OAKLAND -- Bringing more jobs into Oakland is a familiar, decades-old refrain, but entrepreneur Tom Henderson is doing more than just tout job creation in the East Bay's biggest city.
Henderson, a third-generation Oakland native, has begun to parlay a string of eye-catching property purchases -- including his company's $8 million purchase in December 2011 of the Tribune Tower and a subsequent $1 million renovation of the historic high rise -- into new jobs and investment for Oakland.
"It's all about job creation," Henderson said. "I was born in Oakland. I want to make things happen in Oakland so it can grow."
Henderson is using a federal EB-5 visa program that enables him to bankroll projects and property purchases by using investment funds from foreigners who are seeking immigrant visas. His company, San Francisco Regional Center, works with immigrants to fund projects that lead to job creation.
"The city, from the mayor on down, is very supportive of what we are doing," he said.
Henderson's employment-creation plans are ambitious: He aims to generate 2,000 jobs by the end of next year. Hundreds of those would be in call centers he is setting up, including in the Tribune Tower. These centers contract with companies and organizations to handle telemarketing and customer service.
"Tom has a big vision," said Allan Young, a founder and partner with Henderson in CallSocket, a company that is operating the call centers in Oakland. "He is a savvy businessman."
In addition to the Tribune Tower, Henderson's company has bought the historic I. Magnin Building and other downtown office buildings. He plans a food factory in East Oakland and wants to open three West Oakland grocery stores.
"I am optimistic about the impact Tom Henderson can have on Oakland," Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney said.
Henderson is acutely aware of Oakland's economic challenges. That is evident in his dismay about the lack of grocery stores in West Oakland.
"There are 62,000 people living in West Oakland -- and no grocery stores. But they do have 65 liquor stores," Henderson said. "We have to change that."
Henderson has an array of business connections on both sides of the Pacific Ocean to bolster his efforts through the EB-5 visa program.
"I've logged 2 million miles of passenger jet travel and visited 47 different countries," Henderson said. That includes 20 visits to China during the past two years alone.
Henderson has brought in experts in the call center business as that part of his enterprise was launched. Before teaming up with Henderson, Young had started a number of call centers. His chief operating officer of CallSocket, Mary Cook, has 20 years in the call center business.
"I moved 3,000 miles (from Florida) with my husband and our three dogs because I believe so strongly in Tom's vision," Cook said. "It's all about changing people's lives and creating jobs. Tom is a great mentor."
Chris Pastena, a partner with Henderson in two Oakland restaurants, said Henderson gives his business associates the opportunity to be creative.
Pastena's ventures with Henderson are the Tribune Tavern, which is on the ground floor of the Tribune Tower, and Lungomare, an Italian restaurant in Jack London Square.
"Tom gave us the financial backing for the Tribune Tavern, but his involvement went beyond that," Pastena said. "He is a presence at the restaurant. He doesn't step on people's toes. He listens. He's approachable.
John Dolby, a Cassidy Turley commercial realty broker involved in selling the I. Magnin Building to Henderson's group, recalls that multiple deals for the purchase of the office property collapsed. But Henderson came through.
"Tom makes sure the deal gets done," Dolby said.
Henderson used to play basketball for Cal and was a starting forward during his years at the university, from 1966 to 1970.
In January 1968, during a rebound scramble in a game against UCLA, Henderson accidentally poked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- then known as Lew Alcindor -- in the eye, causing a scratched retina.
"I thought I had ruined his career," Henderson said. "I called him at the hospital and apologized to him."
After Abdul-Jabbar had retired from a Hall of Fame pro basketball career, Henderson encountered the hoops legend at a dedication of an Abdul-Jabbar statue.
"I told him, 'You don't remember me but you know who I am' and I apologized again," Henderson said. "Kareem laughed."
Henderson said his greatest accomplishment in business is having both of his sons involved in his business ventures. He regrets not jumping into the EB-5 program years earlier, but he's making up for lost time.
"We are creating 2,000 jobs in Oakland," Henderson said. "It makes me a better person."
Contact George Avalos at 408-859-5167 or 408-373-3556. Follow him at Twitter.com/georgeavalos.
Title: CEO, San Francisco Regional Center
Education: UC Berkeley, Bachelor of Science in Business Administration
Quote: "I was born in Oakland. I want to make things happen in Oakland so it can grow."