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Community Before Self: Malin Burnham

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 22, 2023 3:03 am

Community Before Self: Malin Burnham

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 22, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Malin Burnham has made San Diego his home, and one of the best places to work and play in America as well...but how did this Americas Cup winner do it?

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Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. And we continue with our American stories. And up next, the story of Malin Burnham, a business leader in San Diego who's made a massive impact on his city, as so many business leaders do.

By the way, I spent quite a bit of time with Malin, and it was a real pleasure, a gift, actually, for me. And he talked a lot about pivot points in his life, and there were several. So when you hear the word pivots, think about your own life and those moments where it turned one way or the other. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story of a man who truly put his community before himself.

Malin Burnham is a philanthropist, a sailor, and known as Mr. San Diego, which makes perfect sense. He's lived there his whole life. A lot of people say, well, why wouldn't you want to move around and see more country?

I said, because I've got the best place in the world to live. My first pivot that I can imagine or think about was age 17 in August of 1945. My dad, his sport was golf, and he played business golf. That is, on Wednesday afternoon and Saturday mornings, he'd take a client out and play golf. My mother, her recreation was beach, swimming, suntan, and those type of things. So she took my brother and I to these little private beaches, not private, but public beaches, but you had to go between two houses to find them in this area of Point Lomond. We'd go several times a week, I guess, my brother and I, and we would see these little junior sailboats, 16-foot sailboats called a starlet, and they were all from the San Diego Yacht Club. These little junior boats that they practiced and raced in would sail back and forth in front of our beach every once in a while.

One of them would say, hey kids, you want to go for a ride? And we'd swim out and climb on these little boats. After a couple of summers of doing that, my mother talked my dad into joining the San Diego Yacht Club. They didn't know one boat from another, but that's how I got started in the sport of sailboat racing.

So, fast forward to 1945, I just graduated from Point Lomond High School. As soon as our graduation in June, most of my buddies signed up for the Navy, and I was prepared to do that after the summer. Why Navy? Because we were a Navy town, and that's what we knew, and the people, and so on and so forth.

But as Mainland mentioned earlier, he was only 17, so while his older friends could join the Navy, he couldn't. So Mainland's parents helped him and his sailboat crew do something else. My folks sponsored my crew to send us on the train to Stamford, Connecticut. Their yacht club was hosting the international competition for the championship of the star class, International World Championship, which was now a 22-foot boat that I had acquired, or my folks acquired for me. Anyway, we ended up winning that regatta, and we came back home on the train, and about halfway between New York City and Los Angeles on the train, it stopped in the middle of nowhere.

We didn't know why. It turned out that it was VJ Day, and everybody was celebrating. The war's over. So when we get to Los Angeles, get off the train, my mother and father came up to pick us up in the car, and the first thing they said, well, congratulations, son. And next thing my dad said, son, you're going to Stamford. And I said, no, dad, I'm going in the Navy with all my buddies. You know that. And he said, no, the war is over. You know that.

And the draft is going to stop sooner or later. And he says, I've already got you enrolled. And that was my number one pivot that I did. I decided that I would go into industrial engineering, because even though my dad said, son, you know, you're in a great position, you get into being the CEO of General Motors or Westinghouse someday.

And the more I thought about that, I don't think I want to do that. And so anyway, I took industrial engineering, and that was the best thing I've ever done, as far as education is concerned. So I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering, and a week later, I was employed by my father in John Burnham & Company. The name of the company was after my grandfather, who had passed away before I was born.

I never knew him. At that time, I was the 11th employee, and about half of the business was in real estate brokerage. So I decided, and my dad decided probably, that I ought to start out in the mortgage business and learn a little bit about, not only about real estate, but how to appraise a property. And engineering, if you think about it, has to do with structures. Well, real estate has to do with structures. I got so that I could, if I had a potential buyer, client, that wanted to spend a million dollars buying an apartment house, in a moment or two, I could figure out the size of what that apartment house ought to be, you know, for a million dollars. Or, as the numbers grew, five million or ten million or that thing.

So I could walk down the street here and look at the building and say, well gee, that one would work for Oscar, but that one over there wouldn't. So that's how I got started. And along the way, he would learn many lessons from his father. What I learned from my dad was discipline. Son, we've got office hours, we've got business hours, we expect you to be here.

