In his heyday Walter Mischer was called the Kingmaker. The Houston real estate developer and banker helped fund the political campaigns of Barbara Jordan, John Connally, and Lloyd Bentsen. He became a national figure in 1980 when he raised more money for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign—$3.2 million—than anyone in the country, helping to deliver traditionally Democratic Texas to the GOP.
Today, at age 77, Mischer is no longer the man behind the throne, although he still gives to some candidates, mostly Republicans. He has jettisoned most of his business ventures, including his biggest, Hallmark Residential Group, a home-building company he sold last year for $50 million. He has also let go of most of his ranches, most recently the remaining 51,000 acres of his Black Mesa in West Texas. What’s left of his development business is in a family trust controlled by his son, Walt, and his daughter, Paula.
Yet if he’s not as spry as he used to be—he has battled heart problems and prostate cancer—Mischer can’t keep from wheeling and dealing. He reports to work at his northwest Houston office about four days a week. When I visited him there recently, he was dapperly dressed in a light blue suit and maroon tie. At five feet eight inches tall, with thick glasses and a soft voice, he’s extremely unassuming, making it hard to believe that he was once one of the most powerful men in Texas.
Mischer’s life began inauspiciously. He was born in the tiny South Texas town of Gillett and grew up on his parents’ ranch. But his idyllic childhood was shattered in 1934 when his father was murdered by a jealous family friend. He was eleven at the time. The Depression was on, and most of the ranch was parceled out to creditors. “By the time we got everybody paid off, we didn’t have a lot left,” Mischer says.
He put himself through his first year at Texas A&I University by stringing fence wire. That summer, he took a job working construction at an air base in Victoria and never went back to school. Once the base was finished, Mischer moved to Houston, where he helped build a Shell refinery. In 1947 he quit to start his own engineering construction company. He began by paving roads, digging sewers, and building bridges, eventually moving into real estate development. In the years that followed, he was responsible for much of Houston’s suburban sprawl, developing such neighborhoods as Willowbend and Westbury.
To buy land, Mischer had to borrow money, and he got to know bankers so well that he became one himself. In 1963 he and a partner, Howard L. Terry, bought Continental Bank. The two gradually collected minority stakes in several other banks, bringing them all under the Allied Banc moniker in 1971. By 1985, Allied controlled $10 billion in assets, making it the sixth-biggest bank holding company in Texas. When the oil bust hit, it set off a domino effect through the Texas economy, but unlike other banks, Allied had concentrated on middle-market lending and kept a nice cushion of capital. Indeed, it was one of only two big banks in the state that didn’t fail (the other was Texas Commerce). Still, times were tough, and with losses piling up—to $318 million in 1987—Mischer finally gave in. In 1988 Allied was acquired by First Interstate Bank of California for $166.5 million. “We didn’t get as much for it as we thought we should,” he says.
Since then, Mischer has stuck to real estate development. His latest project is Memorial Heights, a community of townhomes off Memorial Drive near downtown Houston. He owns six other properties around town and 165,000 acres in Belize, where he operates a citrus and mahogany plantation. “It’s the only Latin country I was ever in that you didn’t have to pay off somebody,” he says. On the weekends Mischer and his wife, Mary, travel to their ranch outside Hearne, where he has 1,500 head of Brahman and Braford cattle. And while he’s out of the kingmaking business, Mischer still sits on the Southwest Airlines board. “I’ve always felt that if business is good,” he says, “everything is going to be all right.”