By David B. Pittman –
Modern-Day Renaissance Man
The Many Lives of I. Michael Kasser
He is an experienced and opportunistic international real estate investor, a supporter of arts and culture,
a venture capitalist, a sponsor of Arizona athletic events and an influential philanthropist.
And he does it all from Tucson, his adopted hometown.
He is I. Michael Kasser, president of Holualoa Companies, an international real estate investment and development firm that manages a diversified portfolio of office, retail, industrial, apartment and hotel properties worth $500 million.
Holualoa oversees properties in eight states (stretching from Hawaii to New Jersey) as well as in Mexico, France and Switzerland. In addition to its Tucson headquarters, the company has offices in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Hawaii and Paris.
Despite his impressive success and global sway, most Tucsonans wouldn’t know Kasser from the man on the moon. He moves about the Old Pueblo largely unrecognized. After all, Kasser hasn’t been featured in local television and newspaper ads for 40 years, like auto dealer/pitchman Jim Click, or been at the center of controversial business deals for decades, like developer Don Diamond, or run successfully for the same political office three times and been unavoidable for ribbon cuttings, like Mayor Bob Walkup.
Heck, Kasser’s only lived in Tucson since 1994.
“To be honest, I don’t mind flying beneath the radar,” Kasser said.
But if there is a modern-day renaissance man in Southern Arizona, or anywhere else for that matter, it’s this guy with the picture-windowed corner office across the street from the Westin La Paloma Resort looking out to the dramatic Santa Catalina Mountains.
It is not hyperbole to describe Kasser as “brilliant.”
He speaks six languages – Hungarian, Spanish, English, French, German and Italian – fluently.
At the age of 15 he began attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“I skipped some grades,” Kasser said. “My dad was pushy. He always wanted me to do well. I can tell you, being a 12-year-old in a class of 15-year-olds was a difficult social experience. It prepared me for the future. I learned to get along.”
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in engineering at MIT in 1960, Kasser went on to earn a master’s degree in chemical engineering from MIT in 1961, a doctorate in engineering at the University of Grenoble (France) in 1964 and an MBA at Harvard Business School in 1968.
Kasser has run saw mills and manufactured toilet paper. He is a former New York City financial analyst. He was a marathon runner and outstanding triathlon competitor who completed the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii eight times. His company has sponsored several local athletic events, such as the Tucson Triathlon, Tucson Marathon, the Tour of the Tucson Mountains and the Tour de Mesa.
Kasser is an art collector whose extensive collection of Pre-Columbian artifacts has been exhibited at the University of Arizona Museum of Art.
He is a venture capitalist who has directed Holualoa capital resources to early stage and seed companies in a wide range of sectors including communication software, information technology, environment, life sciences and banking. One of his favorite causes is the Critical Path Institute, an independent, not-for-profit organization based in Tucson that is dedicated to improving health and saving lives by accelerating the development of safe, effective medicines.
Kasser and his wife, Beth, are philanthropists. The couple regularly underwrites the season of the Arizona Theatre Company in both Tucson and Phoenix. At the University of Arizona, they have underwritten the Kasser Sports Medicine Center and the Kasser Family Swimming and Diving Pool. At MIT, they have underwritten the Kasser Sports Medicine Center and a professorship in chemical engineering. At Teacher’s College at Columbia University, where Beth received a master’s degree in educational administration and curriculum development, they have underwritten the Kasser Family Gallery.
The Kassers have two children, Violet, 22, and Mikey, 20. In 2008, Kasser was named “Father of the Year” by the Father’s Day Council Tucson. The Father of the Year Awards Gala annually benefits type 1 diabetes research at the UA Steele Children’s Research Center.
In 2009, Kasser and his wife received the Outstanding Philanthropists of the Year Award from the Southern Arizona Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In 2010, Kasser was honored by the Tucson Pima Arts Council as one of 25 Arts and Culture Leaders in Tucson.
Kasser, 70, is a member of the board of trustees of the UA Foundation and the board of directors of the Tucson Museum of Art. He is on advisory boards of the Arizona Theatre Company, Critical Path Institute and the UA College of Science. He is a member of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, the Downtown Tucson Development Association and the MIT Arts Committee.
Stuart Mellon, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, described Kasser as “a generous supporter” of both the Jewish Federation and the Tucson Jewish Community Center. He said Kasser donated two significant pieces of art for a sculpture garden on the JCC grounds.
“Michael makes a positive impact and is always willing to help,” Mellon said. “He is a caring, decent and brilliant person with a wealth of experience and an incredible world view. He is also accessible and very well liked.”
Yet Kasser downplays his own deeds and accomplishments and talks of his father, who played a huge role in making Kasser who and what he is today. In fact, Kasser says his own story pales in comparison to his dad’s.
He may be right.
Kasser was born Dec. 9, 1940, in Budapest, Hungary, the son of Alexander and Elisabeth Kasser. His father was an engineer who worked at a Hungarian paper mill. At the outset of World War II, the elder Kasser frequently traveled to Sweden to find and purchase paper pulp for use in the mill.
As a result of those travels, he became friends with professor Valdemar Langlet, a Swede who subsequently became head of the Swedish Red Cross in Budapest. Langlet asked Alexander Kasser to assist him in organizing and running the enterprise, which, among other things, was utilized in a clandestine operation to hide and rescue Hungarian Jews who were otherwise destined to be shipped to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps.
