The Best Coast: South Coast Plaza Founder Henry T. Segerstrom

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photography ANDREAS BRANCH
photography ANDREAS BRANCH

At the age of four, Henry T. Segerstrom already had an affinity for dressing well. His preferred item of choice: a cashmere sweater.
It is not the Managing Partner of C.J. Segerstrom & Sons and Orange County’s South Coast Plaza who recounts this glimpse into his past, but his wife of 14 years, Elizabeth. The two met and married after a whirlwind courtship in 2000. She is the love of his life, his business partner and best friend, and he would forgive her anything, including sharing an intimate childhood memory.
At this moment, Segerstrom, now 90, is not, in fact, wearing a cashmere sweater. He is clad, however, in an immaculately turned out custom-made Loro Piana suit. Given that this particular ensemble is one of many designer brands he has hanging in the closets of his Newport Beach waterfront property, we’d say that he’s more than exceeded the expectations of his boyhood wish.
Though he does not acknowledge the truth of his wife’s statement with more than a chuckle and a smile, a natural reserve, albeit one with good humor, is Segerstrom’s way. He is humble, hard-working and fiercely dedicated to the family-run company that has put Orange County on the map as a luxury destination. It was he alone who capitalized on an opportunity to cater to the affluent, introducing luxury retailing to South Coast Plaza in 1975, just eight years after the shopping center opened.
“The world is changing. Disposable income is growing throughout the world. For 30 or 40 years, retail was for middle-income customers. I decided that there was a neglect of luxury offerings, and we should be part of it,” Segerstrom explains.
He started with brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Halston and Courrèges, of which he personally owned and operated. In its nearly 40-year history, South Coast Plaza has cherry-picked additions to include Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Harry Winston, Vacheron Constantin, Lanvin, Patek Philippe, Hermès, Chanel, Cartier and Oscar de la Renta, to name a few.

photographs courtesy of segerstrom center for the arts, south coast plaza
photographs courtesy of segerstrom center for the arts, south coast plaza

To his credit, if there was a brand he felt that belonged at South Coast Plaza, Segerstrom pursued it with patient determination. He is the living embodiment of the turtle who bested the hare with its slow and steady approach to winning the race.
“Our most impressive achievements have come from a basis of extended efforts on our end,” he says. “For example, Chopard has come to South Coast Plaza for their representation in Southern California, which is very important.”
Segerstrom also convinced Tiffany & Co. to open its second store in Southern California and Nordstrom to open its first location outside of the Pacific Northwest at his retail destination. Though some brands agreed quickly to his powers of persuasion others, like Barbara Bui, succumbed to Segerstrom’s relentless approach over an extended period of time. “I personally visit Barbara every time I go to Paris. I would say that we’ve been pursuing her for at least 15 years. We may look at the opening of a store for six or seven years. I’m persistent,” he admits.
His persistence has clearly paid off. His 140-acre, 2.8 million square foot South Coast Plaza is the highest grossing retail center in America, with sales that reached $1.5 billion in 2012, its best year ever. Even more impressive, at the age of 90, Segerstrom is still fully hands-on with the operation of his empire.
“I’m very involved, in a constructive way. I’m an active participant, but I know when to keep my mouth closed. I don’t believe in senior criticism. I think there are other ways to solve problems,” he maintains.
This is just one of the secrets of Segerstrom’s success. The other is fairly standard, and quite simple: give the customer what they want. “Find out what your customers want, and give it to them. I preach that every day to our people in retail,” he says.
It is a lesson that he himself learned at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, where he received his education after serving in combat and rising to the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army. “I was taking a vocational guidance examination that every G.I. had to take in order to be put in the right place to support the military effort. My [teacher, Professor Strong] made a comment to the class that I never forgot. He said, ‘Don’t be egotistical and think you know what your prospect wants. Think about what the prospect wants, give it to them, and you’ll make the sale every time 100 percent.’”

photographs courtesy of segerstrom center for the arts, south coast plaza
photographs courtesy of segerstrom center for the arts, south coast plaza

This mentality also extends to Segerstrom’s passion for the arts, and is the catalyst behind his decision to turn Orange County into a cultural destination, as well as one of luxury. He is the founding Chairman of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, which was renamed Segerstrom Center for the Arts in 2011 in honor of the substantial monetary gifts and initial 14-acre parcel of land generously provided by the Segerstrom family. The $59 million donation he personally gave the center in 2000 became the largest charitable cash gift in the history of Orange County. He donated an additional $110 million over the course of nearly 30 years, including privately funding the full $74 million building cost and creation of an Endowment Fund prior to the opening of the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall in 1986.
The Tony-award winning South Coast Repertory theatre isn’t the only artistic contribution Segerstrom has to be proud of, either. Additional land has been conveyed for a future art museum on the Segerstrom Center for the Arts site, completing his vision.

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Segerstrom acknowledges that his legacy will include the philanthropic, luxury and artistic contributions he’s made to the development of Orange County. “I think I’ve had a significant impact on retailing worldwide, and have received international recognition for our Segerstrom Center of the Arts. I’ve made some decisions that have turned out to be very good decisions,” he allows, adding, “I think Orange County is going to prove what we set out to do. When we worked together on the design for Segerstrom Concert Hall and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, I made up my mind that if people came from New York or San Francisco to a production in one of our halls, I wanted to be sure that they’d look across the audience and say, ‘Wow, this is something.’”
All in all, Segerstrom has no regrets. He has done everything he set out to do and then some, from receiving an honorary Doctorate of Law and Carnegie Hall’s Medal of Excellence for his contributions to the arts nationally and internationally, to collecting accolades such as a Purple Heart and the Good Conduct Ribbon from his time in the military, to an Order of the Polar Star (STAR) by the King of Sweden for his efforts in New Sweden. He has found love twice and has raised three loving children, sons Toren and Anton, and daughter Andrea Grant.
“Good things come in all kinds of packages, and I think I’ve leveled out with a lot of happiness and rewards and achievements,” Segerstrom says. He adds, “I think I’ve done fairly well, and I’m happy with the results.”

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