Pacific Coast Business Times Proudly serving Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties Thu, 26 Feb 2015 19:16:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 New $8M arts building planned for CLU Thu, 26 Feb 2015 19:16:09 +0000 Real estate developer and art collector William Rolland is pledging up to $4 million to California Lutheran University for a new art department building.

According to the university, CLU will cover the remaining $4 million needed to fund the development of a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot art center on the Thousand Oaks campus to be named for Rolland. It will house art studios, offices, computer labs and a student gallery, and possibly classroom space.

The university’s board of regents approved an allocation of $300,000 for the initial planning and design. Once that work is completed, the board will vote to approve the building project.

The new William Rolland Art Center would consolidate a patchwork of art department offices and classrooms currently spread across three buildings, two of which pre-date the university’s 1959 founding.

Rolland, who also owns Rolland Real Estate, previously donated $5.5 million to university for the construction of the William Rolland Stadium and Gallery of Fine Art, completed in 2011.

The new complex will be located next to the stadium and gallery and built on the current site of the temporary Riparian Building, which houses university marketing, conferences and events and printing services.

CLU is expanding its reach in the art world. In 2012, university faculty launched The Representational Art Conference, which attracted 400 artists, critics, academics, collectors and curators from throughout the world last year.

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Weigel declares for Ventura County supervisor race Wed, 25 Feb 2015 19:14:14 +0000 Food Share Executive Director and CEO Bonnie Weigel has announced her candidacy for Ventura County’s 1st District Supervisor race.

Weigel, who is well-connected in agricultural circles, will challenge incumbent Steve Bennett, who won re-election in 2012 after weighing a bid for the Congressional seat now held by Thousand Oaks Democrat Julia Brownley. The 1st District includes Ventura, Ojai and parts of north Oxnard.

Weigel announced her campaign early in the morning of Feb. 25 via email and was expected to make a formal announcement during a press conference at the Ventura County Government Center.

Bennett is a former Ventura City Council member who won his first District 1 race in 2000. He was the author of the county’s SOAR initiative, which sharply restricted development of agricultural land in the county. Weigel has built Oxnard-based Food Share into a powerful philanthropic organization.

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Tri-county cities return as major features in Amgen Tour of California Tue, 24 Feb 2015 23:53:48 +0000 One of the most prestigious races in US cycling will pedal through a handful of tri-county cities this May.

The 10th anniversary of this year’s 724-mile, Amgen Tour of California features stages that pass through host cities, Pismo Beach, Avila Beach and Santa Barbara — reprising their roles from tours past. The Ventura County portion of the route goes through Ojai and Santa Paula on its way to Santa Clarita.

This year 18 international teams are expected to take part in the race, with tri-county host cities offering up some of the more interesting competitive landscapes on the tour.

The race is on the Union Cycliste Internationale Americas Tour and the USA Cycling Professional Tour, making it one of the major competitions leading up to the Tour de France in June. The competition is a big draw with cycling enthusiasts and tens of thousands of people are expected to roll in to the event’s host cities, filling up hotels, cramming restaurants and pumping cash into the tourism economy. Balcom Canyon, just outside of Santa Paula, is one of the major climbs on the tour and as many as 5,000 spectators are predicted to line that section of the course.

The race is economic windfall, but does have it drawbacks, including congestion and major clean up efforts. Still, host cities typically bend over backwards to accommodate the cyclists and the fans, and many are already enlisting thousands of volunteers.

The tour starts in Sacramento and will finish in Pasadena, with 43,000 feet of total elevation in between. Other host cities on the tour include Nevada City, Lodi, San Jose, Santa Clarita, Big Bear Lake, Ontario, Mt. Baldy, and Los Angeles.

In the region, Stage 4 on May 13 covers 107 miles from Pismo to Avila Beach. Stage 5 on May 14 will traverse 98 miles from Santa Barbara to Santa Clarita.

