Chairman, Sobrato Development Companies and Joint Venture board member
By Duffy Jennings | Published: October 2009
On a polished credenza in John A. Sobrato’s corner office in Cupertino sits a scale model of his 147-foot yacht, the only item on the eight-foot-long sideboard. The modern white craft’s long sleek lines and pointed bow make it easy to imagine the boat cruising on the high seas, destined for exotic ports, Sobrato at the helm.
But that’s not much of a stretch. John Sobrato has been the captain of his own ship for more than fifty years, ever since he began selling homes while he was an underclassman at Santa Clara University. Today he pilots a family real estate development organization now known as much for its philanthropic work in Silicon Valley as for its vast property holdings.
A charter member of Joint Venture and a longtime board member, Sobrato feels strongly about the organization’s regional education programs, and has contributed both time and dollars to the Alliance for Teaching initiative that works to develop, recognize and reward teachers in Silicon Valley.
“That’s what we really need in this valley,” he says. “Teachers are the most important asset we have, and our education system in this state is failing them and our students. Colleen Wilcox is doing a great job with that program.”
Joe Parisi, CEO of Therma and a fellow Joint Venture board member who has been Sobrato’s friend for some forty years, says Sobrato is “always fair-minded, very generous, easy to get along with and very community-oriented.”
“John is probably the most organized person I know,” Parisi says. “He is so focused on whatever he is doing. He can get more done is less time than anybody.”
Sobrato, now 70, was born in San Francisco, the only child of Ann and John M. Sobrato. His father had emigrated from Italy after working as a chef for the American army during World War II. Starting as a dishwasher, the elder Sobrato eventually saved enough to open his own place, which became renowned as John’s Rendezvous in North Beach.
“John’s Rendezvous and Bimbo’s were the two most popular places in town,” Sobrato said. “My father’s restaurant was Herb Caen’s favorite place to go. I worked there sometimes, but my father told me not to go into the restaurant business. It was so hard.”
The family moved to Atherton when John was two, but he was only twelve when his father died of cancer in 1952. With a young son to support, Ann Sobrato took English classes, sold the restaurant and went into real estate on the Peninsula.
Young John went to Bellarmine Prep then enrolled at Santa Clara as an engineering major. “But I quickly found out I wasn’t cut out for it,” he says, “and I switched to business.” That turned out to be an understatement. By his junior year, he was working three days a week selling modest homes in Palo Alto.
“I thought real estate would be interesting,” he says. “Back then, three-bedroom, one-bath homes cost around $20,000. With ten percent down, almost anyone could afford to buy a house.”
John graduated from Santa Clara in 1960, the same year he married his wife, Sue, whom he met at a wedding at the Palo Alto Elks Club. They will celebrate their golden wedding anniversary next year.
After graduating from Santa Clara, Sobrato founded Midtown Realty, specializing in the resale of popular Eichler homes, and then expanded into commercial real estate, working with his mother and partner Carl Berg. In 1974, he sold Midtown Realty to concentrate on the commercial development of properties in the rapidly emerging high technology industry.
Sobrato has been responsible for the development and construction of more than 250 office and R&D facilities totaling in excess of 15 million square feet. Today the Sobrato Development Companies owns a portfolio of properties encompassing eight million square feet and 7500 apartments in California, Oregon and Washington without institutional partners.
The portfolio includes the corporate headquarters of Apple Computer, Netflix, BEA, Siebel Systems, EMC, NVIDIA and Verisign as well as buildings housing offices for Yahoo!, the County of Santa Clara and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
In 1998, Sobrato created the Sobrato Family Foundation to provide philanthropic support to non-profit organizations and projects. Nearly forty-five non-profit service providers receive rent-free office space in two of Sobrato’s office parks in Milpitas and San Jose. Since 2000, the year Ann Sobrato died, the family has donated nine buildings and 124 acres of land valued at $312 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
“My mother was the one who started the family on the concept of giving back to the community,” says Sobrato. “She was a pink lady at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Menlo Park and volunteered in many other community activities.”
In 2007 the Society of Fundraising Professionals recognized the Sobrato Foundation as the Foundation of the Year from a field of 175 international foundations..
John and Sue Sobrato have three children, John Michael, Sheri and Lisa, and seven grandchildren. John Michael, a 1983 graduate of Santa Clara University, is now the CEO of the family business.
John A. Sobrato is a member of many business, education, civic and community boards and foundations, and has received numerous honors and awards for his contributions to Silicon Valley’s business and non-profit communities.
John comes to the office weekly and travels frequently up and down the Pacific Coast for business, but in spite of his busy schedule, he plays tennis three or four days a week and finds time to ski – on both water and snow.
“I love to be active,” he says, looking fit and tanned. “I had a heart attack when I was 37 and it changed my life. I lost 50 pounds, quit smoking and got in shape.”
When he’s not working, you can find him and Sue spending time with family and traveling.
“We take the boat all over the world,” he says, nodding towards the model. “I love that boat. We spend a lot of time on it, sailing everywhere.”