The builder: Q&A with John Notter
The Ludwig Institute’s Board Chair doesn’t enjoy the status quo, and is driven to create and support a wide array of ventures.
You came to the United States from Switzerland when you were 7 years old. Why did your family emigrate, and where did they settle?
It was the middle of World War II and my father, who was a chef, couldn’t find any work. He had friends in the U.S. so it was a no brainer to emigrate. My mother and I followed a year later. It was a very difficult trip. We came to the U.S. through Portugal where we lived in a little room for about three or four months before we were able to get passage on a ship going to the U.S. Like many refugees who came at that time, we first settled in the Bronx, in New York City.
Was arriving here a huge culture shock for you?
It was more than a culture shock. I spoke Swiss German so everyone thought I was German. So you can imagine how difficult it was living in the Bronx in the middle of the war. Needless to say, I learned English very quickly. I even changed my name to John from Hans so that I would have an American name. My father worked as a chef at a hotel in Manhattan and in those days, you had to work the split shift, which meant he worked the breakfast shift, the lunch shift and the dinner shift with time off in the afternoon. So, he was gone for 14 to 16 hours every day. A few years later, when I was about 11, we moved from the Bronx to New Jersey where my mother and father became managers of the Swiss Hall. It was a community with a lot of foreigners—mostly Italian, German and Swiss and I felt more at home. It was tough to find workers in 1946, so I started washing dishes. I was still a kid and had to stand on a wooden box to reach the sink. I can still recall those days. And I have to say that when you work hard as a kid, you appreciate everything you have. When everything is handed to you, you don’t have the sense of appreciation that you should.
What cause or causes are you interested in, and why?
I support a broad range of charities that benefit the young and the old and focus on where the money will make a real difference. I’m a firm believer that equality can be achieved through education. Without a good education, the prospects for needy kids are diminished. Last year, I paid half the tuition for 18 promising students, all of whom were the first in their family to go to college. I also donated this year to the Boys and Girls Club in Thousand Oaks, California. On the other end of the spectrum, I support the House of Hope, a residential care facility for the elderly, and Senior Concerns, which provides support services to the elderly and their families.
What drives you in your work?
I like to create. I don’t enjoy the status quo. I didn’t just quit because I’m over 65. I am always involved in something new. I still love seeing a new building go up in Westlake Village. Many people that I worked with over the years just stopped, but me, I want to stay actively involved in different ventures. A lot of people are given an opportunity but they don’t embrace it. That’s not me. I like the variety of projects—Westlake, Ludwig Cancer Research, Hilton. Part of my drive might stem from having worked with Mr. Ludwig because he involved me in so many different industries.
Who has been your most significant role model or inspiration in life?
There are a couple of people I can think of. One would be Bob Ahmanson, whose uncle was the founder of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., an insurance and savings and loans corporation based in Los Angeles. I started my career at the Home Savings of America, which at that time and for many years after, was the largest savings and loan association in the US. Bob hired me when I was in my mid-20s and by the time I was 28, I was president of one of their subsidiary banks. Mr. Ludwig was another one. I wanted to get into international finance and Bob Ahmanson said it wouldn’t happen at Home Savings, so I started looking for another job and connected with Mr. Ludwig who was a major shareholder in a string of savings and loan companies. He asked me to take one over that was failing in Woodland Hills, California, and see if I could turn it around. I agreed but on one condition—if I were successful, he would give me an opportunity to get involved in international finance. It was and I will say that Mr. Ludwig was a man of his word.
How did you become involved in Mr. Ludwig’s other ventures?
After the successful turnaround of the savings and loan, I received a phone call from Mr. Ludwig telling me that he needed me to be on a plane tomorrow to Australia. And I was like, what? I eventually took control of all his Australian operations, which included coal mines and shipping. I also started an insurance company and a savings and loan there. I even built a golf course. This led to my involvement in the salt mines in Mexico, shipbuilding in Japan and petroleum refineries in Florida and Panama. It’s hard to believe sometimes that Mr. Ludwig gave someone in his early 30s that much responsibility. But he did. And it worked out fine for both of us. I guess, maybe I was in the right place at the right time with the right person because it was a period of time that I was able to develop many different interests and it is why today I embrace every new challenge that comes along.
How did you become chairman of a major hotel chain?