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Ex-CEO fired as staffing firm merger turns ugly Fri, 20 Feb 2015 08:03:52 +0000 What was billed as a friendly deal to create one of the nation’s biggest staffing companies has triggered an angry dispute between former Select Staffing CEO Stephen Sorensen and the holding company for Select and merger partner EmployBridge of Atlanta.

Just one week after the Feb. 9 closing of the Select-EmployBridge merger, Sorensen was ousted by the board of New Koosharem Holdings on Feb. 16, amid allegations by the board that an internal investigation showed he improperly transferred $2.7 million to an entity he controlled.

In response, Sorenson denied the allegations and said his firing was retaliation against him for filing a federal suit against New Koosharem, the company formed to facilitate the merger. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, alleges he was improperly removed from his CEO role and given a largely ceremonial title of vice chairman. Sorenson is now on unpaid administrative leave while the outcome of the internal investigation is pending.

New Koosharem’s actions had the effect of “driving him out of the business he founded,” a Feb. 17 statement from Sorensen’s attorney, Russell Wolpert said. Based in Santa Barbara, Select was one of the largest family-owned enterprises in the region prior to the merger.

“Stephen Sorensen’s lawsuit is a transparent attempt to distract from his actions that were the basis for the board’s decision to terminate him for cause,” New Koosharem retorted in a Feb. 18 statement that promised a vigorous defense against Sorensen’s claims, which include breach of contract.

The trading of allegations between Sorensen and New Koosharem is an unexpected development in a deal that became public in early January when EmployBridge and Select announced their merger.

The announcement at that time placed Sorensen in the vice-chairman’s role and said EmployBridge’s Atlanta offices would be the headquarters for the combined company. EmployBridge CEO Tom Bickes was designated to helm the combined company, and a company spokesperson said at the time that the idea was for each firm to retain its name and for Select Staffing to maintain its headquarters on Upper State Street.

In his suit, Sorensen alleges a May 16, 2014 agreement between Select and New Koosharem provided for him to be CEO of that company for a three-year period. He alleges the May 16 agreement provided for him to be compensated at a rate of $650,000 per year, with a bonus of $500,000 per year and an annual bonus target of $650,000 to $1.3 million and other benefits.

In April 2014, Select announced a pre-packaged Chapter 11 bankrupcty filing that listed between $50 million and $100 million in debts and between $100 million and $500 million in assets.

The Chapter 11 filing followed years of negotiations between Sorensen and creditors over debt restructuring. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, Select had taken on a large debt load and paid an $80 million cash-out to Sorensen family members.

At the time it was announced in January, the combination of Select had about $2 billion a year in revenue and was filling about 300,000 placements a year. The combined company is “financially strong and well-positioned for sustained growth,” the Feb. 18 statement from New Koosharem said.

Sorensen, who holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, worked in finance before joining Select, which was founded by his in-laws. He helped launch an office in Thousand Oaks, then went on an aggressive deal-making spree that saw the company expand into a staffing powerhouse.

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California sets tough rules for Comcast deal Fri, 20 Feb 2015 08:02:35 +0000 The blockbuster deal that would combine Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable was nudged forward Feb. 13 when the California Public Utilities Commission released a recommendation that the deal be approved within its jurisdiction — albeit with heavy stipulations.

The CPUC’s conditions now hinge on a corresponding approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice. The date for the FCC’s ruling on the $45 billion deal that would allow Comcast to absorb Time Warner has been pushed back to Aug. 12 from March.

At stake is a merger that would more than double the size of Comcast’s market in California, taking its share of households statewide from 33.7 percent to 84 percent — a significantly larger share than the 60 percent of households the combined company would serve nationwide.

Currently, the only tri-county area served by Comcast is North Santa Barbara County, but a Time Warner merger would be a broadband game-changer for the region. Most of Ventura County falls under Time Warner, excluding select strips that include the city of Ventura operated by Charter Communications, which also provides service throughout San Luis Obispo County.

The consolidation of Charter’s California customers under Comcast is also on the drawing board. If the deal goes through, South Santa Barbara County, served by Cox, will be the only area within the region that doesn’t fall under Comcast.

