September 22, 2021

From Polio to Philanthropy: Richard Crocker

When Richard Crocker beat polio, the disease that almost killed him as a child, he discovered two truths: One, there wasn’t much left in life to fear, and two, there was an awful lot more left to live. Hellbent on finding as much adventure and success as he could, Richard spent the next 70 years living life to the fullest. By 15, he had one of the largest paper routes in the region. By 19, he bought his first home. He went on to build his real estate development company into a multimillion-dollar enterprise all by embracing his singular motto: Have no fear! 

Follow Richard every step of the way as he works hard, plays hard, travels the world, and meets the love of his life. Learn about the deals he made, why he made them, and ultimately why he believes success isn’t just about making money but knowing when to give it away.

Hey, Author Hour listeners, my name is Benji Block and I’m thrilled to be joined today by Richard Crocker, the author of a new book, From Polio to Philanthropy: Seven Fearless Decades in Life and Business. Richard, welcome to the show.

Richard Crocker: Thank you very much. I look forward to this interview.

Benji Block: Absolutely. We’re about to jump into your story and as this is an autobiography that you’ve just released, can you catch up the listeners? Give a brief introduction, who you are, and where you are these days?

Richard Crocker: Well, a lot of times, people ask me if I’m retired and I said, “No, I’ll probably never retire.” I’ve been very active in real estate for the last 50 years and there’s a lot more of my background in the book. A lot of times when we’re around friends and— “When’s your book coming out? When’s your book coming out?”— they start asking questions, I say, “Well when the book comes out then you’ll find out.” Yeah, that’s my background for the last 50 years in real estate. 

When I started out the book, my objective was to produce something for my family, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren, the future generations— which I eluded to in the book— and produce it for some of my friends. I’ve got friends that I’m close to and we sit over coffee or lunch and talk about some of their business deals. One of my close friends who is another major developer in the Bay area said, “We got to write a book!” He said, “I’m starting to write a book.” I said, “Well, okay, George,” I said, “I’m working on it.” I said, “Where are you?” and then he said, “Well, you just jumped ahead of me, you’re a lot further along.” I’ve kept him motivated too. 

I started out with more of the business transactional things in the book, which probably would be a little dry and boring to somebody if they’re not involved in entrepreneurship and I was encouraged to get more personal stuff in about family and things like that. It’s kind of a twofold, two-pronged type of approach to the book; to share some of my business transactions and then little background on myself personally and family and so forth.

Benji Block: How long, Richard, have you been wanting to write a book? What prompted this to be the right time?

Richard Crocker: It started like five years ago. What prompted it was my good friend George Al, who I alluded to just a little while ago when I was talking about different business deals and stuff, he said, “You got to write that stuff down.” That was one of the motivating factors and then the other one was my father-in-law had shown me an appraisal of his great grandfather who had an appraisal done of some properties way back when in San Francisco, industrial buildings, which I was familiar with where they are. I found it very interesting for me, probably dry reading material for most people but I was shown appraisals of these buildings and what they were worth at the time compared to what they’re worth today, current value [and thought] now, that’s very interesting. 

I fast-forwarded and thought, “Well, maybe I produce a book on my autobiography and somebody will look back on it years later and say, ‘Wow!’”

Life’s Second Chance

Benji Block: That’s awesome, that’s great for your family to have down the line and friends, just to record your history. It’s incredible to write a book and I am excited for you to be in this season of getting to release it into the world. Let me do this, let’s rewind your life for a couple of minutes. The book starts with your childhood. Can you paint a picture of those early years? The subtitle of the book suggests you had polio at a young age, can you kind of walk us through your life as a young boy and then leading into getting polio at age eight?

Richard Crocker: Well, my parents moved down from Portland, Oregon when I was pretty young, maybe six years old or so, I don’t recall now, many years ago. They move down to the Santa Cruz county area. It’s like any young child at that age, growing up and going to school. My parents were working hard to make it in the restaurant business. They were struggling, couldn’t afford a babysitter, I had two brothers and myself and we would sleep in the back of the restaurant in the cots at night while they’re working. That was an early introduction into the restaurant business. As we got older and started working at the restaurant, making hamburger patties and slicing French fries out of potatoes and one thing led to another, and was active in working in the restaurants. 

