It was 3:00 am, when Eddie Israel’s uncle dragged him out of bed. It probably wasn’t the best time for his first lesson in salesmanship, but that’s not what his Uncle Joe Cohen thought.
It was Eddie’s first taste of buying and selling – and it all started at the corner of Wilton and Melrose in Los Angeles. It was 1969 and Hollywood was taking over.
He was a senior in high school when his uncle woke him up before dawn one Friday to go down to the flower market and buy a load of carnations. He loaned Eddie his van, gave him some boards, a few cinder blocks and some buckets, and off Eddie went.
“First thing you do is put your sign out,” Uncle Joe told him. Israel’s sign was about four feet by eight feet. It advertised “Carnations for 98 cents.”
He filled the buckets with water from a house nearby, and was planning to build his little stand, but by then, he already had a line of people waiting. Ninety minutes later, he was sold out.
“I had this wad of one-dollar bills,” Israel said. “I felt like Rockefeller.” Israel’s work meant success, but his success meant more work, as his uncle told him to go back to the flower market and hit the corner again on Saturday and Sunday.
“As a young guy, he had a wonderful personality,” Bob Cohen said. “Still does. People loved him. Everybody he talked to loved him.”
Israel, now a successful real estate developer in Los Angeles, would go on to build and convert countless apartments to condominiums and invest in industrial properties throughout Southern California, but his earliest lessons were rooted in his family’s business.
“All four of my grandparents were born in the Old Country,” Israel said.
Three of of his grandparents hailed from the Greek Island of Rhodes, and the fourth was from Aleppo, Syria. Back then, both places were part of the Ottoman Empire.
His paternal grandparents met after they both came to America. Eddie’s grandfather came first, in the early 1900s, and moved to New York. By 1918, still unmarried, the Israel family sent him a picture of a woman, who he later married after she immigrated to the US. It was not unusual within the Sephardic Jews, to have a matchmaker choose a marriage partner for a man. After living in New York for a while, they moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where they felt comfortable connecting with the large Sephardic community there. From there, onward they pushed to Los Angeles, finding more opportunity and better weather. And more opportunity, there was. Israel’s grandfather built a shoe repair business that he would run for the next 50 years.
His maternal grandparents – the Cohens – met before immigrating. Married in Alexandria, Egypt around 1910, they were also part of the Sephardic Jewish community, which had been driven out of the Iberian Peninsula starting in the late 1400s. Soon after they married, they moved to the U.S. – moving to Delancey Street in the Lower East Side of New York and there, they started a family. Four of their children were born in New York, one in Seattle, and the youngest was born in Los Angeles, where they had moved to help with Israel’s grandfather’s asthma, bringing the total number of children to 10.
In Los Angeles, the elder Cohen cousins were already in the flower industry, so their father and Israel’s grandfather, Erza Cohen gave it a try, starting in the early 1930s. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Sephardic Jews ran much of Los Angeles’s flower business, Israel says. Their retail stores dotted Southern California from Glendale to Long Beach and in-between. One, located on the corner of Lankershim and Cahuenga had big accounts with Universal Studios and NBC TV.
“We must have had 20 different families in our temple that had flower shops,” Israel recalls.
The family’s company had two standing orders at funeral homes, and 14-year-old Israel would help assemble the bouquets Friday night and deliver them to Holy Cross and Hillside on the weekend. Yes, even before he got his driver’s license, Eddie Israel was on the move.
After graduating from high school, Israel applied to college and was accepted to UCLA. Staying in Southern California, he continued operating his Melrose/Wilton flower stand through his first three years of study. He entered UCLA as a math major, thinking he might go into medical school, but after a life sciences class, he realized it wasn’t for him. The change in plans tipped off an identity crisis, but a fortunate one. He recognized that he really liked buying and selling.
One day, he told his father he wanted to go into business. All of his maternal uncles had eventually headed into real estate, and Israel decided he wanted to work with one of them – his Uncle Bob – during his sophomore year of college. It was here that Israel developed his budding business instincts, writing marketing plans and making business projections.
“That’s how I pretty much learned that real estate was a good thing,” Israel said. It also helped that it wasn’t altogether different from what he’d been doing all along.
“Whether you do it with flowers, potatoes, bananas, or real estate, it’s pretty much the same,” he said.
With the savings from his flower stand, and what he learned from his Uncle Bob, Israel upgraded from his flower stand and bought his first property.
“It was a little house in West LA. I put $10,000 down for a $40,000 house.”
It was zoned for apartments and he had designs on turning it into an apartment complex. Then, an adjacent property went up for sale, and with help from his father, he bought that one, too. The apartment project immediately doubled in size. But just as his plans crystallized, the telephone company next door told him it needed land for a new parking lot. So Israel sold the property, doubled his money, and paid off his dad. Suddenly, a new career was born.
By 1976, Israel was quickly growing his real estate portfolio. He had purchased 10 buildings, gotten married, and was starting to make real money, converting apartments to condominiums. He went on to develop 1,500 units over the next five years.
Ten years later, he founded a new development company and started constructing large apartment buildings. One development in Orange County included a 15-acre site in Costa Mesa, with 715 units. Another site had another 2,000 units go up.
“He’s very smart and a great listener,” Cohen said. “He talks softly to get to his objective. His timing has always been good, very good.”
By the mid-80’s, Israel had left the apartment business, and shifted his gaze to commercial and industrial properties, developing his first sizable non-residential property, Jeffries Bank Note Co., a historic building in downtown LA with economic ties to its geographic roots.
Sitting at 1330 West Pico, the business printed everything ranging from stock certificates to American Express Travelers Checks. It had even printed the tickets for both the 1932 and 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Israel would go on to name his company “1330 Pico” after the Jeffries address.
“He’s like a tailor. He measures twice and cuts once,” said Hirsch Sherman, a long-time Los Angeles real estate sales agent who has worked with Israel selling many of his condo units. “He sees beyond what is in front of him. He sees the end results and the exit strategy.”
By 1995, he had developed and sold his retail malls throughout Southern California and had moved back into the residential real estate game, namely apartments. The shattering Northridge Earthquake of 1994 shook up the Southern California real estate market. Apartments for purchase were plentiful. The timing was right to jump back in. He immediately bought nine buildings, selling them off in 2000. During this time, Israel also branched into big-box stores, building a Home Depot and a Ross Dress for Less.
It has been four decades since Israel first established himself as a successful developer in the region. He has weathered four major boom-and-bust cycles, all he says, stemming from either overbuilding, or foreclosures.
In recent days, Israel has taken his foot off of the gas. He decided after the subprime mortgage crisis – that led to the much ballyhooed recession in 2009 – he would build a beautiful hilltop home in Beverly Hills. Today, this is where he spends most of his time enjoying his days with his grandchildren.
“He’s a lot more humble than most, for the kind of knowledge and wealth he has put together,” Sherman said.
If it is true that the “early bird gets the worm,” then it’s also true that those 3:00 am wake-up calls to sell flowers at Wilton and Melrose, helped Eddie Israel navigate his way through a successful and a well respected career as a real estate developer in Southern California.