SAILING INTO THE SUNSET
It’s probably safe to say that longtime local attorney and businessman Paul Rudder is an acquired taste.
Even his wife Kathleen will acknowledge that he was a bit rough around the edges before she was able to civilize him. “When I first met him,” she laughs, “he didn’t have a filter.”
Greg Eckert, as host of infamous weekly “safety” meetings which draw a broad cross-section of town characters, has gotten to know Rudder pretty well over the past fifteen years.
With his typical bluntness, Eckert says, “Rudder’s one of those guys … he can’t help being a lawyer. He’s argumentative. And that can rub people the wrong way. But for a frickin’ Democrat, he’s pretty decent. And for all his bluster, he speaks for small business and the middle class and decries government for the 1%. And this is not a 1% town.”
In his legal practice, Rudder took on Goliath (Mammoth Mountain) several times – mostly personal injury cases. A gutsy thing to do in a company town. And as retired Mono County Superior Court Judge Ed Forstenzer noted, “Most small practitioners wouldn’t take on a challenge like suing Mammoth Mountain … but Paul was an excellent lawyer with a firm grasp of the law and a skillful negotiator and trial lawyer.”
And, added Forstenzer, that’s not exactly a given. “A law degree doesn’t make you a good poker player.”
Rudder’s abilities were certainly respected by former Mammoth Mountain (and Alterra) CEO Rusty Gregory. “Paul played an important role in the delicate balance of power in our small town for many years,” said Gregory.
Rudder grew up in Connecticut, the son of a dentist and one of three boys.
“Dad thought one of us would take the practice. Good luck,” said Paul with a wry smile.
Rudder found his way to California for law school, enrolling at Hastings Law School in San Francisco.
There he met Judge Forstenzer. The two were roommates.
Forstenzer graduated a year ahead of Rudder and came to the Eastern Sierra, where he had lined up a job with California Indian Legal Services.
Rudder joined him at Indian Legal Services a year later.
When Forstenzer left to start in private practice, a year later, Rudder joined him in his practice.
At that time, the duo bid for and obtained the Public Defender contract for Mono County. The contract mandated that one of them be a county resident. That’s how Paul finally became a Mammoth reasident in 1981.
When not suing MMSA, Paul handled a lot of fraud and punitive damage cases.
He does boast that he’s the only man he’s aware of to defeat MMSA in a jury trial. His overall record in court v. MMSA was 1-1. Most cases settled out of court.
Pam Rake, who served as the Risk Manager at MMSA for many years, said she personally celebrated when Rudder announced his retirement from law. “Paul was very aggressive and a great attorney … our reputation was to settle if we were at fault and to litigate aggressively if we felt we were in the right.”
In his personal life, he was a bachelor about town until an ex-pat from L.A. arrived in town. Her name was Kathleen Miller.
According to Kathleen, she opened a design boutique and cigar room in the Sierra Center Mall. And it was only a matter of time before Mr. Rudder came by.
He soon became a regular.
“The staff was enamored with him,” recalled Kathleen, but when he finally got around to asking her out, she turned him down.
But then she reconsidered. I mean, what was the harm. And a girl’s gotta eat – dinner came with the deal.
They ate at a restaurant in the mall called Mustachio Pete’s.
And as Kathleen says, “Nobody thought we would last. We were so opposite. But I’ve had an amazing life with Paul Rudder. It’s been a great journey. He’s been supportive of me and my ideas. I’m very lucky.”
“And he takes marriage [and his vows] very seriously.”
And that’s pretty important to know when you consider Paul’s transiition from lawyer to mall owner/businessman.
As Paul recalls, he was on his honeymoon in Italy when he ran across a fellow Yank, an accountant from New Jersey. And they swapped notes on where they lived and what they did for a living.
And the accountant looked at Rudder and said, “You can’t make any money doing that [practicing law in small town].
Which is something that Ed Forstenzer also alluded to. Sure, it’s not hard staying busy as a lawyer in Mammoth, but … it’s sure hard collecting fees.
Before he got married, Rudder had purchased his first commercial property, Sherwin Plaza IV, with partners. And he had been casting about for further opportunities.
Kathleen suggested he purchase the Sierra Center. “The place was so run down … I thought he might be able to get it for a good price.”
And when the late Jim Core [InyoMono Title] chimed in, that pretty much sealed the deal. That was 1997.
Soon thereafter, Paul purchased the Mammoth Luxury Outlet Mall in 2001.
We asked Rudder about his business philosophy regarding operating his malls, in part because Rudder always differed a bit from his peers. Other operators had a number in mind they wanted to charge and wouldn’t get off that number. Whereas Rudder was pretty renowned for wheeling and dealing.
“To me, you rent out all your space. That’s success. If someone wanted to rent space, I wanted to figure out a way to do it.”
During his career, Rudder noticed a shift in retailer behavior.
“When I started, revenue of $300/square foot/year was an A property. But then, big retailers found they could sell $3,000/foot/year in places like Camarillo and Palm Springs.
Polo would tell me they made $1 million a year profit in mammoth but it just wasn’t worth the effort. That’s why they left.”
“With Bass, I told them I’d buy the store from them and run it but they said no.”
But as Rudder says, a real businessman rolls with the punches. Which is how the Luxury Outlet Mall morphed into The Promenade, from outlet mall to quasi-entertainment venue.
Paul bought and sold the Sierra Center twice, departing for good in 2019.
He sold The Promenade this past April to brothers Steve and Dennis Park.
He sees a bright future for the new owners – a future he would have held onto if it wasn’t time to hang up the cleats after a long and successful career.
“When Alterra goes public, it will be a great inflection point and time to buy in. Commercial rents in Vail and Aspen are ten times what they are here.”