In its decision, the CPUC found that Time Warner customers would likely experience poorer customer service, less reliable connections and fewer program choices and services “as a result of the merger if [the] transaction is approved without conditions.” To that end, it tacked 25 conditions onto its approval centered on setting diversity benchmarks, expanding access and upgrading infrastructure.

In a response, Comcast Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer David Cohen said while the company can work with a number of the requirements, others “could potentially prevent the full benefits of this transaction being realized by Californians, and create a more intrusive regulatory regime where innovative services could be hampered rather than helped.”

But regulatory officials fear Comcast’s existing infrastructure would further cripple communities underserved with Internet access. As proposed, the deal is likely to grow the digital divide for lower-income subscribers, especially as Comcast’s previous efforts in the area have yielded “weak performance,” the CPUC decision says.

The expectation is that Comcast will expand its Internet Essentials program, which provides households with at least one child enrolled in a school lunch program with 5 Mbps Internet access and a free Wi-Fi router for $9.95 a month.

The program was, ironically, an FCC condition of Comcast’s prior merger with NBC Universal and has enrolled only 46,000 California households so far. Under the CPUC provisions, the company must broaden qualification criteria and enroll at least 45 percent of eligible households within two years of the deal’s close while minimizing barriers to access such as long wait times.

Additionally, Comcast would be required to offer stand-alone broadband Internet service alongside its de-facto bundle of cable TV, Internet and phone service in a more expensive package.

Cohen said some of the conditions extend beyond the CPUC’s authority or are “unrealistic.” This includes a stipulation that the company must upgrade its infrastructure to make broadband available in all California households where Comcast and Time Warner currently only provide cable TV.

The ruling also said that since both Comcast and Time Warner are notorious for lackluster customer service, they will have to provide reports detailing “any complaints about customer service for voice and broadband customers, including, but not limited to, complaints about Comcast employee rudeness or slow action to allow customers to change or drop Comcast services.”

Philadelphia-based Comcast, which operates in 39 states and Washington, D.C., is already the largest provider of broadband and cable in America. Meanwhile Time Warner, with headquarters in New York City, has a presence in 31 states and is the second-largest provider of cable service and third-largest provider of broadband service in California.

The combined company would control roughly 40 percent of the nation’s broadband market. Plus, Comcast would control 92 percent of the top 25 service areas identified by the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association as the country’s most lucrative markets including San Francisco, L.A. and New York City.

To bring the merged firm’s number of subscribers in line with antitrust regulation, Comcast will divest nearly 4 million residential cable TV customers in the Midwest to Charter Communications. Charter, meanwhile, will give the merged company all its business telecom customers within California except those in the Lake Tahoe area.

It’s no surprise, then, that federal regulators would take their time weighing the industry-shattering decision. The FCC took more than a year to approve Comcast’s recent acquisition of NBC Universal, as well as Time Warner’s merger with AOL.

The deal is also being negotiated in a climate of shifting net neutrality regulations. The FCC is set to vote on Feb. 26 on proposed revisions to its existing broadband rules to ensure all Internet traffic is treated equally.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has proposed broadband Internet be reclassified as a Title II telecom service, the designation given to phone companies, to be able to govern the service as a utility. It also seeks to raise the standard broadband speed from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps, making the landscape for high-speed Internet less competitive.

Wheeler has promised the FCC would ultimately limit its reach, however, and not be able to set price controls or bundling restrictions. Meanwhile, Comcast is one of the biggest corporate campaigners in Washington, spending $17 million last year alone on lobbying activities.

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Costs add up for business, port as White House urges talks Fri, 20 Feb 2015 08:01:24 +0000 As U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez flew into San Francisco on Feb. 16 to assist in labor negotiations between West Coast port workers and employers, the Port of Hueneme struggled to keep up with shipments after its operations were shut down for days due to the ongoing labor dispute.

“There’s ships just sitting at sea,” Port of Hueneme Director Kristin Decas said. “It’s putting a lot of stress on the supply chain… We’re scrambling.”