Early on, I was diagnosed with polio. I was at home one evening, my parents were out and I was aching all over and just felt like I had the flu. My mom took me to a local doctor who diagnosed me with polio— the vaccine wasn’t out that time— so they rushed me up to Stanford Hospital in the Bay area of California. I was quarantined for probably three weeks in the hospital and was very fortunate to come out of that because at the time, polio was very serious and the doctor said you could have either passed away or been paralyzed from the neck down the rest of your life. I feel very blessed and fortunate that I survived that disease. I think one of the things that motivates me today is that I’m so thankful for my health and that I was able to come out of that as an eight-year-old, not knowing really the significance of what I had. It’s pretty hard to relate to something when you’re eight years old.

I carry that with me today and I’m very motivated to lead a healthy and active life. My mantra is to take care of my body because, from my perspective, I was given a second chance. I get out and do as much exercise [as I can], and [my] wife and I, we travel a lot.

Benji Block: We’ll get into the adventures here in a minute but that is a great springboard to basically feel like you have that second chance so early. You see that play out in the adventures that you take moving forward from there.

Business and entrepreneurship are a staple in your life from a young age, as people can read and get all the details in the book. Take me through some broad brushstrokes of where your entrepreneurial journey began and the roads it led to later in your career?

Richard Crocker: I started out very industrious at a very young age. I can remember collecting coat hangers and people say, “Why do you collect coat hangers and go around knocking on people’s doors?” I said, “Because my mom would put it in the trunk of her car after I had several hundred of them, take them to a dry cleaner and then pay a penny apiece.” This was at a very young age. I can remember doing crazy things like that and having a paper route at a very young age. [It was] the largest paper route in the area where you delivered the papers every day and then go around and collect each day from all your clients that you delivered the paper to.

It just seemed like I had an ambition to succeed and work hard in business. From the days working in the lettuce fields down in Watsonville area to picking strawberries and packing lettuce crates and things like that. And then worked on our ranch for a while. Work just came second hand to me. I was just always active and working. One thing led to another and I started in the restaurant business at a young age.

My dad was very conservative and he wasn’t interested in expanding his one restaurant he had, so my brother and I decided, “Well, let’s go ahead and start our own restaurant.” We ended up having 14 restaurants and had probably 600 employees. After a few years of that, I decided there were too many people to manage because I wanted to get into something that didn’t require a lot of managing people. I decided to get into real estate and development more.

Benji Block: Talk to me about the beginnings of that as you get more into real estate. What was the beginning of that journey, maybe your first property or first steps into real estate?

Richard Crocker: Well, after having selected the various restaurant locations, I seemed to have a fairly keen knack for picking real estate out which led me to dip my toes in other real estate development. The first project I did was a speck house and I knew nothing about reading a set of plans or building a house, contracting but bought a single-family lot and got an architect to draw some plans up. I hired a contractor to build the house for me— which I was really a novice at— completed the house, sold it, and made a profit. That was probably my first venture into real estate development.

Benji Block: In chapter eight of the book, you discuss several memorable and creative transactions, what you learned from them. Do you want to highlight just maybe one of those that sticks out and people can read others in the book?

Richard Crocker: One that pops out in my mind was I always had an ambition to tie a piece of property up and sell it while it was still in escrow, referred to as flipping the property, and I had a large apartment project I had made an offer on in the San Jose, Bay Area market. Just to bid on the property you had to make a cash deposit of $500,000, which was refundable of course if you didn’t get the little bid. I show up at the school board with all these other major developers in the Bay Area were there to buy the property. They all thought it was going to be an open bidding process for the property. When they called to read the bids, I was the only one that actually put a bid in. I was just like, “Did I do something wrong?” as I’m driving home that night. 

I bought this 20-acre parcel and was awarded the bid and I had a year of close on it. Essentially, it was a pretty major project with a 300 plus unit apartment complex. I get a call from one of the developers the next day and he said, “I want to talk to you because I really want to buy that property.” I said, “Okay, fine.” I agreed to sell it to him but he gave me a nonrefundable deposit, a significant amount of money and I thought, “Well, jeez, I’m going to make money! This is a memorable transaction!” Then he calls me up a week later and he said, “I ran the numbers, it didn’t make sense, I can’t do the deal.” I go, “Okay.”  You gave me a big check and it is non-refundable! He called me back a few days later saying, “I need to get together with you,” and I said, “Okay, fine. Well, this is a new price.” So he agreed to the new price, which is obviously more than what it was the first time and he bought my contract out and preceded in. 

