Following are remarks presented by Gregory S. Bielli, 2023 chair of the California Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, at the 97th Annual Sacramento Host Breakfast on May 18. Bielli is president and chief executive officer of Tejon Ranch Company, Lebec.
Good morning everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here this morning, and I’m honored and humbled to have this opportunity to address the 97th Annual Sacramento Host Breakfast as the 2023 chair of the CalChamber.
And congratulations to the Host Committee and to all of you who have been responsible for organizing this amazing event where we come together to recognize the importance of friendship, leadership, and working together toward a better California for all.
I’d also like to congratulate and recognize our Armed Forces, honorees and those Armed Forces members and veterans in attendance today. As a father of an Army Reservist who was deployed twice and is still in the Reserves, I know how much you and your families sacrifice for us all. Please give them a round of applause… We are so indebted to you and thank you and your families who continue to support us.
It is wonderful to be with so many California leaders in this room today and those whom I’ve been working alongside at the CalChamber. Thank you to California’s business community for leading the way in so many critical areas of our state!
We all owe California employers and their employees — who have worked through some of the most difficult imaginable times over the past few years — a huge debt of gratitude.
For many of you who have driven the stretch between here and Southern California, you may have seen our little part of the world — a small tract of land … 270,000 acres … called Tejon Ranch.
I was fortunate to come to Tejon Ranch Company in 2013, following a career overseeing entitlements, developments, and management of master plans in the West and Southeast.
I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to serve as a local elected official for eight years and understand the daily challenges of those who choose — and their families who choose — to be in public office and public life.
Simply put, I’m a family guy, a business guy who’s in a 12-step recovery program from my political career.
Tejon Ranch Company is a New York Stock Exchange publicly traded real estate development and agribusiness company whose principal asset is California’s historic Tejon Ranch. Tejon Ranch is the largest single expanse of private property in the state of California and still a working ranch.
To give you a physical perspective, if you overlay the ranch on the Bay Area, you could cover part of San Francisco, the entire Bay and all the way over to Oakland.
Located north of Los Angeles, south of Bakersfield, with the Interstate 5 forming our western boundary, Tejon Ranch traces its origin to four Mexican land grants dating back to 1843, seven years before statehood . It’s a special place to those of us who work there, and to those who get to visit.
We often say that the 180-year history of our time caring for the ranch is only a small period. It will always be a unique treasure for California.
From Gold Rush to Present
Here’s a little history so when you’re driving down I-5 and drive by the ranch, you can have it in perspective.
California’s Gold Rush brought with it conflicts between gold seekers, the settlers and California’s indigenous communities. To keep the peace and protect both, Fort Tejon was built on the Grapevine Canyon along the Los Angeles-Stockton Road, the primary route to the gold fields from the Southern California area.
Until it closed at the onset of the Civil War, Fort Tejon — and the area surrounding it — was one of the largest populated settlements in Southern California. So building communities in the area is certainly not unprecedented.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1800s, Rose Station, located at the southernmost section of the San Joaquin Valley, just before you begin climbing the Grapevine, was a stagecoach stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. It was a place to rest and replenish for travelers.
Today, what was once home to Rose Station is now a thriving commercial/industrial development, with over 20 million square feet, entitled and — of course, it’s California — litigated.
The Tejon Ranch Commerce Center, including the Tejon Outlets, has over 100 EV [electric vehicle] charging stations, one of the top five Starbucks in the country, and has over 5,000 employees.
It was in 2008 the company came to an historic agreement with five environmental organizations, setting aside 90% of the ranch for conservation purposes; 10% will continue to have opportunities for development, with 240,000 acres conserved under the agreement. It captures approximately 3.3 million tons of carbon, which is equivalent to the carbon produced by 2.5 million passenger vehicles (5% of the California fleet) in one year. The agreement was even endorsed by state agencies. Governor Schwarzenegger showed up for the signing.
And even with the challenges of the entitlement process in California, we’ve been able to achieve local approvals for 35,000 residential units and 35 million square feet of employment. We have successfully prevailed in nine large litigation cases, with only one piece of litigation and approvals still to go to materialize the development opportunities.
Tejon is emblematic of California. We have a deep, rich history; we are incredibly diverse in our land, our uses, our employees, and our vision for the future. And like California, we find solutions to these challenges every day.