We expect you to do this, we expect you to do that. So I was disciplined, or taught discipline, as to what business was all about. My dad also taught me the makeup of the company was that we were all working together. We didn't allow any one person to dominate a client by themselves, exclusively. We wanted people to work together as partnerships and that type of thing.

So I learned that from day one. Interesting, when my brother was older, but he was in the military, so I got into the business a year before he did. His attitude grew up to be, he wanted to be responsible entirely for his client. He didn't want somebody else to be part of it. And that was okay, but it wasn't the feel of my father, and it wasn't the way I was feeling.

So ultimately, my father and the company bought my brother out, and we helped him set up his own insurance agency. So I've always been a team player. In sailing, we've got 11 people on the crew. If I'm a skipper, the guy on the bow is just as important as the guy that's steering the boat. Because if he screws up, you lose the race.

Anybody on the team screws up. So I've always been oriented to that type of thing, and I don't want to be in a rut. I don't want to just say, my way is the best way. And soon this team player would be in charge of his father's company, at a unique time in business history that would present interesting challenges to Malin. Challenges he would tackle in a way that would change his life. While my dad didn't say early on when I got in the business that he was going to retire at any particular age, once he had confidence in my steerage of the company, after the first probably six or eight years that we were together, he did. It was a surprise, and it was a pleasant surprise because, yeah, I anticipated I'd take over the business sometime.

And I had enough confidence, I guess, and enough experience after a few years that when he announced, I was happy for him and he was happy for me. And this was in the early 1960s when large real estate brokerage firms like Coldwell Banker and Cushman Wakefield were coming out of their headquarters and putting offices, satellite offices, in different places of the United States, including San Diego. And after one or two of those came, not just in real estate but also in the insurance industry which we were in. So in two of my three specialties in John Burneman Company, I got a little concerned because our family attitude, and it was my grandfather's and my father's attitude, that we didn't need to be the biggest, we wanted to be the best.

So that meant that we were very satisfied being a regional company. But I said to myself in the mid-60s, you know, I'm seeing these big companies putting satellite offices, how am I going to survive? So what I did, and I don't know how it happened, but I decided to go talk to some of my peers. And I went to probably five or six of them, one at a time, independently, and I said, look, what do I have to do to survive against these big boys coming in here and dropping an office in and bringing a seasoned manager in?

And they said, Mayla, get to know the community better than the person they send in to run their office. That's what I started doing. I'm always upgrading my car, not because I need to, but because I want to. Today it's custom rims for my ride. Tomorrow, it might be a new driver's side seat cushion. And always has what I need.

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Learn more about their clean standards and shop Clean at Sephora Beauty at And we return to our American stories and with Malin Burnham, and in a way, the story of his own town, San Diego, because he could have traveled and moved a lot. But he thought, why not just concentrate on this little patch of earth and grow my business as the city itself grows. When we last left off, Malin had taken over his father's real estate business during a perilous time in his industry. Ultimately, Malin would keep his father's business and decided that he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and retire early as well.

Let's continue with Malin's story. Retirement is not in my vocabulary. Let's start there. Well, at age 54, I wrote a letter to my five managers in my business, and I told them that it was my plan that within five years I wanted to retire from business. And I just arbitrarily picked those numbers at age 59 and five years from the time I wrote them this letter. And I said, I would then like to sell this business to you people. I didn't put a promise. I didn't put a price. I didn't put an exact date, but sometime within five years.

The end of five years was in December of 86 when I was in the middle of the America's Cup in Perth, Australia, and sold the business to these five chaps. And there was really, back then especially, there were not many people that were full time at my age in the nonprofit world. It just wasn't being done.

So I said, why not? Malin would turn entirely to community oriented projects to make his city even greater. And it wasn't long before a massive project came his way, courtesy of Alan Uke, a local San Diego businessman and politician. I was sitting in my downtown office one day when I got a telephone call from Bob Lichter.

I had already sold the business. Bob was one of the buyers. I pick up the phone, Bob's on it. He said, Malin, I got this crazy guy, and he said it right in front of him, but he got this crazy idea of bringing the USS Midway aircraft here to San Diego and making a museum out of it. And Bob says, you know, I don't know anything about the Navy or about the water or about boats or ships.