I must say that for him and the buyer, he was a major developer in a lot of apartments and he knew what he was doing. He since built the project out and it was one of his most successful apartment complexes so he didn’t get hurt by the transaction. I’ve always had a strong ethical belief in my business transaction and I stay by my word in a transaction. I don’t try and take advantage of anybody but I can be a tough negotiator. 

Have No Fear: Pursuing Ambitions and Taking Risks

Benji Block: Talk about the growth because you started and you eluded to the fact that you were a novice and just kind of went for it when getting into real estate, having the knack for it initially but needing to learn and continue to grow. And you grew it into, I would say, quite the empire. So, talk about that transition and what happened over the decades that you were in real estate? 

Richard Crocker: When I was still going to college in my senior year, I had a cleaning business and I had like 15 employees working for me. I was married and had a child at the time and was going to college full-time, working at 3:30 or four in the morning and then heading to college for my classes. Probably the first transaction at the time was when I met a restaurant owner that was cleaning his restaurant seven days a week and— I eluded to this in the book— but he essentially talked about selling his restaurant. 

Long story short, I said, “Well, I’ll get the money together and buy it.” He was rather shocked because the janitor wanted to buy his restaurant. I got some money together, bought the restaurant. I was still at college at that time and I had my cleaning business going. I am taking business classes, of course, and I’m listening to the professors in business. I was probably making more money than they were with my cleaning business!

I brought my brother in at that time because I couldn’t handle all of that with a load of school and finish my finals, running a restaurant and the cleaning business. He came in with me and from there, we springboarded up into developing a chain of restaurants of 14, 15 restaurants and 600 employees. After that, dealing with a lot of minimum wage people, I found I didn’t have the patience to deal with that many people. That is when I started getting into the more commercial industrial development real estate. 

Benji Block: Later in the book, you kind of talked about some of the adventures that you’ve gone on and it will be fun I’m sure for your family and friends to have those in a book form. You talk about riding bikes across America and then you discussed climbing Kilimanjaro. What’s your favorite adventure that you’ve been on? 

Richard Crocker: I don’t know that I would say I had a favorite one. I had a lot of memories from the trips but probably the most interesting would be the ride across America, which my wife and I did. I kind of had it in the back of my mind, “Wouldn’t it be fun?” I was doing a lot of biking at the time and I said, “Let’s ride across America” and she said, “Well, this sounds good, but”— but we had a yellow Lab at the time— “I want to take our dog. I don’t want to leave our dog.” So, I rented a motor home, hired a driver and we bought a massage therapist with us for the trip because it was pretty intense. We were riding 9,800 miles a day. It is probably one of the most memorable that we had at the time. 

We were down in San Diego. We started from San Diego and we went to St. Augustine in Florida, which was our final destination. The first night or so, we were in a town down in Southern California and Hurricane Katrina had hit. My wife says, “Well, that’s right where we’re going”— because we did the south route. I said, “Yeah, well it would probably be fine once we get there.” Obviously, it wasn’t and the town was pretty devastated. 

That was a pretty memorable trip. We had a lot of experiences at the time and it was before Facebook or anything else and so we recorded a lot of our trip on our own website. I don’t know if that’s a favorite but it was pretty memorable. 

Benji Block: Absolutely. I loved reading the portion on Kilimanjaro. I’ve got to say, I’m a little biased, grew up in East Africa and I climbed it several years back so it was fun to read that portion of your book. It sounded like you guys had quite a hard go of it. 

Richard Crocker: We did. We are with four of my buddies and my wife came along too, who is a very strong athletic hiker. As you well know, it is not a technical hike. It’s just the altitude and it gets a lot of young people to think they could just run up, but you have to acclimate yourself. Our four buddies wanted to burn their guide out and hike up in a short period of time. The mantra is polo-poloish, as you well know. We were about a day behind and then on the way up, they were coming down and they look like death warmed over, they burnt themselves out. And I had a rough time myself too because I got food poisoning before we started the trip. We were at our guide’s house for dinner, which was not a smart thing to eat foreign food.

