Silicon Valley Renaissance Man Mark Calvano

From commercial real estate development to filmmaking to racing cars, Mark Calvano seems to have done it all.

Mark Calvano, a well-known figure on the San Francisco and Silicon Valley social circuit, is an entrepreneur, designer, filmmaker, chef, fashion enthusiast (check out his past social gala attire—glitter and silver, anyone?) and developer. In short, he is a Renaissance man. His latest office building development was sold to Google, and he now has one million square feet of development in the pipeline.

Tell us a bit about your background?

I was born and raised in Silicon Valley. I graduated from Cupertino High. My grandparents came from Italy through Ellis Island. The major influence in my life, my grandfather Anthony Panozzo, came here with something like $25 in his pocket and began working as a janitor, quickly learning English. I was named after him—Mark Anthony. After being injured in a streetcar accident, he spent all his time studying (often through the night, my mother tells me) and investing what little he had in the stock market. He learned that railroad stocks were undervalued and that the government gave railroad companies a mile of track on each side. However, railroad companies still declared bankruptcy. My grandfather researched the land value, timber, oil, gas, and mineral rights for these properties. Convincing Merrill Lynch to lend him $ 250,000, he purchased shares in Missouri Pacific Railroad (Merrill Lynch recommended against this investment). Twelve year later, Union Pacific purchased the bankrupt Missouri Pacific Railway and my grandfather became a multi-millionaire.

You credit your grandfather as a major influence in your life—why?

After college, I spent many weekends visiting with my grandfather, who lived in Saratoga. He was passionate about the business world and wanted to share his insights with me— when to buy, sell, and hold, and the difference between preferred and common stock. He was right about so many things. But most of all, he emphasized: “Trust your own instincts.”

I think of him and his advice often. He’d tell me, “Mark, if you shoot for the ceiling, you’ll land on the floor; but if you shoot for the moon, you’ll land on the roof.” So in other words, aim high, think big! Another favorite adage of his was, “If you’re going to try to ride two horses, you should think about joining the circus.” So now after all my ventures, I am riding only one horse—my development projects. My grandfather was very big on education, relating, “They can take away your money but they can never take away your education.” I remember, in 1998, he told me: “Don’t ever think the Great Depression can’t happen again.” It happened in 2008; he was right about that, too.

You are an entrepreneur at heart. Tell us a little about various ventures you have been involved in.

My plan A was to work to 50 and live to 100; that was until my father passed at 74 when I was 35. I retired for a while, but ultimately became bored and looked for something to do. I saw a blurb for a screenplay about the theft of a $50M diamond neckless stolen from the Filipino government and laundered through a pawnshop in SF. The movie was a comedy-mystery, with a montage of dubious characters looking to get the necklace. While reading the script, I could actually visualize the images. I now have another film in mind, that I know I will ultimately create. Creative ideas are part of me. I designed a very sexy perfume bottle—making the actual perfume would be the easy part; it’s the bottle that sells the perfume. Really, it’s the same with water; it’s all about marketing. It’s the bottle that sells the water, not the product inside.

I designed a bracelet: white gold, diamonds, links, lions, and snakes—very bling and chic. I can’t reveal the full design. It would be copied and end up with eBay or Amazon next month. My t-shirt, jean, and swimsuit designs were quite a hit in a fashion show I did a few years ago. My designs were traditional— my Italian heritage and admiration for old-world Italian esthetics and architecture shone through. But creating building projects was always in the back of my mind.

What was your first job?

Although I knew since I was 8 years old (I saw the high-rises in San Francisco) that I wanted to build big buildings, I started selling real estate. At 25, I got a job in Palo Alto at Marcus and Millichap brokering commercial real estate. But, I also bought and sold a few homes on the side.

Did you have any mentors in the real estate world?

Yes, the legendary John Arrillaga, who was an early real estate billionaire in Silicon Valley. While I was brokering a deal with him, I told him I had just bought a building in Santa Clara. I showed him the site plan and interiors. I asked him if he would tell me which walls to keep and which not. John offered to meet me at the site the next day! I couldn’t believe it; I remember thinking: “Wow he’s a billionaire, he’s famous, and I never even had to ask him to visit the site.” The next day John came to the site; he said, “Take out this crap . . . take out that crap… get rid of this wall . . . that mess . . .” Then he advised, “Take all your cash flow and pay down your mortgage as fast as you can, otherwise the market will change and you will lose your building in bankruptcy . . . and I will be the one to buy it.” I have never bought another building without seeking John’s advice. Today, 20 years later, he continues to be a cherished mentor. Don Head, the entrepreneur and art collector in Saratoga (see Gentry Home, October 2013), has offered valuable advice about business and personal relationships. The personal ones are harder.

You design, you create. Tell us about a few of your past projects.

Creativity and design are my real passion; I live and breathe it. I believe I could design just about anything.

I have launched a clothing line, designed jewelry, designed perfume bottles, produced a feature film. Now, I work closely with my architects and design team when developing a project. I often have a sketch-up of the building before any meetings begin. I know what I want, what will work; I have a visual brain. I see images with my eyes closed, especially in the morning before getting out of bed.

What have you learned about yourself becoming a developer?

I learned that there is so much out there to develop—and that I can do it. My recently completed Google project, which I began in 2014 at 1001 N. Shoreline, Mountain View, required a land assembly of 10 parcels from eight different ownerships. The complicated 7.8-acre land assembly required complex and sensitive negotiations with each parcel owner. It also required negotiating lease-buyouts from existing tenants and approval from various permit agencies. I met with and selected the best architects, engineers, and contractors. I always had the vision; the design was in my mind.

How did you coordinate your vision with the recommendations of your architects and engineers?

I insisted the contractors and vendors working on my project not treat me like a client. “Treat me like a team member” was my mantra. I tore down these buildings and built a single 123,000-square-foot office building. I first leased this project to Google for 12 years and this year I sold the building for $170,000,000.

What’s your reward or personal satisfaction when developing a project?

There is a great satisfaction in doing something right. My company, Calvano Development, is focused on designing environmentally friendly buildings. We think this is important because it allows our tenants to enjoy their nature-inspired workspace. A pleasing, naturefocused, visually soothing environment enhances the employee experience and productivity. Designing this kind of workspace gives me great personal satisfaction.

There are lots of horror stories about greedy developers’ shortcuts and lowballing of vendors. What do you think?

Anyone who believes a business person gets ahead by taking shortcuts and cheating vendors is sadly mistaken.

TV, video, or Internet—what appeals to you?

I am passionate about Ted Talks. I get my inspiration from “Deep Dive,” the brainstorming of unusual ideas. And, each is only about 10 minutes. I am often up in the middle of the night watching Ted Talks on my iPhone.

What do you do for fun?

I love to race my car at Laguna Seca or Sears Point. I love to design and create. I like to cook, trying never to make the same dish twice. Somehow, I think I am always looking for that new creation and perfection that really doesn’t exist. I like spending time with my friends and social contacts. I used to throw parties, but I haven’t in some time. I think I am overdue.

Where are you most comfortable?

I am happiest when I am designing something, preferably in the comfort of my own home.

Your favorite charity?

The Knights of St. John.

Your favorite food?

Anything Italian.

Any last thoughts?

There is still so much I want to do.

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