The Swedish Red Cross, led by Langlet and Alexander Kasser, rented buildings in Budapest and placed signs on the doors, such as “Swedish Library” or “Swedish Research Institute.” The structures were then used as hiding places for Jews being hunted by Nazi authorities led by SS officer Adolph Eichmann.
Kasser’s parents were part of a humanitarian effort directed by Raoul Wallenberg, an inspiring Swedish leader credited with saving more than 100,000 Jewish lives targeted by Adolf Hitler and Germany’s Third Reich. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, an online site that is a division of The American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, Wallenberg was able to negotiate the creation of thousands of protective passes to allow Hungarians with family ties to Swedes to immigrate to Sweden. To save as many Jews as possible, Wallenberg had three to four times more passes printed than had been authorized.
Wallenberg, along with Winston Churchill, is on the short list of legendary figures made honorary citizens of the United States by act of Congress. The Guinness Book of World Records credits Wallenberg as the all-time leader in saving the greatest number of people from extinction.
In his office Kasser proudly displays a Congressional Tribute issued in 1987 honoring his parents and others for their work with Wallenberg to save Hungarian Jews. In 1999, Alexander (posthumously) and Elisabeth Kasser were honored with The Raoul Wallenberg Award from the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States.
The end of the war was not kind to Wallenberg, who disappeared shortly after the Russians marched into Hungary. Soviet officials long maintained he died of a heart attack in a Soviet prison. However, in 2000, the head of a Russian presidential commission announced that Wallenberg had been executed in 1947 in a KGB prison in Moscow.
Alexander Kasser was arrested and imprisoned by German and Hungarian authorities, but he managed to escape, and before he could be recaptured The Reich fell and the war ended.
“My father was a successful engineer and my mother came from a well-to-do family, but we lost everything in the war,” said Kasser. “When we first came to the United States we were dirt poor. We came here on visitor papers, but visitors could only stay three months. My father was fortunate to get a job in Mexico City as an engineering professor and we lived there for four years. I still feel very close to Mexico and grateful for the hospitality we received. The Spanish term I like to use is ‘acojedor,’ which means ‘embracing.’”
At the beginning of the 1950s, Kasser and his family came to the United States, bouncing from Philadelphia, Trenton and New York City before settling in Montclair, N.J.
“My father was looking for a good school for me and my sister,” recalled Kasser. “He thought I was capable of doing well, so we moved to Montclair so my sister and I could attend College High School, a small college-prep school attached to Montclair State Teacher’s College.”
It was at this time that Kasser stopped using his first name – Ivan.
“It was the McCarthy era and I didn’t want a name like Ivan,” he said. “As a kid you want to fit in as much as possible. So I became I. Michael Kasser and then Michael Kasser. I’ve been that forever – except now I’m going back to Ivan because with Homeland Security my passport says Ivan.”
After getting his doctorate in engineering in France, Kasser had the opportunity to work with his father at a small paper mill in Quebec from 1964 to 1966.
“My father built the mill from old spare parts and it really worked,” Kasser recalled. “We made toilet paper from waste paper. After wrapping and boxing the individual rolls, I’d load them in a truck and sell the boxes to nearby grocery stores. Things were a lot less formal than they are today.”
At just 24 years old, Kasser was acting as general manager of the mill in charge of sales, manufacturing and ordering materials. While he found the work “interesting,” he eventually left to attend Harvard and earn his MBA. Following his Harvard stint, he went to work in New York City as a financial analyst at W.R. Grace, an international specialty chemicals company. After a few years, he went out on his own and purchased, for “no money down,” a couple of saw mills in upstate New York.
Always a sports enthusiast, Kasser began running while in New York City and he’s been running ever since. “I ran my first marathon – the New York City Marathon – in 1976,” he said. “I’ve run the equivalent of 100 marathons over the years, I really got into it.”
Kasser met his wife, Beth, when they shared a ride with a mutual friend to the Yonkers Marathon, where they both competed. They were married in 1984 and moved to Hawaii in 1985.
It was in Hawaii that Kasser founded Holualoa Companies, which is focused on the successful acquisition, repositioning, redevelopment and disposition of underperforming real estate assets. Kasser credits much of the company’s success to a “detailed due-diligence process” that attempts to fully analyze potential risks and rewards before investments are made. He said Holualoa also utilizes an “intensive management approach” to try to continually upgrade the value of its properties, which leads to tenant satisfaction, high occupancy and happy investors.
“We try to be meticulous,” he said. “Some people say we’re too nit-picky and that we study things too carefully, but that’s the way we are and it works for us.”
Kasser and his wife were introduced to Tucson by vacationing at Canyon Ranch.
“We came here because I’m a jock and my wife is a jock and therefore our vacations were not about lying on a beach, but about working out – and you can do that at Canyon Ranch,” he said.
The Tucson visits became more and more frequent as Kasser began investing in distressed commercial property in Arizona. The savings and loan industry crashed in the early 1990s and the federal Resolution Trust Corporation was selling foreclosed commercial properties for pennies on the dollar. It was a time when Holualoa was investing heavily in Tucson and Phoenix.
“I was traveling back and forth from Hawaii to the Canyon Ranch,” recalled Kasser. “I suggested to my wife that maybe it was time to move to Arizona because my partners were not going to continue investing if I was living 3,000 miles away.
“Beth said, ‘I’d leave Hawaii for Tucson, but I wouldn’t leave Hawaii for Phoenix.’ So we moved to Tucson. Obviously, my wife is the truly brilliant one in the family.”