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Close-Up: Conrad Prebys

Prebys builds business, philanthropy legacy from the ground up

When Conrad Prebys came to San Diego in 1965 he had $500 to his name. Today, he owns 7,000 apartments in San Diego and has become one of the most generous philanthropists the region has known.

Prebys said, upon arriving in the county, he found “there were lots of vacant lots in San Diego.”

First working for a local builder known as Trans Pacific Homes, and later on his own as Progress Construction and Management Co., Prebys began building two- and three-bedroom “stock houses.” In 1977, he had 117 projects going at the same time. He would eventually build several thousand homes and duplexes.

“We were a one-stop shop. We had the buyers fill out the loan application, we handled the sewer hookups and grading. In 30 days you could get a loan approval and the building permit,” Prebys said. “It was a different time.”

Prebys said it is sad to see how builders have withered or disappeared completely in the current economy.

Prebys, who said he never received a nickel until after the foundation was poured, said for $7,500, all-inclusive, people could have a ready to move-in house in 1965. While still working at Trans Pacific, Prebys was making about $250 per month.

Getting started on his own as an apartment developer wasn't so easy either, at first. He began attending seminars by long-time apartment developer and owner Ray L. Huffman.

“Huffman was getting all his funding from Home Federal Savings. They told me ‘we have money for Ray Huffman but not for you' and I couldn’t blame them because they didn’t know who I was,” Prebys said. “Since then bankers have told me ‘you’re just the kind of guy we like. You don’t ask for money and you don’t need it.’”

Conrad Prebys owns 7,000 apartments in San Diego and has become one of the most generous philanthropists in the region. Staff photo: Sarah Strong

Prebys solved his cash-flow problem by building a 1,200-square-foot granny flat for a client in the Casa de Oro community, for which he received more than $6,000.

“I called my partner and told him that we were in business,” Prebys said. “We didn't have much money, but one nice thing about not having much money is you don’t have a lot of lawsuits.”

Prebys said he is proud of the fact that he has never asked for a government handout, never had a foreclosure associated with his properties, and never failed to pay a subcontractor.

Being a landlord has had its challenges. Prebys, who owns numerous properties in the City Heights area, said he had to play hardball with drug dealers in the community in the 1980s and 1990s. Working with the police, Prebys said he generally was able to expose them and flush them out.

“They are like cockroaches. They don't like the sunlight,” he said.

Prebys recalled that by 1987, he already owned 1,000 apartments in and around the Mid City area but said the overall vacancy was about 25 percent. The fortunes changed for his units when the city of San Diego implemented its Interim Development Ordinance in 1987 that limited residential construction to 8,000 units per year. With fewer units being built, Prebys' properties had time to catch up.

While retaining his properties in places such as City Heights, Prebys has since moved the Progress offices from El Cajon Boulevard to Pacific Beach. Whatever he has done, his business plan seems to have worked. His apartment complexes are running at about 2 percent vacancy — roughly half the countywide average.

Prebys said he would much rather buy than build apartment complexes, and continues to seek out new acquisition opportunities. Without revealing details, Prebys said he currently has three apartment properties in escrow.

“The best deal is buying the property that's already built,” Prebys said.

Prebys, who said he has an affinity for the East County, paid $17.1 million for 156 units in the Tierra del Norte and Tierra del Sol Apartments on Peach Avenue in El Cajon in February of this year. He currently owns apartment properties from Imperial Beach to Escondido and Ramona to El Cajon.

The apartment magnate/philanthropist said he buys apartment complexes based on the assumption that the revenues will remain the same.

“It has to have the cash flow when I buy it or I won't buy it,” Prebys said.

Ever since he began accumulating his fortune in the early 1970s, Prebys wanted to give back every Christmas. It started with hams and turkeys given to his property managers in 1973. It then became checks. Then he found out that the East County Boys and Girls Club in Santee needed a clubhouse.

“That was a $1 million check. The response I got was incredible,” Prebys recalled.

In 2011, Prebys donated $45 million to Scripps Health for the Prebys Cardiovascular Institute now under construction, adjacent to Scripps Hospital in La Jolla. Two years earlier he gave $10 million to the Sanford Burnham Institute for Medical Research for the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics.

In 2006 Prebys provided $10 million to Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest for the Conrad Prebys Emergency and Trauma Center.

In addition, Prebys, a board member of the Salk Institute, has donated $2 million to the research facility for vision research.

“This is a fantasy for me. Being on the Salk board, meeting with scientists at Sanford Burnham Ö We are dealing with giant minds here. Wonderful things are happening in medical research,” Prebys continued. “People with money don't impress me, but great minds really excite me.”

The Prebys gifts haven't only been for the sciences. He provided $6 million to UC San Diego for the Conrad Prebys Music Center, $10.1 million for the San Diego Zoo to revamp the Polar Bear Plunge along with an elephant care center, and $10.4 million to the Old Globe for the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center in Balboa Park.

It is a huge legacy, but if Prebys has a motto, it's “you can't take it with you.”

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1 UserComments
Gina Minervini 2:11pm February 19, 2013

i am very impressed by Mr Prebys philanthropy and teary of life. I am the creator, producer, director in the process of creating a new program for PBS on The Art of Tango. I am based in Santa Monica and visit San Diego often. Does Mr Prebys have a foundation where i can submit a proposal for possible sponsorship. The fact that he is a supporter of music and performance leaves me very hopeful. "Nothing is impossible" - I love that Regards, Gina Minervini