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Taking Center Stage

Jane Fujishige Yada, a businesswoman and philanthropist who has been on the board of directors at Segerstrom Center for the Arts since 2001, was surprised to find herself as the next chairwoman.  

“It wasn’t part of my master plan at all,” she told the Business Journal.  

“Nothing was planned in 2020. I was asked to throw my hat in the ring. I really hadn’t considered it before.” 

Yada, a lover of Agatha Christie detective novels, now has a difficult case to solve at Orange County’s main performing arts hub, because of the coronavirus.

The center is facing tough choices on the timing of when and how to bring back its top revenue generators, including touring Broadway shows and international music groups.

Many of those hail from European nations, such as Italy, that like the U.S. have been heavily hit by the coronavirus.

The arts center closed March 12 and as of press time still did not have a firm date on when it can reopen.

“That opening date is still wobbly,” Yada said in an interview in October. “Will it be a short winter or a long winter? We want to be ready for both. 

“I want to make sure we open up in the best way possible so that it’s not only for the patrons but also for the production companies that come in through the back door.”  

Segerstrom Hall at SCFTA

Finances Strong

She’ll also be dealing with a different economic reality than her predecessors.

The arts center’s budget is projected to be less than $20 million this fiscal year ending in June, compared to $47 million in fiscal 2020 and a $79 million budget in fiscal 2019.

The center has a “great finance team” that is very conservative and hence will be able to survive, Yada said.

The center has assets totaling $457.6 million.

Yada in October was elected as its next chairwoman, beginning next July 1 for what will be a three-year term.

She’s the second woman to hold the position at the center.

“Jane is the ideal person to lead a vitalized and forward-looking Center,” Current Chair Mark C. Perry said.

“When she commits herself to a project or cause, she brings a roll-up-your-sleeves enthusiasm and work ethic that inspires her colleagues, as we have  seen in her approach to the board ad hoc Reopening Committee and Facilities Committee.”

The Business Pedigree

Yada’s appointment continues a long run of top OC entrepreneurs and executives who have guided the Segerstrom Center. She will be replacing Perry, who worked from more than 35 years in top level positions at the Bank of America. Perry’s predecessor was John L. Ginger, CEO of J. Ginger Masonry LP, one of the nation’s largest construction materials firm.

Yada’s business background counts ties to farming, a business which would later expand to real estate and other endeavors.

Segerstrom Center was founded by another family with similar roots in OC’s agricultural history.

Henry Segerstrom turned a family lima bean farm into South Coast Plaza, which is now the largest shopping center in Orange County and one of the most prestigious in the world. He helped open the performing arts center on the other side of Bristol Ave. in 1986; it’s since seen numerous expansions.

Since its founding, the Segerstrom Center’s board has been a place to find high powered executives and entrepreneurs, including such famous local names as the late Gen. William Lyon and Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli. Nowadays, its directors include Julia Argyros, a prominent philanthropist and wife of former Ambassador George Argyros; Wylie Aitkin, an attorney and local powerbroker in Democratic politics; and Marta Bhathal, whose family owns several businesses and has a large stake in the Sacramento Kings.

The Famed 442nd

Yada’s grandparents emigrated from Japan around 1915.

While some family members were interned in California during World War II, her native-born father Hiroshi Fujishige joined the famed 442nd Infantry to fight the Nazis.

When he returned from the war, the family moved to Anaheim where they farmed on about 200 acres.

Growing up, Yada remembers driving a tractor, swinging a machete, and planting strawberries, vegetables and herbs.

In 1998, the family sold most of the original farm ground to the Walt Disney Corp. One 58-acre plot was on the corner of Harbor Blvd. and Convention Way, which is now a Disneyland parking lot.

Yada noted that farming in Orange County is dwindling, as an acre can be sold for $5 million and up.

“It makes me very sad,” she said.

Nowadays, her “day job” is to run Harbor Field Holdings LLC along with brother Jack, sister Nancy and their mother Reiko. Her husband, Sonny Yada, died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 52 in 2018.

The Fujishige interests include multiple agricultural, residential, industrial office and hospitality properties as well as farms in Orange County, Ventura County and Santa Cruz County.

In 2017, the family co-founded Gem-Pack Berries, a year-round shipping and distribution company for strawberries that supplies major grocery retailers throughout the United States. Yada, along with other partners from within the strawberry industry, also helped form California Berry Cultivars LLC, a strawberry breeding company. Its goal is not only to develop the “perfect” berry, but also to make the cultivars publicly available for all farmers, large and small.

New Home Developer

From 2003 to 2006, Yada helped oversee the design and residential entitlement process for Lambert Ranch, the former 51-acre farm in North Irvine that was owned by the Lambert and Fujishige families. It is nestled between Irvine Co.’s Portola Springs community.

She’s proud that the 169-home development, built by The New Home Company, has received more than 32 building industry awards, including Community of the Year and six Gold Nugget Awards. It was one of the first major housing developments in OC to open after the onset of the Great Recession.

In 2008, Yada lobbied the Black and Decker company and its integration team in their $4 billion merger with Stanley Corp. The initial corporate plan proposed moving the entire company out of California. Instead, her family restructured the lease to keep Stanley’s operations in Orange County.

“We saved the jobs of 450 people,” she said. “Without our contribution, it wouldn’t have happened.” 

In 2015, her family teamed with locally- based Nexus Development and Pros-pera Management to develop a family-oriented Homewood Suites hotel on a portion of the family’s remaining Anaheim property along Harbor Blvd., close to Disneyland.

This Hilton-branded hotel has been ranked consistently as the No. 1 Family Hotel in Anaheim by Tripadvisor.

She is also well known in the nonprofit industry. She has supported and holds leadership positions with the Pacific Symphony, Chapman University, CHOC Children’s Hospital, City of Hope, Hoag Hospital, Second Harvest Food Bank and numerous other organizations.  

Hamilton Fan

Yada, who received her Bachelor of Arts in English from UCLA, is a huge fan of her hometown sports teams, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Anaheim Ducks.  

She loves Broadway musicals, particularly Hamilton, even though “I’m not a rap kind of gal. I’m much more classical or pop. I was really blown away” by Hamilton.  

She also likes “great jazz and cabarets” performed in intimate concerts. She’s open to incorporating more digital arts into shows.

“I’ve seen some fascinating things in Tokyo,” she said.

The New Normal

The Costa Mesa performing arts arena is expected to be among the last types of businesses to be permitted to open indoors because of the pandemic. Its business model of performing live concerts has been turned upside down. There are doubts whether theaters can survive in an atmosphere of social distancing, if a vaccine isn’t rolled out soon.

The center will survive, Yada said.

Even though no revenue is coming in because of its closed doors, the center has received donations from hundreds of brand-new donors. Earlier this year, it held a virtual fundraising campaign that garnered $1.5 million.

The Segerstrom Center is closely following the state’s guidelines, training its staff to clean and disinfect properly. It’s improved its air filtering system.

“We already have really good air,” she laughed.

She’s been talking to experts at Angel Stadium and the Honda Center. She’s even read the protocols for the Tokyo Olympics. She studied South Korea, which she said “has the only Broadway production running on the planet.”

It’s also planning to hold more events at the outdoor Argyros Plaza and the Samueli Theater.

“I cannot wait to open that front door and welcome everyone back in. Our goal is not just to be open—our goal is to be one of the best in the country.”

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Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.
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