More than two dozen ports along the West Coast have faced delayed shipments and oftentimes major financial losses as a result of work stoppages initiated by the Pacific Maritime Association, which has been embroiled in a labor dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since previous negotiations expired in July. The association represents 72 companies, including shipping lines and terminal operators, while the union represents about 20,000 dockworkers along the West Coast.

On Feb. 11, the Association released a statement announcing it would suspend vessel operations over the following holiday weekend, which would have included higher pay rates of about $54 to $75 an hour for longshore workers and clerks and $72 to $92 an hour for foremen. Current contracts for these dockworkers pay a regular wage of about $26 to $41 an hour, including free healthcare.

PMA said the work stoppages were set forth because union representatives failed to accept a deal it offered earlier in February.

Warren Shelton, a longshore clerk and secretary-dispatcher for the Port Hueneme chapter of the ILWU, said dockworkers are not on strike and have been ready to work on the days that PMA has called for work stoppages.

“We’re ready to work, and they’re just not putting orders in,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the 34 years I’ve been here.”

PMA could not be reached for comment as of press time, but port officials have said that they are supporting neither PMA or ILWU.

“From the port’s perspective, we’re stuck in the middle of this,” Decas said. “We don’t have a side in the negotiations.”

The last time the dockworkers’ union went on strike was in 1971, Shelton said, but port officials fear that PMA could launch a full-blown shut-down of vessel operations.

“That’s our biggest concern,” Decas said. “Will the PMA just call off labor? That’s a real concern for us.”

As the dispute has dragged on, worsening this past winter, the Port of Hueneme has gained a little business from nearby major ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. However, the gains have been marginal, Decas said, and the port has still suffered overall.

“It’s not like we’re booming with new business.”

Ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach have lost 25 percent of their market share as a result of shipment delays in recent months, Decas said. The Port of Oakland has reported that cargo volume dropped to 44,171 containers in January, falling 39 percent from the same month last year. Meanwhile, its exports fell by 26 percent to 57,581 containers.

In Hueneme, a shut-down of vessel operations has left the port with a backlog of orders to deal with, among other issues. For one, it’s been difficult to move forward with new business deals when labor negotiations are ongoing and appear to have no definite end, Decas said, mentioning one Chinese company that was hesitant to move forward in light of the uncertain future cost of labor.

“It creates challenges for gaining new business opportunities,” she said. “If you don’t know the cost of labor, that creates an uncertain business environment.”

With two multiple-day work stoppages occurring in February alone, the labor dispute left West Coast ports with a competitive disadvantage, according to port officials and business owners.

“When the supply chain is that broken…companies go to the East Coast, Canada and Mexico,” Decas said.

In fact, perishables such as produce, an industry the Port of Hueneme specializes in, have been increasingly diverted to ports along the East Coast.

“A lot of it’s going to Philadelphia,” Decas said.

In response to the ongoing dispute and the additional business it’s given to ports in other parts of the country, many eastern ports have raised their rates. Kelly Bennett, president and chief operating officer at Kelly Direct, a Westlake Village firm that consults with supply chain operations in the Port of Los Angeles, said it’s been difficult to keep pushing shipments through L.A.

“Because of all the people diverting traffic to the East Coast…they’ve jacked up their prices there,” she said. “So it’s either take a gamble and bring it into L.A., or pay up to four times as much to have it shipped through the East Coast.”

Bennett said the company has been “severely impacted” in regards two projects, including a major deal with a well-known soft drink company that was shipping Super Bowl promotional materials to a big-box retailer. Due to work stoppages, the final delivery of the shipment was missed.

And missed deliveries and sitting ships have caused considerable losses that are still being passed down the supply chain.

“It also affects all the products that are sitting on the vessels and not being unloaded, said Oxnard Harbor Commissioner Mary Anne Rooney. “It breaks that chain of smooth movement of goods…and when there’s a glitch in the supply chain, it trickles down to the consumer.”

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Malibu Coast vintners organize for wider recognition of wines Fri, 20 Feb 2015 08:00:59 +0000 Malibu is popularly associated with surf, sand, celebrities, movies — but usually not wine.