Would you mind talking to him? So I said, sure. And I helped him put a group together. So that's how it got started. It was up in Bremerton, Washington, in the Navy Yard and the trash yard, so to speak, because it was out of commission. It's still a Navy ship. It took 11 years of this team to get the letter of use.

Navy is kind of crazy. The reason that they won't give it to us or anybody else is they may want to put it back in service. So there was a lot of planning, but we have lifetime until they want to get it back. All this 11-year time, we had opposition, public opposition, from what is known as the California Coastal Commission. The California Coastal Commission is probably 50 years in existence, and they have jurisdiction over what happens within 1,000 feet of the coastline of the Pacific Ocean and waterways that come out. The California Coastal Commission, their problem was that the midway was going to block the view.

The Coastal Commission wanted people to have access to the water and the beaches and the coastline. But they said, if we park it here, it's going to block the view. Well, they're nuts, because can't we move 50 feet or 100 feet and get the view back?

Well, sure you can. And the team would have to present in front of the commission to get final approval for the USS Midway project. So halfway through our presentation, somebody got up to the mic and said, the Midway, we got this backwards. The Midway is not going to block the view. The Midway will be the view. And the whole audience erupted in cheers. Finally, we got 100 percent approval and opened the Midway.

In 2004, 12 years after the project initially started, the museum would open and beat nearly all the expectations people had for it. Two years before we got the ship, I picked up the phone one day and I got a call from one of the writers for the art newspaper, Union Tribute. I picked up the phone and he says, hey man, this is so-and-so. He said, I want to talk to you about the Midway. I said, oh, OK. And he says, you know, I cover all the museums in San Diego for all these years.

Mr. Burnham, if you are fortunate enough to get the Midway here, it's going to be the biggest mistake of your life. And I said, well, why do you say that? He says, well, you know, I cover all the museums. And so and he said, so I know all of the attendance. I said, OK. And he says, you're you're proposing that in the first year you're going to get four hundred thousand paid attendees. And he howls. He said, you're crazy.

You're never going to get that. After he howled about the four hundred thousand, I said, well, hold on. Excuse me. Publicly, we that we had mentioned our business plan. Four hundred thousand is what we count on. I said before we got to that point, our consultants came back and said they thought we do six hundred thousand.

Well, this guy gave another howl on the phone. You know, oh, you guys are out of your mind. The first year we did eight hundred thousand and it's grown every year since then. We are the fifth largest paid attendee museum in the country. This is an icon for San Diego.

The USS Midway is also part of mainland's legacy in the town he's lived his entire life in and loves so much. Legacy is more than a career. If you think about your career, I want to be the best X. Then, in my opinion, you're too limited. I'm a multitasking, interested person, not necessarily one that's an expert in all these things. But I never wanted to be a single type interested person. When I think about career, I'm thinking about more than specialty.

I'm thinking about the nonprofit world and what San Diego is all about. Community before self. By the way, I read a lot of books, but I don't read novels. I don't read personalities. I try to read about the future.

Everything I do, I try to think about the future. And anyway, this book is entitled The Why, The What and The How. And they explain those questions in sequence.

So I've adopted that. So when I think about doing something, I use those three questions. Why do I want to get involved? And if I can't figure that out, then don't spend any more time. Well, mostly when I answer that question is because I want to help make San Diego a better place to live, work and play. OK, then go to the second question.

The what? What are you going to do to help do that? How are you going to do that? What are you going to propose? And if I can't answer that question, I tear it up and go do something else. And then finally get down.

OK, how are you going to do the what? And, you know, I think because I'm I'm a joiner, because I'm a team player, I try to think not of me, but I try to think of the team. When I look back on the mighty skyline of my hometown, I can still see beneath the skyscrapers, the great ships and the stadium, the San Diego that was, that is, and that will be. I am humbled by the sight, by the fact that I was given the chance to be part of that history for longer than I could ever have imagined. And I'm still part of the story and think what a lucky guy I am. And great job by Monty Montgomery on the production and what a lucky guy I was to spend some real time with Malum Burnham. Malum Burnham story, in a way, a story of the city he loves.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-22 09:20:12 / 2023-02-22 09:29:29 / 9

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