Billionaire Haub left rich Tacoma legacy

Erivan Haub and wife Helga look over and take some photos of the site for the new Columbia Bank Tower during ground breaking at the Tacoma site in August 1999.
Erivan Haub and wife Helga look over and take some photos of the site for the new Columbia Bank Tower during ground breaking at the Tacoma site in August 1999. News Tribune file photo

Albert Einstein, the German immigrant who contributed mightily to his adopted U.S. homeland, offered some sage advice in a Life Magazine interview not long before his death in 1955.

“Try not to become a man of success,” he said, “but rather try to become a man of value.”

Erivan Haub, Einstein’s fellow German expatriate, managed to do both in a life that ended March 6 at age 85.

Haub shared his billionaire’s fortune and philanthropist’s heart with Tacoma and Pierce County, his part-time adopted home of more than a half century.

While the Seattle area has Bill Gates and Paul Allen as its famous patrons, many South Sounders know little about the generosity of the decidedly low-profile Haub.

Being a man of success came to Haub as a young man; he took the reins of the Tengelmann Group, a family-owned international food and retail conglomerate, upon his uncle’s death in 1969, then expanded its holdings greatly after the Berlin Wall fell. Forbes recently pegged the Haub family's net worth at $6.4 billion.

Being a man of value was a choice Haub made over a lifetime; Tacoma was a big beneficiary, primarily through his commitment to the local arts, higher education and economic revival.

Haub was an early supporter of the LeMay Car Museum, but perhaps his most personal expression of goodwill was the record-setting gift that he and wife Helga pledged to the Tacoma Art Museum in 2012.

Not only did the couple entrust TAM with 295 pieces of premiere Western art, they gave $20 million to build a wing to hold their beloved collection, as well as a plaza allowing the museum to present a more welcoming face on Pacific Avenue.

Haub had multiple homes and adored many places around America, including the Wyoming ranch where he died. But Pierce County held a special spot in the couple’s hearts from the time they visited friends on Fox Island in the mid-1950s. Their three sons were born at Tacoma General Hospital, and the Haubs continued to spend time at their Arletta residence near Gig Harbor.

As a businessman, Haub stayed behind the scenes and worked largely through intermediaries, but he had an abiding faith in Tacoma’s piecemeal renaissance and invested in projects such as the Columbia Bank Tower on A Street.

"It will take time, unfortunately, it will take time. But one of these days it is going to happen," Haub said in 1994, granting a rare interview to the TNT. "The whole downtown area, I think, can be really revived."

Among Haub’s legacies and examples of patience is the family-owned “superblock” at Pacific Avenue and South 14th Street, the largest chunk of undeveloped commercial property in Tacoma.

Determined to keep Russell Investments downtown, Haub proposed building as many as four interconnected office towers there, only to watch the company move to Seattle in 2010. His representatives also offered to make DaVita the anchor tenant in a 16-story office, retail and residential tower on the site; that company now plans to leave Tacoma, too.

Tacoma’s recent failed pitch to host Amazon’s second North American headquarters was also centered on the Haub superblock.

This billionaire, no fool with his money, believed that Tacoma was a true City of Destiny. The downtown core has already come far thanks to strong community leaders like him — people with records of success and value.

A fitting tribute to Erivan Haub would be for the rest of us to keep the faith, and see it through.