by David A. Lombardo, Business Jet Traveler, December 2007/January 2008
An interviewer once asked an attorney what would be his worst courtroom nightmare. “Seeing Fred Furth sit down at the opposing table,” he said.
The Furth Firm LLP began in 1966 in San Francisco and quickly became prominent for its antitrust litigation and for serving as lead counsel for plaintiffs in large, nationwide price-fixing cases, including some involving the gypsum wallboard, sugar and cement industries. The firm also prosecutes class-action lawsuits on behalf of consumers, investors and businesses.
At 73, Furth may be moving a little slower than he once did but he continues to have a steel-trap memory and the ability to dissect a problem and reduce it to its important elements.
A physician once told Furth his personality was so far beyond Type A that the term didn’t do him justice. Since opening his law firm, he has launched a successful winery. He also serves on the boards of Robert Half International, the National WWII Museum and the International Federal Election Systems.
While Furth spends less time in San Francisco than he used to, he continues to work long hours in a comfortable two-story office filled with memorabilia. It sits atop a hill in Sonoma County overlooking his beloved 1,400-acre Chalk Hill Estate Winery, which has been described as “a really big small winery.”
Furth is a study in controlled chaos. Surrounded by people who come and go, he adroitly shifts mental gears as he discusses law, the vineyard, taxes, flying and myriad other topics.
You don’t interview Furth; he holds court. If you don’t have your facts straight, you’ll quickly discover he doesn’t suffer fools. Yet beneath the matter-of-fact exterior lies a big heart. One evidence of that was Furth’s great affection for Brandenburg, a Harlequin Great Dane who was his constant companion. Shortly before his recent death, Brandenburg accompanied Furth on an around-the-world trip, including a stop at the Paris Air Show in June, in the attorney’s new Cessna Mustang.
The list of cases you’ve taken over the years reveals some interesting choices. How do you decide which ones to take on?
I often take cases no one else wants because I like the challenge. Big corporate lawyers will recommend their client contact me when they’re worried a case may strain their relationship with the client. When you charge $50 million in legal fees, then lose the case for another $150 million, that doesn’t ingratiate you. But at heart I’m a plaintiff ’s attorney; I’ll pull for the little guy getting pushed around every time.
You came from a south-side Chicago, blue-collar background?
My maternal grandfather came from Poland and moved to West Harvey [Illinois] in 1892. Harvey was the swells, West Harvey was the other side of the tracks; we practically needed a visa to go to Harvey.
My dad was from Germany, came here in 1912 and spent his life working in factories. I grew up during the Depression about as poor as you can; we just didn’t know it. I always say I come from the lowest class economically and the highest class culturally.
I was born in the same house and room as my mother. We were a very close-knit family. My parents were loving and wonderful people and my mother gave me the two greatest gifts any mother could give a son. She taught me I was OK and she gave me my faith. More than once, I’ve been flying a high-performance jet in the middle of the ocean and said, “Lord, please give me a little help here” and he often has.
How did you get from a poor south-side upbringing to where you are today?
Hard work. I learned very young if I wanted something I had to work for it. In high school, I worked for the post office from 5 to 8 in the morning, then went to classes all day, then back to the post office from 3 to 9 p.m., then homework, bed and start again. I also worked there all day Saturday and half of Sunday. Once you get in the habit of always working, it just becomes a way of life. I held many different jobs before becoming an attorney. You know, you do what you have to do.
What was the most important thing that taught you?
Two things, really. First, it taught me a work ethic. I win cases because I burn the midnight oil and work weekends preparing; I’m going in that courtroom totally prepared. The other thing I learned was how to deal with people. I have friends who are heads of state and friends who are blue-collar workers. The one thing everyone has in common is they want to be treated with respect.
So your childhood experiences have guided you as an attorney?
Definitely, and one event in particular. When I was six, my sister contracted scarlet fever. Some government official came to the door and it worried my mother so much she put us kids in the closet until he left. The guy nailed a red sign with skull and crossbones on our house. I was furious and swore I would never let anyone push me or my family around like that again. I don’t like big guys pushing little guys around simply because they can.
What cases are you especially proud of?
There have been many where we’ve been able to help out the little guy. We proved the California Wal-Marts systematically and illegally denied workers lunch breaks and other mandatory benefits. The case yielded a $175 million settlement for 116,000 former and current Wal-Mart employees.
People who work for you joke that you would have been an airline pilot if the pay was better. Is it true you fly all your aircraft yourself?
Why would I buy an airplane for someone else to fly? I want to know what’s going on; I like to be in control. Most owners climb in the back to relax on the way to do business. I climb in the front for the same reason. [But] I don’t do it completely alone; I have Mark Dietrich, who’s director of aviation and a certified mechanic, and a full-time captain who flies as my co-captain on the Citation X. I fly the Citation Mustang and Caravan alone. I could never do what I do today without the knowledge that I can take a 10-minute drive to the airport and go anywhere in the world I need to be.
Your winery’s flight department has a reputation for the quality of its aircraft maintenance. What makes it so good?
I think Cessna aircraft are the best in the world to begin with but I wanted my jets maintained as the best aircraft in the world. People think I’m exaggerating but somebody has to maintain some airplane somewhere as the best and we’ve made the decision to be that somebody.
I gave Mark the absolute authority to say, “It’s a no-go today, Fred.” If he grounds an airplane, it’s grounded until he says it goes. He knows what he’s doing and has the equipment to get the job done. Because of Mark, we’ve had 100-percent dispatch reliability for every one of our aircraft since the day we took delivery of them.
There’s quite a story about how you acquired the Citation Mustang.
I’ve got a Citation X, which I love dearly, and we’re flying it about 600 hours a year but I’ll go on a relatively short trip and it really does burn fuel. Cessna had been on me to get a Mustang for those short trips. It was right about then we were having an auction to benefit a children’s charity so I worked a deal to put a Mustang on the auction list.
The bidding was for an early-number Mustang that would be delivered fairly quickly plus a 6-Liter 2003 Furth proprietary wine and a 6-Liter 2001 Stone-street Alexander Mountain Estate Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon. By the end of the auction, I ended up with the aircraft. I think I bid about $200,000 over what Cessna was asking, but they gave us a good deal on the airplane. Besides, it was for a good cause.
How did you take such a big leap from lawyer to vintner?
I have always been interested in wine because my grandfather had vineyards. I’m actually more interested in the working-the-soil aspect, but I have many very talented people in the winery who know how to produce a world-class wine.
When I bought this property, I was told it was too hilly to be a vineyard but I simply planted the grapes in rows going uphill. People said you can’t do that, but I’d seen it done in Germany so I knew it would work. The proof’s in the pudding. All our wines are highly rated.
Are there parallels between being a lawyer, vintner and pilot?
There are direct parallels. Whether you’re running a winery, trying a case or flying an airplane, you always have to be asking: What if? It’s critical to think ahead and have a Plan B. When you’re running a winery, it’s like having 140 members of a symphony and you’re the conductor; a law firm really isn’t any different. You gather good people around you and they constantly feed you information so you understand what’s going on at all times. In flying, we call it cockpit resource management.