Vintners in the recently recognized Malibu Coast American Viticultural Area, or AVA, are joining forces to do something about that. On Feb. 7, the first meeting of the Malibu Coast Vintners & Grape Growers Alliance was held at Cornell Winery in Agoura Hills. Among the group’s aims is to broadcast to consumers that the Malibu Coast is producing wines worthy of their consideration.

First, some background. Before last August, someone growing grapes on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains or the hillsides near the Malibu coast had two choices to designate the appellation of their wines: Los Angeles County or California. There were a couple of exceptions: Two growers in the Santa Monica Mountains had secured approval for the smaller Saddle Rock-Malibu and Malibu-Newton Canyon AVAs.

On Aug. 18, the federal government established the Malibu Coast viticultural area, which spans 46 miles from Oxnard to Los Angeles and is about eight miles wide from the coast inland. The AVA designation is a major advance in winning recognition for Malibu wines.

The appellation includes about 44,590 acres of privately owned land and encompasses the two smaller AVAs. There are only about 198 acres of vineyards in the new AVA, most ranging from one-half to seven acres and many on steep mountain slopes. Three larger commercial vineyards among the 52 in the AVA are 78, 32 and 15 acres.

The Malibu Coast AVA has numerous micro-climates depending on distance from the coast, elevation and orientation of the hillside. Many varieties of grapes can be grown there.

“Finally, now we can actually indicate on our labels that the grapes originate in what is now known as the Malibu Coast AVA. So we now have a sense of identity, a sense of place,” said Elliott Dolin, who has 900 chardonnay vines growing on just under an acre on his estate about two miles from the coast in Malibu. He said the AVA creates a level of credibility that the region did not have before.

Malibu wines have won gold medals against formidable entries in state and international competitions. Some examples: Dolin Malibu Estate’s 2012 chardonnay won a double gold in the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Competition and its 2011 chardonnay was rated at 90 points in the Wine Spectator. Rosenthal Estate wines from Malibu-Newton Canyon, crafted by veteran winemaker Christian Roguenant in San Luis Obispo County, have won numerous gold and silver medals in blind tastings. Many other vintners have won medals.

B. Alan Geddes, who grows grapes and makes wines for 38 clients in the Malibu Coast AVA, said, “I think the quality of the wines around here, given our challenges, is incredible. It’s surpassed anything that I thought was possible when I first started my business in the area.” He is the owner of Grape Expectations and the Village Winery in Westlake Village.

One of the challenges in the AVA is the high cost of growing grapes. There is no economy of scale at the many small vineyards. “There are certain expenses that we incur based on the fact that we have 900 vines that would be not much different if we had 9,000 vines,” Dolin said. Land and water are also expensive, and unlike Santa Barbara and Paso Robles, the Malibu Coast does not have multiple vendors in wine services industry competing for business, he said.

Malibu wines are sold in high-end restaurants, online and at tasting rooms, most of them not on vineyard property [See above box]. Malibu Family Wines, owned by the Semler family, has an outdoor tasting venue next to its 78 acres of vineyards at Saddlerock Ranch, seven miles from the coast. CEO Dakota Semler said the family is about three months away from final approval to build a winery on its mountain property.

The Malibu Coast AVA will not grow much from its small wine production. Last August, Los Angeles County supervisors passed a land-use plan for the Santa Monica Mountains that prohibits planting new vineyards. Existing vineyards are grandfathered in and the action does not affect planting within Malibu city limits.

At their Feb. 7 meeting, members of the new Malibu Coast Vintners & Grape Growers Alliance talked about seeking new marketing opportunities for the wines.

“Obviously, making great wine is going to do a lot to further the presence of the AVA,” Dolin said. “The thing that we have working in our favor is the name recognition of Malibu.”

Many of the small vineyards get a lot of personal attention, with all of the work done by hand. “Nobody plants 400 vines; they plant hundreds of acres,” Geddes said. “But people do that in Malibu. It’s passion.”

• Contact Tom Bronzini at


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