Busy working on what we eat

David Murdock is annoyed.

The mayor of Westlake Village, Calif., site of Murdock's new 270-room Four Seasons hotel and health spa, and headquarters of his $6 billion Dole Food Co., has just finished speaking for almost two hours.


Murdock, proprietor of one of the nation's biggest private corporate empires and one of the early investors in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, is impatient to get back to business.

At 84, he usually doesn't allow anyone to waste his time.


"Two hours, can you believe it," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

The occasion of the mayor's speech in December was to help celebrate the opening of Murdock's California WellBeing Institute. And the institute is just a curtain raiser to a much grander Murdock health-focused project: the 350-acre, $1.25 billion North Carolina Research Campus rising from the ruins of shuttered textile mills in Kannapolis, N.C., that Murdock once owned.

The research campus is being built by real estate giant Castle & Cooke Inc., the other pillar of Murdock's vast domain. Three North Carolina public universities, as well as private Duke University, have signed on to do food-related research there. For decades, Murdock has been preaching the benefits of a low-fat diet with lots of fruit and vegetables.

"I think it's pretty obvious that people are overweight," says Murdock, whose personal fortune is valued by the Los Angeles Business Journal at $4.5 billion. "All you have to do is walk around any shopping center to see something is wrong in America."

Murdock has used his ownership of Dole to pursue his passion for improving America's diet. The company, once best known for growing pineapples in Hawaii, now sells a variety of fruit and vegetables -- including bananas, broccoli, prunes and Tibetan goji berries -- that Murdock considers particularly healthful. He has spent millions producing books and pamphlets through his Dole Nutrition Institute.

Bond investors may wish Murdock would spend less time on his health crusade and more time improving Dole's bottom line. Last year, the company lost $89 million on $6.2 billion in sales due in part to high commodity prices. The company is fending off lawsuits accusing it of selling spinach last year that was contaminated with E. coli bacteria. Dole blames the contamination on the packager of the spinach.

The European Commission accused the company in July of conspiring with rivals to fix prices on banana imports, which Dole denies. And the company has been defending itself since July in a Los Angeles Superior Court civil trial against allegations by 12 Nicaraguan banana workers that Dole poisoned them with pesticides, which it also denies.

Murdock's North Carolina Research Campus, which includes retail space and condominiums, is controversial, too. The local city and county governments have agreed to underwrite $168 million in water and sewer connections and other improvements to the property. John Day, manager of Cabarrus County, where the facility is, says the research campus is a profit-making enterprise and doesn't need government help.


Murdock's California and North Carolina health projects -- and even Dole itself -- are a sideline to the ninth-grade dropout's main career: real estate development. Murdock acquired the food company as part of Honolulu-based developer Castle & Cooke. He split Castle & Cooke and Dole into separate publicly listed corporations in 1995, then took both private -- Castle & Cooke in 2000 and Dole in 2003.

Today, through Castle & Cooke, he lords over a sprawling portfolio that includes housing developments, hotels, golf courses and offices in 23 states. He has been a major investor in downtown Baltimore real estate, particularly along the Howard Street retail district, and built the Harbor Court hotel, office and condo complex at the Inner Harbor. He sold the hotel, which has been reflagged InterContinental, last year.

The son of a Kansas City, Mo., traveling salesman, Murdock says he soured on formal education at an early age. "I got bored," he says. "I always wanted to do something. If you can conceive it, you can do it."

After a stint as a gunnery instructor in World War II, he migrated to Phoenix and started building houses. By 1950, he had graduated to shopping centers and small office buildings. When Murdock's Financial Corp. of Arizona collapsed in a real estate bust, he took the $1 million he had left and in 1966 headed west to start over in California.

He never considered becoming anyone's employee. "I've never worked for anyone in my life," Murdock says. "I don't know what it is to have someone tell me what to do."

After acquiring Castle & Cooke in 1985, he consolidated most of his real estate companies under that name. Nineteen eighty-five was a watershed year for another reason: His wife, Gabriele, died of cancer at 43. While she was ill, Murdock plunged into the literature on cancer and concluded he had just bought the cure -- Dole.


"If I knew then what I know now, I could have saved her life," he says. "If you eat properly and exercise, you can avoid most diseases."