire to give back instilled in you as a child or part of your Catholic faith? Judy: I think, initially, it was just that my mom raised my brother and sister and me. We didn’t have things — there were people who gave us things — but we always had an interest in helping the community. We both have always felt very strongly about giving back and having our kids involved from an early age where it was appropriate. And they have compassion, which is nice. For me, I get more out of it for myself, so it’s kind of selfish in a way.

George: Let me just add — Judy is extremely frugal. And even though we are now philanthropically minded, it was extremely difficult getting there because we started out with humble origins.When you start with humble origins, the idea of giving money to people, it takes a while. We’re not third-generation wealthy people who grew up with philanthropy, so it was not easy for us to do this. Ultimately, we became comfortable with it, and now we have a charitable foundation.

Last year, you two gave a $25 million gift to your alma mater, San Francisco State — the largest grant ever given to that institution. How did that come about? George: It was just out of gratitude for the experience we both had there. The state schools don’t get the respect that some of the other schools get in terms of doing research. We wanted to impact the quality of what they’re doing. … They need research money. They need things that challenge them to do better. And they need endowed chairs so we get the best professors that are available for the various subject matters. We’re very excited about it.

“I don’t know anyone who has a really nice, buttoned-down job who can just work seven or eight hours [a day].”

—George Marcus

More millionaires and multimillionaires in the Valley very soon, with all these companies that are expected to go public. What advice would you give to budding philanthropists?Judy: I would say, “Give back to your community.” In Silicon Valley, there’s a tendency to support their university, but they forget about all the things that are going on around them. This is a generalization, obviously, and I do think we have some very philanthropic people. But I like to see people give back locally where they can make a difference.

George: I have to agree with that. It would be nice to have a strategy that has a great impact. Now, having great impact [could mean] building a new park or planting trees somewhere so kids can play. No one thinks about that. They think that’s the state’s problem. The reality is, those are important things, too.

You are both very involved in the Democratic Party. Why is that, and do you have a favorite candidate for 2020? George: We’re going to wait for the field to settle down. [Joe] Biden is someone I’ve known for a while. You’re a bit more comfortable with people that you’ve known. He’s mature and all that kind of stuff. I’m not saying he’s my candidate, but there are a lot of very smart people who are running. I think it’s complicated because 14 people getting their voices heard is going to be very, very difficult. We believe that, longterm, the Democratic Party is a more egalitarian-minded party. It looks at helping the disadvantaged in a more hands-on way. And [our support] probably has a little bit to do with [Judy’s] parents and my parents. … Very few [people] deviate from their parents, which is really strange.

George, you and Judy have achieved the American dream. You arrived from Greece with very little, built extraordinarily successful companies, have a wonderful family and four great kids. Do you take time to reflect upon that? George: In my mind, I say, “God bless America” every day. Without this experiment, none of us would be able to reach our potential.

The Lightning Round

I’m happiest when …George: I’m with Judy. Judy: I’m with my family.

Biggest risk … George: Starting my own business. Judy: Getting married.

Biggest regret …George: None of my kids went to Berkeley, even though they all got in. Judy: Not having enough time with my mom.

If I had a magic wand …George: There’d be world peace. Judy: I’d feed everyone in the world.

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