Benji Block: Yeah, not a great start.

Richard Crocker: No, so that made it rough. But I always said— I knew Martha Stewart had done the hike and— “Well, she did it. I sure can do it.”

Benji Block: That’s awesome. Well, you and your wife, you actually give back in some pretty amazing ways through your foundation. What was the genesis of the foundation and what work are you focused on there? 

Richard Crocker: We made our first major contribution to a community college down here in St. Cruz County. Cabrillo College is where I went for my first two years of college and we made a donation to the arts center there. They have a big theater there that is named after us and that’s kind of kicked things off. My wife was a dental hygienist and we’ve supported the dental hygiene program. The theme of our philanthropy is we like to do a lot for education for the underprivileged.

We support various charter schools with scholarships and funding for various causes in the charter schools. It is always heartwarming to get some feedback from the students that get a scholarship and they thank us very much. We really enjoy that because to me, education is the future of our country, to educate the people. A lot of these kids have families that have never gone to college and they complete whether it’s a two-year or a four-year college. It just gives them a springboard to be able to succeed in life. 

So, charter schools are a big part of our philanthropy and then we do donate a lot to land preservation up in the Sierras in the Tahoe area, just to preserve land so it’s not overrun by a bunch of developers like myself. 

I have a short story. I remember one time we were hiking with a bunch of older folks at the time and we were out in this summit hiking with them. We’re out there having a bite to eat and I am looking out over the valley. I said, “Boy, this would make a great development for a golf course community,” and I was being a little facetious. They looked at me like, “What are you talking about? You are not going to ruin this land,” because here I’m dealing with a Sierra Club and they are very much land preservationists. But, preserving land is important to us because we were out hiking in trails and we’d bump into the people that are doing the Pacific Crest Trail hiking from Mexico to Canada every year and it’s just nice to be out in the outdoors and preserve the land. 

The Philosophy of Life

Benji Block: It sounds like the work that you guys are doing with your foundation is incredible and thank you for the work that you’re doing there. As we start to wrap up our time together, I wanted to quickly highlight a motto that comes up several times in the book. This idea of have no fear, I love that. I’d love to know what that means to you and then any words of encouragement you might give to listeners on that front.

Richard Crocker: Well, I guess I’ve led my life probably from the genesis of being struck with the disease of polio. Surviving that probably inspired me to not have fear in anything else in life because life is precious. I get asked by people at different times, younger people, they come to me and say, “Do you have any advice? I’m thinking about doing this, I’m thinking about doing that” and I say, “Well, first of all, you got to have a passion in what you want to do and you can’t have fear. I mean, if you are scared of doing something then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.” I took a lot of risk in business and I wouldn’t take the same risk today after I’ve been 50 years in business but if I would just start now, which I did, I took a lot of risks. Not everything works out but you have to have your failures along the way to learn and that’s part of not having any fear. Just go for it. I mean, if you’re more conservative and you don’t want to take risks then it probably makes more sense just to go to work for a company and work your way up that way. 

But, I’ve always had a desire to— whether it was starting the cleaning business or develop a chain of restaurants, or starting doing a lot of major commercial projects— I took some great risks at the time and succeeded in most of them. 

Benji Block: Richard, as people pick up the book, what’s maybe one to two things that you hope they take away after reading it?

Richard Crocker: My philosophy in life is to be compassionate, give back, be honest in your business dealings, try and help other people. When I hear these fires in Northern California now, my passion is like, “Gee, I wish I could help more of those people that have their home lost or homes.” That’s the first thing that strikes me is I want to reach out and help people that way because I have been very blessed myself and have succeeded in business and I guess it’s part of my fiber is to give back and help people. 

Benji Block: I want to say congratulations on finishing this book, I know it is a massive undertaking. Besides checking out the book, is there anywhere people can find you? 

Richard Crocker: Well, I’m working on that with the Scribe Media folks as far as putting it on Amazon or Boarders and having an audiobook too. I don’t have that information right in front of me right now to put in there because we’re just in the final phase of the book. The publishing of the book would be done on the 21st of September and we’re setting it up to put it in other formats, so you can order online or you can get it in audiobook. 

Benji Block: That would be great. Well, Richard, thanks so much for taking some time to speak with us today about your book.

Richard Crocker: Sure, glad to.