A monastic quiet prevails at Maxxam headquarters, from its vast and sparsely decorated waiting room on the twenty-sixth floor of an office building in Houston’s Galleria area to the conference room on the twenty-seventh floor, where CEO Charles Hurwitz is demonstrating the art of reticence to a visiting journalist. The opening subject is the Houston Rockets, one of Hurwitz’s few loves outside of his work.
“I thought about buying the team a couple of years ago,” he offers quietly.
There is silence. Well, what happened?
Hurwitz shrugs. “I offered a lot less than Charlie Thomas later got from Les Alexander,” he says.
Does he regret passing the chance to buy the 1994 NBA champions?
The slightest pause, followed by the slightest response: “No.” And then more silence.
The 54-year-old executive, who is dressed in his customary dark suit with European-collared shirt, has consented to this rare interview—if it can be called that—only after a week of wary deliberation. Throughout the hour-long exchange, which Maxxam publicist Bob Irelan attends, quietly taking notes, Hurwitz’s remarks are delivered in a barely audible voice and with scant elaboration. His omnipresent smile seems to be saying, only half apologetically, “I’m not being very helpful, am I?” Whether the subject is his childhood in Kilgore, his acquisition in 1988 of Kaiser Aluminum (which accounts for 85 percent of Maxxam’s revenue), the redwood clear-cutting practices of Maxxam’s Northern California firm, Pacific Lumber, or his pivotal role in bringing horse racing to Texas, Hurwitz maintains a genial demeanor that is defensive to the core.
The lightest moment comes when the controversial Maxxam boss is asked whether he’s tired of all the bad press. His smile widens. “I’d rather have neither bad press nor good press,” he fairly booms. “I’d rather have no press.” Then Charles Hurwitz laughs, and soon afterward the CEO shakes hands and retreats to his office like a shadow receding at dusk.
But the next day, a Saturday, the cipher becomes a charmer. The setting is not the chilly confines of Maxxam but rather the sunny and festive Sam Houston Race Park, on the northwestern outskirts of the city. Hurwitz, who commands 34 percent of the stock, is the principal owner. He shows up in a straw hat and a necktie dotted with little horses. Yesterday’s tension is replaced by chattiness and backslapping. This is the Charles Hurwitz who, say loyal friends such as Mayor Bob Lanier and Nellie Connally, is thoroughly misunderstood. They see him simply as a man of action, evidenced by the single most admirable business feat in Texas of the past year: the opening of the state’s first Class I racetrack, a project that was stuck in the mud for six years before Texas’ premier post-boom-and-bust CEO got ahold of it and brought it to completion in ten months’ time.
Hurwitz made his fortune the modern way: by investing, rather than drilling for oil or developing real estate. His evolution—a Bache and Company stockbroker fresh out of college, a manager of a $54 million hedge fund at the age of 27, the acquisition of Federated Development (which would ultimately put him in control of Maxxam) at 33, and fifteen years later, the CEO of one of the world’s leading aluminum producers—amounts to a textbook dealmaker’s résumé. That Hurwitz spearheaded the completion of the racetrack has made him the leading candidate for the state’s next big play: casino gambling.
The Sam Houston endeavor has already lost some of its luster. Spotty attendance and disappointing betting figures have led to cutbacks in the winners’ purses, which in turn have provoked threats of boycotts on the part of the contestants. Nonetheless, the sheer act of giving Texas voters what a state referendum said they wanted has gained Hurwitz favorable ink for the first time in his career. Yet the overall view of the Kilgore-bred businessman is perhaps more muddled than ever. Hurwitz the race track savior and Hurwitz the anti-environmentalist seem to exist in irreconcilably parallel universes, and the CEO has done nothing to clarify his persona.
He is aggressively colorless. Despite his wealth (estimated at $140 million), Hurwitz lives in a condominium rather than a River Oaks mansion, does not own an airplane, and likes to joke that his limousines are yellow with lights on the top. He donates heavily to local charities but leaves the society limelight to his wife, Barbara. His friendships are business-related. (Notable among these is his decades-long close relationship with Bob Lanier. The thousands of dollars Hurwitz has contributed to Lanier’s campaigns have been more than repaid in political prestige.) Despite having lived in Kilgore throughout his childhood and retaining friends from the area, Hurwitz is not one for folksy aphorisms or for invoking the wisdom of his late father, a prominent East Texas haberdasher. In the world of business, Charles Hurwitz sees himself as a corporate actor completely disinterested in theatrics and audience response. Yet he continually wanders onto big stages where high-stakes melodramas are inevitable.
A fifteen-acre expanse of grassy marsh abuts the Sam Houston Race Park and seems to have been placed there purely to torment Charles Hurwitz. The marsh happens to be a designated wetlands area, which meant that the construction blueprint of the track had to meet with the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers. Both sides gave ground in the negotiations, and as a result, most of the wetlands now adjoins the parking lot, while the remaining protected marsh is actually in the middle of the track, where Hurwitz can see it and muse about bureaucratic hypocrisies as he sits in his grandstand luxury booth.
“When we came to build the track,” Hurwitz says as he gestures toward the runway, “eventually we were told, ‘We won’t bother your plans as long as you’re willing to mitigate on this part or trade that part.’ Well, either this whole area is wetlands or it isn’t what the game’s all about.”
It is, he believes, about bureaucratic bullying. “Apparently a portion of land is designated as wetlands if it’s been underwater for thirty days,” he