He had an engaging smile, an independent streak and a willingness to stand up for what he thought was right.
John B. “Jack” Gilbert brought a level of confidence and charm to everything he did, whether it was running a public company, building a real estate empire or engaging in philanthropy.
That’s how the longtime Ventura County resident was remembered by friends, family and business partners after he passed away Aug. 2 from complications from pneumonia at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard. He was 91.
In 2010, Gilbert was an inaugural member of the Pacific Coast Business Times’ Business Hall of Fame, an honor that recognized him for his role as a developer in Ventura County and for his part in leading Thousand Oaks’ emergence as a major business center.
Gilbert gave $5 million to California Lutheran University, a gift that provided the cornerstone for the modernization of the Thousand Oaks campus. In 2006, the $18 million Gilbert Sports and Fitness Center, named for Jack and his wife Carol, opened.
CLU President Chris Kimball said that although Gilbert had made his pledge to the university before Kimball arrived on campus, the gift was truly a landmark. “Gilbert believed the university was at a point where they needed somebody to break through the logjam and step forward. He chose to be that person,” Kimball said, adding that once the momentum started, the school’s financial condition strengthened and its student body expanded.
“That was a very astute judgment on his part,” Kimball said, comparing Gilbert to a philanthropic venture capitalist who would grasp strategic opportunities to invest and move ahead with dispatch.
Sue Chadwick, the Ventura County market president for Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, remembered Gilbert’s passion for decisive action. She met with him on behalf of St. John’s several years ago. “We were talking about the need for a mammography machine. He excused himself and came back with a big check. ‘I want this machine installed in time that I am alive to see it,’’ ’ he told her.
His son, Rod, recalled that his dad was in the Camarillo offices of TOLD, his flagship real estate company, on July 30, sitting in on a weekly management meeting. “He handed me my 15-year pin,” Rod Gilbert recalled. On Wednesday evening, Jack Gilbert had the latest in a series of recurring bouts with pneumonia. He passed away Thursday morning with his wife and son by his side.
“Dad had a very special drive. He was that rare breed of entrepreneur who did not see the obstacles in the way. He only saw the goal, and the obstacles disappeared,” Rod Gilbert said.
While in the Navy, Gilbert saw the need for protective cases to protect valuable electronics, a vision that became Zero Corp., a large public company based in Burbank. He later saw the promise of Ventura County and set up TOLD, short for Thousand Oaks Land Development Corp.
Jim McDonald of Group 100 is an industrial real estate broker who worked on Gilbert’s earliest land transactions in Ventura County. “He was smart and focused; effective at taking action. He didn’t hem and haw. He didn’t screw around,” McDonald said. “If I was involved in a negotiation on his behalf I would know what the benchmarks were. I knew where he needed to be at the end of the day.”
McDonald said that in a way, Gilbert represents the sort of entrepreneur-developer that’s harder to find in an era when pension funds, insurance companies and real estate investment trusts dominate the landscape. “Jack may have been the greatest job creator in the history of Ventura County,” McDonald said, adding that by creating the physical environment for companies to flourish, they flocked to Thousand Oaks and later the Oxnard plain. “He had a huge social impact,” he said.
Although Gilbert kept a huge chart in his office where he tracked his stock portfolio — Apple was a very big personal holding — he discovered later in life that there were huge benefits to giving money away.
His son recalled that early on his father realized that “giving it away did more for community than having a bigger number in net worth.” He chose CLU for a large gift not because of its religious affiliation but because it was a private institution and Gilbert believed in private-sector solutions, his son said.
Rod Gilbert said that above all his father prized risk-taking and ethical conduct. “He would push to the edge to get a competitive advantage but he never went over the edge. He believed that you don’t cheat, you don’t cut corners and you be a man of your word.”
A memorial service will be held Aug. 14 at 10 a.m. in the Samuelson Chapel on the CLU campus. A reception will follow in the Lundring Events Center in the Gilbert Sports and FitnessCenter.
In lieu of flowers, the Gilbert family asks that memorial gifts be sent to the John B. Gilbert Scholarship for Business Ethics at CLU.