Trust factor

When John Anderson was a law student at Loyola Law School in the 1940s, he was always the last guy left in the law library. That’s because Anderson worked eights hours a day as a CPA before heading off to law school each night.

"The father [head priest] of the Catholic law school would always come around and kick me out," recalls Anderson. "I guess he got tired of doing it, so one time he came around and said, ‘You know, Anderson, if you’re going to be a lawyer, you’ve got to be trusted.’

"So he put his hand on my shoulder and slapped something on the table and said, ‘Here’s the key to the law school. Be sure to turn the lights off when you leave. I trust you.’"

That one simple action forged a lifelong business philosophy for Anderson.

"The back of my neck still pricks up when I think about it," he says. "Since then, I’ve often thought that trust is very important. You can get burned, and I have, but in the long run, I’ve trusted people, and it’s worked for me."

Anderson, an octogenarian and Forbes billionaire, is one of the best-known executives and philanthropists in Los Angeles. As chairman and CEO of Topa Equities Ltd., he oversees a multibillion-dollar empire comprised of 42 businesses in such diverse industries as agriculture, car dealerships, insurance, real estate and wholesale beverage distribution. And he has applied his lesson in trust at every step along the way of his business life.

"I have a strong belief in people," he says. "I trusted people a great deal during my career and try to count on them and treat them accordingly."

Operating from that base philosophy, Anderson has applied three other important lessons to his businesses.

First, take care of your company and your employees. Compensate your staff fairly, but don’t do so at the expense of your operations.

"I’m a great believer that if you take care of a company, it will take care of you," Anderson says. "But if you abuse it, you’ll lose it. So I always try to protect the company and not milk it."

Second, always conduct yourself ethically.

"Having integrity is very important," he says. "I’m not a goodie-goodie, but I believe that doing the right thing is not only proper, but in the long run, it’s the smart thing to do. Over the years, I’ve seen it work to my advantage."

And finally, be willing to take off the blinders that most focused businesspeople wear and recognize a good opportunity when it presents itself.

"I would like to think I planned all of this when I was attending Harvard Business School," Anderson says with a laugh. "But the truth is, most of it just comes along. And you have to be sure you’re in a situation that isn’t all tunnel-focused. You have to learn to see opportunities."