In the late fifties, Mr. Ludwig bought two hotels—one in Bermuda and one in the Bahamas, neither of which was doing very well. But both countries were known as “flag of convenience” countries, which allowed him to reduce operating costs. I eventually became the chairman of Princess Hotels International and built the Acapulco Princess in Mexico and the Southampton Princess in Bermuda. It was through my involvement in the hotel business that I came to know Barron Hilton and eventually sat on the board of directors of the Hilton Hotels Corporation and served as chairman of the audit committee. Today I’m still very involved with him and the Hilton Foundation.
Was it difficult to constantly juggle all these responsibilities?
In every industry, it all comes down to numbers. Whether it’s the hotel business or the shipping business, numbers are the driving force. To be successful, you have to spend time and energy on what will drive the business forward. I can hire people to dig coal. I can hire people to build ships. I leave the day to day running of the business to others. It’s not what I’m interested in. The challenge for me is the financing—raising the money to build a new hotel or a new ship or a golf course. All my time and energy are spent looking at a business from a macro perspective. Should we build more rooms? Should we build different types of structures? Where should we put it? That’s what I’m interested in.
Which of your philanthropic endeavors are you most proud of?
I would have to say being involved in the creation of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.
How did you come to be involved?
The Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research was my idea. It’s my baby. It was around 1969-1970 and, since Mr. Ludwig had no children, we were trying to figure out what to do with his international holdings and who to leave them to. I suggested we establish the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. Since I’m a Swiss citizen, we were able to locate the financial office in Zurich. A law was passed in Switzerland that allowed Mr. Ludwig to become a controlling shareholder. There are 50 shares, 49 of which are held by the Ludwig Institute Charitable Trust and one that is held by the Swiss government with the stipulation that the charitable nature of the organization would never change. That’s the key.
Which aspects of cancer research interest or excite you the most?
As we were starting up the Institute, I went to see Benno Schmidt who was the chairman of the board of Memorial Sloan Kettering to find out who might be a good scientist to head it up. Lloyd Old was the first to come on board. He was doing something new in the field of immunology. And it was pretty much Lloyd who kept the Institute together through the initial trials and tribulations. I wish he were alive today because, clearly, it’s one of the areas in cancer research that has the most promise. Ups and downs, of course, but certainly in the long run, the most promise. The other area that excites me is prevention. Preventing the disease is a lot more effective than curing it. Prevention isn’t being funded by pharma because the pharmaceutical companies are more focused on treating cancer than preventing it. The government has responsibility in this area, but there is much more progress to be made. In 2015, we launched a cancer prevention initiative in partnership with the Hilton Foundation. It has expanded to include a number of Ludwig scientists and we’re now starting to get some new players involved like the City of Hope, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council of the UK.
What excites you about the future of Ludwig?
Having Chi aboard as the new scientific director is absolutely critical to taking Ludwig to the next level. The transition over the past 6 to 7 years has set us up to move in a more efficient manner. The amount of overhead in rent and administrative assistance in nine different locations was substantial and the structures were too rigid. We’re now down to three locations and the percentage of funds available as a consequence of the moves we’ve made is giving the new people coming in the opportunity to go where the excitement is and to pursue what they want to do. I think the new teams will have a lot more flexibility and cash to move forward in different directions. It’s up to them to decide where. They’re the scientists. The doctors. That’s why I am really very optimistic about the future of Ludwig especially now—I am going to repeat myself here—but it’s very important that we have somebody like Chi on board now. With him, our team now is as good as it’s ever been.
Looking back at your career now, what is the most surprising decision you made?
I think it’s probably when I left Mr. Ahmanson to go to work for Mr. Ludwig. I was a rising star in the Ahmanson organization and president of a bank and I took a substantial pay cut to work for someone I didn’t even know.
What achievements are you most proud of in your career so far?
Without a doubt, the Ludwig Institute has to be at the top of the list along with the Hilton Foundation, where I am a member of the board of directors and chair of the finance and audit committee. Another would be creating and building Westlake Village. Not many people can say they’ve built a city. Today it’s recognized as one of the most successful master-planned communities in the US.
What are your favorite hobbies or interests?
I love studying languages and right now I’m working on my Spanish. I speak pretty good French and am fluent in German. Wine is another interest of mine. I like reading about it, tasting it and drinking it. Exercise is also very important to me—I’ve exercised all my life and rarely does a day go by that I haven’t spent an hour or two exercising.