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The Wellness Question

Q + A with billionaire David Murdock, whose latest venture—California Health & Longevity Institute, located in the Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village—provides more sweetness than a spoonful of sugar to get the medicine down.

By Maryann Hammers

“I don’t like to talk about myself,” David Murdock flatly stated when we requested an interview. Ranked by Forbes as the 168th-richest person in the world, the 83-year-old multi-billionaire is notoriously publicity-shy.

Frankly, he’s too busy to brag. Among the enterprises that occupy his time: He owns Dole Food; the real-estate development company Castle & Cook; virtually the entire Hawaiian island of Lanai and its two Four Seasons golf resorts; an Arabian horse-breeding farm; more than a dozen golf courses, including the renowned Sherwood Country Club in Ventura County; and assorted other companies, hotels, master-planned communities, and country clubs. His businesses employ more than 63,000 people in 90 countries; his holdings include more than 12 million square feet of commercial developments and 200,000 acres of land. In 1961—when he was only 38 years old—a Time magazine article labeled him an “achievement addict.”

But though he is usually loathe to sit down with reporters, Murdock made room in his schedule when we promised he’d have ample opportunity to discuss his passions of nutrition, fitness—and his newest endeavors: the California WellBeing Institute and Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village. Directly across from Dole headquarters, the groundbreaking facility combines a medical center, luxury spa, nutritional classes, and lifestyle counseling.

And so we sat down in the expansive library on his Lake Sherwood estate. When we asked him about real estate or golf, he got a little impatient. But when we let the conversation drift back to nutrition and fitness, he lit up. Watch him bound around the room with more energy than many people half his age, and you know that he’s on to something.

The Institute seems like a departure from your other real estate ventures.

Yes, but I thought about it and planned it for a long time. It’s a manifestation of my thoughts and theories about health and longevity. I love nothing better than studying and building things that I am interested in, and my goal is to teach people how to eat properly, exercise, and stay healthy.

But why would a person go to the WellBeing Institute for diagnostic procedures, rather than to their regular MD?

You go to your doctor, and he’ll give you a test. Then you have another test in another place, and another and another. Here, everything is one place, so it’s more efficient. We have some of the nation’s top doctors, from the California Health and Longevity Institute. And we have all new equipment, absolutely the latest. We have the spa—women go in and don’t want to come out. And we have beautiful grounds, with waterfalls and gardens.

The facility certainly is stunning—not a typical medical facility.

It’s nice to be in good surroundings, especially for medical procedures. And it’s exciting to hear the compliments—I even get a little embarrassed when people stop me to rave about the place. But I love elegant, tasteful things, and I consider myself a student of architecture. I never do anything that is just ‘near perfect.’ If you are going to do something, you have to do it right. Yet it probably won’t make much money—though I hate to admit that.

Why do you say it won’t make money?

It has too many components that won’t generate a profit. We have kitchens for cooking demonstrations, workshops on health. We have a television studio for nutrition programming. Plus the fitness center, swimming pools, yoga, Pilates. Everything is designed to teach people what the body needs, how to eat healthy, how to prevent cancer, diabetes, heart disease. All those extras won’t be moneymakers. But I didn’t do it for that purpose. I did it to inspire people, to teach them how to increase their life span. I would like nothing better than to make a lot of people thinner and healthier.

Will you be building additional WellBeing Institutes?

A similar facility is slated for my Four Seasons hotels in Lanai. If you haven’t been to Lanai, you should go. Beaches everywhere, no traffic lights, horseback riding—it’s very romantic. But my main project right now is the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.

Tell us about that.

I’m working with Duke University and Chapel Hill to develop a biotechnology hub. It will be a major research campus spread out over 350 acres with a hotel, wellness center, medical facility, math and science high school for girls, and a new city hall. It will be a complete village with dozens of buildings dedicated to nutrition and health research. We broke ground last year on the 311,000-square-foot Core Laboratory building. My goal with this project is to find out everything there is to know about nutrition.

What’s your personal health routine?

I’m a vegetarian. I have a full-time vegetarian chef here in my home. I do eat fish. Some vegetarians don’t eat fish, but I think you need fish. I never eat anything unhealthy—never. Well, sometimes I do have a little chocolate. I grow my own premium chocolate in Hawaii.

How long have you been vegetarian?

More than 20 years—ever since my wife died of cancer at 42 years of age, after giving birth to three sons. I tried my best to save her life. I believe her death was caused by the way we ate.

So you’ve completely sworn off meat?

You know, if you took the fat from a piece of meat, you wouldn’t want to eat that meat. The taste comes from its saturated fat, which fills your arteries, stops the flow of blood, causes cancer and heart attacks, and kills you. If you feed yourself properly, you can stay healthy. If you don’t, you’re not giving your body what it needs and you die early. Look at me—I’m never sick.

You look pretty fit, as well.

I’m in good shape. I work out for one hour five or six days a week. I have a complete gym in my home, with all the equipment. I didn’t always exercise. I didn’t feel I needed to, and I wasn’t interested. But as I became more knowledgeable, I learned that exercise gives us power over our bodies.

You’ve built a lot of golf courses. Is golf part of your exercise regime?

I’ve built 14 golf courses, including Sherwood and two in Lanai, and I have a couple more under construction in North Carolina. But I don’t play golf. I’ve never played golf. It takes too long. I don’t have that much time to spare.

We see from your bio that you were a “Professor of Creativity” at UCLA and you have a doctorate in law from Pepperdine University.

Well, for two years I taught a class called “Creativity in Business” for UCLA’s graduate school of management. Two years was enough. I can’t be tied down to a classroom. And I have an honorary law degree. I have lots of honorary degrees, but I am a 9th-grade educated man—who owns a very large company that earns $7.5 billion a year. 

11-01-2007

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