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ValleyCrest founder passes away

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Burt Sperber died late last week after complications from surgery.

Chuck Bowen | October 3, 2011

One of the landscape industry’s pioneers has passed away. Burt Sperber, founder and chairman of ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., died Sept. 30, Lawn & Landscape has learned. 
 
Sperber, who was named to the 2009 Lawn & Landscape Leadership class, founded ValleyCrest in 1949 and saw the company grow to become one of the largest landscape companies in the world.
  
Richard Sperber took over as ValleyCrest's CEO in 2008.
 
 “There are so many factors that make my father a good leader, but three factors instantly come to mind. He is honest to a fault. He consistently does exactly what he says. That is one of the leading keys to his success,” Richard said in a 2009 profile of his father. “My father genuinely loves this industry. I can't believe how much time he spends helping others in the industry, always making time to return calls and even continue dialogues for a week or more with landscapers all over the country, many of whom he doesn't even know, who consistently ask him for advice.
 
“Third, he has a love for our employees. He constantly engages and mentors people within our organization. He is on the phone all day long – whether talking to field workers or managers. He loves being there for his people.”
 
Sperber's funeral will take place Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 10 a.m. at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills, Calif. A reception will follow at ValleyCrest’s corporate headquarters in Calabasas.
 
ValleyCrest released this statement:
 
Calabasas, Calif. – Burton S. Sperber, FASLA, founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., passed away Sept. 30, 2011 at the age of 82 of complications from surgery. He was born May 14, 1929 in Los Angeles. An iconic figure in the landscape industry and respected business and community leader in Los Angeles for decades, he was counted on by titans in business and real estate to bring their projects to life through landscapes. Ultimately, he was revered for having created a world-class organization but preferred more simple recognition for his horticultural expertise as the “head gardener,” and a devout family man.
Sperber and ValleyCrest Landscape circa 1950.
 
Since founding ValleyCrest in 1949 at the age of 19, he led the family of companies with vision and wisdom through more than six decades of dynamic growth to become the nation’s largest, privately-held integrated landscape services firm. Today, the Calabasas, Calif.-based company is led by his son, President and CEO Richard A. Sperber, who joined his father as co-CEO in 2008, after serving as president and COO of the company starting in 2001, and previously serving as president of the company’s development division for seven years.

“The unexpected passing of my dad came as a complete shock to me, the family and everyone who knew him,” said Richard A. Sperber. “I had the great privilege of working with him side by side every day and saw how he loved nurturing people. Nothing made him happier than watching everyone at ValleyCrest grow and seeing people do great things both inside and outside the company. He always encouraged us to do the right thing and was an amazing family man. I’m taking on the personal responsibility to carry on his legacy and values he instilled in me as I lead the company forward.”

Burt’s hard work, dedication and shrewd decision-making were coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, keen sense of adventure and knack for understanding people. A pioneer in establishing high levels of innovation, professionalism and respect within the landscape industry, Burt was a founding member of several state and national landscape associations and was a Fellow in the American Society of Landscape Architects (FASLA). He served as a director of Los Angeles Beautiful and was a former director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation.

Recognized with awards and honors throughout his career as a landscape architect, contractor, business executive and for his involvement in charitable groups, Burt’s election into the Green Industry Hall of Fame in 2010, and selection for the Lifetime Achievement Award for Contractor of the Year (1999) and the City of Hope Man of the Year "Spirit of Life" Award (1971) reveal his true legacy to business and the community.
Burt got his start in the landscape industry early in life. His father owned a retail nursery, and he was a member of the Future Farmers of America at North Hollywood High School. When Burt was a teenager, he worked after school at the MG Nursery in North Hollywood, Calif., and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. nursery in Los Angeles. In 1949, Burt purchased the MG Nursery business with his father as a partner when the owner, Mossimo Giannulli passed away. Sixty-two years later ValleyCrest has more than 9,000 employees, operations in more than 150 locations nationwide, and is respected around the world. Even at 82, Burt came to work every day, revered by employees as the founder and chairman of a landscape services company that earned a spot on Forbes Magazine’s 2008 list of America’s 500 Largest Private Companies. ValleyCrest is counted on by architects, developers, commercial real estate owners, public agencies, property managers and luxury home builders to help create, build or maintain some of the world’s extraordinary natural environments.

Among the hundreds of celebrated landscape projects in which the company has played a role in bringing to fruition include: Walt Disney Concert Hall, The Getty Center, the Palm Garden at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The Grove in Los Angeles, The Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, Calif. Americana at Brand in Glendale, Calif., Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Wynn Encore and Wynn Las Vegas, CityCenter, Cosmopolitan, Caesar’s Place, and Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Sea World Discovery Cove in Orlando, Four Seasons Hualalai Resort in Kailua-Kona, SoundScape Park at Frank Gehry’s New World Symphony in Miami, Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., Hudson River Park in New York, Dallas Center for the Performing Arts’ Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theater in Dallas, Boston’s Central Artery (Big Dig), the U.S. Federal Courthouse in San Diego, the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., venues for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex., Florida Marlins Stadium in Miami, AT&T Park in San Francisco, University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., and Patriots Place in Foxboro, New England, to name but a few.

Equally passionate and accomplished as a magician, Burt was inducted as a member of the prestigious Inner Magic Circle of England, the highest degree a magician can earn, and was one of only a few Americans to achieve such elite ranking. He was also named Magician of the Year in 2011. His passion for magic encompassed a lifelong pursuit of collecting and writing magic books. His extensive collection is one of the largest in the country and includes rare books dating back as far as the 1500’s.

Sperber with Lady Bird Johnson.
Over his life Burt was active in many efforts to build and support the Jewish community in Los Angeles. He helped to build Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, where he was made a lifetime member. Years later he was instrumental in the building of the University of Judaism, now American Jewish University, located on Mulholland above the 405 freeway. He was also involved in countless community, charitable and educational endeavors including USC’s School of Architecture and Cal Poly Pomona’s Horticulture program.

A decorated Army veteran who served as a Master Sergeant in the Korean War, Burt is survived by his wife Charlene, and their three children, Ellice Sperber, Michelle Sperber and Richard A. Sperber, a sister Deanna Colton, and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Wendie Jo Sperber, and brother, Stuart J. Sperber. At 16 he met Charlene, was married in 1949 and for 62 years enjoyed a perfect partnership in life, along the way building a family and business. Charlene’s practical management skills complemented Burt’s hard work ethic and outgoing personality that earned respect from customers. That meticulous attention to customer service is an approach that endures as a core value of ValleyCrest today. The creative and adventurous side of Burt was balanced with his deep commitment as a native of Los Angeles to make the city a better place for all.

A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011 at Mount Sinai Memorial Park and Mortuary in Burbank, followed by a reception at ValleyCrest’s corporate headquarters in Calabasas. The Sperber family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to weSPARK Cancer Support Center at: 13520 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, Calif., 91423, 818-906-3022, www.wespark.org.
 

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