My belief is that the issues before us — both at Tejon and in the state of California — will most effectively be solved by working together and be a solutions-oriented program. Antagonism is counterproductive. Finding common ground on issues and building relationships — like we are doing here this morning — is a theme at the CalChamber. I strongly believe that this approach will serve our state, our businesses, our local workers, and our communities well.
I’m aware of the myriad challenges our state faces. And I’m aware there is no shortage of critics of our state, but I think this morning, it’s important to remind everyone: California does a lot of things well.
California is a global crossroads, for people, goods, services. International trade is our lifeblood, responsible for a quarter of all California jobs and reliable sources of growth and investment in the state.
In March, the CalChamber played a leadership role in the 2023 California Japan trade mission led by Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, made up of 55 private sector leaders from agriculture, energy, tourism, clean technologies, as well as representatives from many state agencies. The mission was a success.
Speaking of tourism, we didn’t invent it, but California has pretty much perfected the tourism experience. And you can go anywhere in our state and enjoy it.
One of the reasons for our leadership in innovation is our world class system of higher education, including the greatest research university in the world, the University of California; the greatest producer of undergraduate degrees in the country, the Cal State University; and our great community college system.
Good Public Policy
At the CalChamber, we don’t believe we can complain about public policy without offering productive solutions or forums to address them. Our goal is good public policy, and we will be an honest broker driving toward a win-win solution.
Private Attorneys General Act
The great example of this is our effort to resolve one of the most intractable litigation burdens our companies face under the Private Attorneys General Act. PAGA lawsuits create enormous liabilities for employers, often for trivial mistakes — and with most of the settlements going to lawyers, not the workers.
The business community is working to educate voters and policy makers about the fact that workers aren’t winning PAGA claims — trial lawyers are. We’ve put an initiative on the 2024 ballot that will fix this problem with better outcomes for employees and California businesses.
Equal Pay Pledge
Believe me, the workplace is our most important concern, because it is where business happens. That’s how we succeed or fail as employers. Policies and practices — like signing the California Equal Pay Pledge as the CalChamber recently did — highlight how we, as employers, can take proactive steps to create even better workplaces.
Water is key to our future. And today there’s a temporary break in the stress. But we have a long-term challenge to meet the diverse and critical needs of our farmers, residents, and industry — and to support the fish and natural habitats.
Bearing witness to both drought and floods, we think people of good faith can agree on a comprehensive, reliable plan for the future. Desalination, recycling, basin management with direct injections into our basins to stabilize them. Other ways to be efficient with our water resources.
We cannot let our foot off the pedal. Even with the rains, another drought will come. And so let’s push for solutions today even though there’s a feeling that we’re out of the woods. Because we are not.
We supported Governor Newsom’s bold CARES initiative to address severely mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless individuals and look forward to engaging with him and his administration on further initiatives on mental health.
And the issue close to my heart … the greatest cause of poverty in the state and of California’s exodus … is the high cost and low availability of housing. You know what? Nobody disagrees with this! It seems like a good place to start to get the agreement to drive costs down, time savings and balancing interests when it comes to sheltering families and workers who want to thrive in California. It’s simple. It’s supply. Growing the net worth of our families through home ownership needs to be a goal that we all embrace. We have all enjoyed in our lives this growth. Why can’t we pass the joy and financial stability on to our children?
Resolve for Problem Solving
With all the challenges before us, it becomes easy to be overwhelmed. Rather, I’m optimistic. When we work alongside CalChamber member companies and their employees, I see a resolve for problem solving. I see the will to get to “yes.”
My final comment today is to encourage all of us to approach California’s challenges with optimism, an attitude of how can we get to “yes”? A determination not to just do the easy “populist” thing.
Let’s get down to the serious work of finding common ground and a pathway that will provide more and better opportunities for Californians.
When I was an elected official, sitting on that dais, I had a saying: “Where there is ignorance, there is politics.” Our void of sharing knowledge in trying to work for solutions sometimes is filled with simple ignorance.
Working hard to get to “yes” produces long-term success stories for everyone and overcomes the political short-term thinking.
Thank you again, and let’s keep moving all our families and our employees forward in California.