Luck and the Improbable Career of Ralph Bramel Lloyd

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Immerse yourself in the management literature and you may conclude that with smart planning, decision making, and effort, it is possible to control business outcomes. And that the results from such deliberative efforts are entirely merited, to be claimed wholly as your own. The literature also may convince you that you can make our own luck—that it is possible to leave nothing to chance. Less often, as historian Mansel G. Blackford has noted, do you read about the extent to which luck is responsible for the fate of a business enterprise.

Ralph Bramel Lloyd was a small businessman who made a large and lasting regional impact through two of the industries in which he operated. As an independent oilman, he was instrumental in the development of the gigantic Ventura Avenue oil field in Southern California—America’s 12th  largest onshore field of the 20th century, with more than one billion barrels of crude oil produced to date. As a real estate developer, Lloyd catalyzed the materialization of several commercial districts, most significantly on the east side of Portland, Ore., where an entire district bears his name. In my new book, Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coast: Ralph Bramel Lloyd and the Shaping of the Urban West, I describe and explain the achievements and travails that Lloyd experienced in both industries, paying close attention to the capital flows that linked the two. It is clear that Lloyd exercised agency over what by any measure was a fabulous career. At the same time, his career was also a highly improbable one, shaped by luck, as the following three examples illustrate.

Acquisition of Ranchlands in Ventura County, California. The development of the Ventura Avenue oil field, which was foundational to Lloyd’s success as a small businessman, was a “life work,” as he later put it. As luck would have it, his father Lewis Lloyd’s speculation in real estate put him in position to orchestrate it.

Lewis Lloyd was a lawyer who was admitted to the Missouri bar on the eve of the Civil War. He threw his lot with the Confederacy and for that reason he was disbarred during Reconstruction. Eventually he succeeded in business, married, and settled down in Neosho, Mo. in the southwest part of the state, where Ralph Lloyd was born in 1875. In 1878, Lewis Lloyd was elected to the Missouri Senate.

In 1886, Lewis Lloyd came west in search of a cure for a variety of ailments. Taking advantage of an offer made by notorious financier Jay Gould’s Missouri Pacific Railroad of free passes to all current and former state senators, he landed in Ventura, a small town on the Pacific Ocean some 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles. When all was said and done, Lewis Lloyd’s holdings included a ranch that lay atop what would prove to be the prolific Ventura Avenue field. And then he returned home to fetch his family.

Fast forward to 1903. After years of abject failure on the part of both father and son in raising cattle, Lewis Lloyd sold the Ventura ranch to local merchant Mariano Erburu for $20,000 (more than $500,000 in today’s dollars). Even though he and his son Ralph were convinced by this time that the property lay atop a vast pool of petroleum, to date they had failed to interest anyone in testing their theory with the drill. And so Lewis Lloyd also offered Erburu the mineral rights for an additional $5,000. Erburu declined because, as he would later say, he didn’t have the money. Eventually these mineral rights generated millions of dollars in royalty income for Ralph Lloyd and others.

1906 San Francisco Earthquake. With the sale of the Ventura ranch, Ralph Lloyd turned his attention to growing beans and walnuts on another family property, located in Simi Valley in north Los Angeles County. A year later, he cut short his career as a grower. Lloyd’s relationship with his father was contentious and came to a head when Lewis Lloyd objected to the expenses his son was incurring while installing the infrastructure required to irrigate the land. An exasperated Ralph Lloyd walked away, leaving the property in his father’s hands.

Ralph Lloyd took a job with Los Angeles-based National Wood Pipe Company, which had supplied him with irrigation pipe. He showed such promise that company president William Hampton tapped him to manage a new factory planned for San Francisco. But then the April 6, 1906, earthquake struck and Hampton shelved his plans. No earthquake, or at least no earthquake at this time, and Lloyd’s career would have taken a far different path, making for a very different book, if one at all! The San Francisco earthquake set Lloyd’s career on a trajectory that eventually landed him in Portland, where he made his mark as a real estate developer, and where much of the story in my book takes place.

In July 1907, William Hampton sent Lloyd to Olympia, Washington, to manage an underperforming plant. Lloyd’s success in engineering a turnaround resulted in increased regional sales for the company, persuading Hampton, late in 1908, to open a Portland sales office and put Lloyd in charge of it. Ralph Lloyd, his wife Lulu, and their two daughters arrived in Portland on New Year’s Day 1909. The Lloyds spent two and a half years in Portland, during which time Ralph fell in love with the place, as he would later say, and acquired his first pieces of commercial property. The Lloyds also added two daughters to their brood. In 1926, with his bank account swelling with royalty income from the development of the Ventura Avenue field, Ralph Lloyd acquired a large swath of undeveloped property on the east side of Portland and the rest is history, as they say.

Bonneville Power Administration Locates Its Headquarters in Portland. Ralph Lloyd’s commercial real estate program did not become self sustaining until the Lloyd Center, one of America’s largest regional shopping malls, opened on Portland’s east side in 1960—seven years after he died. (Richard R. Von Hagen, a son-in-law, carried the project to fruition.) An early supporter of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover’s “associationalism,” which favored cooperation among industry groups to ameliorate the economic waste and instability allegedly inherent in unregulated, competitive markets, Ralph Lloyd supported the cartelization of the oil industry under the National Industrial Recovery Act.

In reaction to New Deal tax policy that became increasingly punitive on rental income, however, Lloyd became increasingly opposed to government intrusion into the affairs of business. Ironically, then, it was federal and state agencies and the public capital that supported their activities that sustained Lloyd’s commercial real estate business through the Great Depression, World War II, and, indeed, well into the postwar period. (For reasons I explain in the book, Lloyd was ultraconservative by real estate developers’ standards.) In this period, the Bonneville Power Administration was easily Ralph Lloyd’s most important client. Lloyd would not have had the opportunity to build or remodel seven buildings for the agency, including a magisterial headquarters that opened in 1954, however, had James D. Ross, BPA’s first administrator, not chosen Portland over Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., as the agency’s administrative and operational nerve center.

Ralph Lloyd’s real estate program was ad hoc in that the geography of his holdings corresponded closely with the three cities with which he was intimately familiar: Los Angeles, Portland, and Ventura. Had Ross located the new agency’s offices in either Seattle, where he had long served as superintendent of Seattle City Light, a municipal utility, or Tacoma, it is inconceivable that Lloyd would have pursued BPA as a client.

To be sure, Ralph Lloyd “made his own luck” by nurturing a fruitful, 15-year relationship with BPA administrators and officials. (He did so without apparently questioning the agency’s commitment to establishing and expanding a public power domain across the Pacific Northwest.) Indeed, agency officials ultimately came to see Lloyd “as a godfather to [their] administration building needs.” In fact, as I demonstrate in the book, the BPA relationship was a godsend that redounded to the benefit of the California oilman. Lloyd would not have had the chance to make his own luck had BPA established its operations elsewhere.

These three examples demonstrate the extent to which decisions made by others, sometimes in response to natural disasters, determine or shape the palette of choices available to us in business life. To be sure, in each case, Lloyd leveraged the broad opportunities presented to him to his advantage, and in so doing, exercised considerable agency over his business affairs. Moreover, Ralph Lloyd possessed an entrepreneurial spirit and aptitude not found in any of his siblings. There is no evidence in the historical record that Lloyd acknowledged the role that luck played in his business successes and failures. But growing up in Neosho, Mo., he hardly could have imagined where his life ultimately would take him. Ralph Bramel Lloyd enjoyed a fabulous career by exploiting improbable circumstances, not by pursuing impossible dreams.


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