By Kathy Day
When Robert Svet tells you he’s lived the immigrant story, he’s got the details to back it up and then some.
The chairman and founder of The Eastridge Group of Staffing Companies and Rancho Santa Fe resident describes himself as a man of thirds: one-third businessman, one-third family man, one-third husband. Somehow he also finds an extra piece of himself to be involved with his alma mater, San Diego State, and to head the Forget Me Not Foundation, which he founded with one of his company’s executives.
He and Bill Stone, who is president of Eastridge’s TheraStaff division, in March received the 10News Leadership Award for the charity, which gathers flowers after weddings and other large events and delivers them to hospitals, nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Svet’s passion for his world comes through in every story he tells, whether it’s about when he was an 8-year-old working with his father during the summer stacking tires or how he got involved with the staffing – formerly called employment agency – business.
“I love my life,” he said in a recent interview at his company’s Mission Valley headquarters. “I know I’m satisfied and have lived a full life.”
Founded in 1972, Eastridge is one of the nation’s top companies in its industry and now has international operations as well. It has 13 specialty divisions, which place employees in a range of industries from convention staffing to legal offices and information technology. In addition, it provides general service in three areas and has five affiliates and partners.
Svet enjoys talking about business and how he’s reinvented the company in the face of multiple recessions, but ask about his family and the tenor of the conversation changes. He and Cary, his wife of 36 years, have two sons, Jason, 26, and Adam, 33, both integral parts of their father’s business.
“She is the smartest, most centered, kindest and sensitive person I’ve ever met,” the proud husband said. “I didn’t realize when I met her what I had, but I was smitten. She is even more beautiful today.”
Like her husband, Cary has roots outside the U.S. Her family fled Cuba in 1964 when Fidel Castro came to power, leaving behind her father’s business – the Tropicana Hotel and Casino.
“All of a sudden they were refugees,” Svet said.
Both of Svet’s sons, who he calls his best friends, are USC graduates. Adam, who runs Eastridge’s 1099 compliance division, graduated from Francis Parker and Jason, who runs the company’s internal IT and marketing department and is also involved in its Complete Recycling operation, graduated from La Jolla Country Day.
Friends have told him that he has the “most nuclear family they’ve ever seen,” which he attributes to his own upbringing.
“I came from a rich childhood, of memories, philosophy, culture,” he said. “Socio-economically we were below average, but I always felt very special.”
His parents and grandparents were Russian Jews forced in 1917 to leave their home where they owned the country’s second largest tea factory.
“It was a matter of get killed or leave,” he said.
Like many of their countrymen, they crossed the Chinese border and settled in Shanghai, again establishing themselves in business with a large import-export company and as owners of Union Bank of Shanghai.
That’s where Robert Svet was born. He was only 2 when his family had to abandon their home again, this time in 1949 when Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution erupted.
“We left with $2,500 in American dollars after living a very fabulous lifestyle in Shanghai,” Svet said. “Luckily we had the cash and someone smuggled us out.”
The only country that would take them at that time was Israel, but in 1954 they were able to get visas to the U.S. They landed in New York, spending only three days there before coming to San Diego, where they were sponsored by his uncle who owned Reliable Tire and Rubber Co.
“I pay extra homage to my father … for what the sacrifices he made to bring us here,” Svet said.
Growing up near University Avenue and 47th Street, the young Svet had a bit of a language problem when he arrived. He spoke Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish and a little Chinese, but not much English. Always driven though, he went on to San Diego State, graduating in 1969 in the midst of the Vietnam War. Faced with a low draft number, he obtained a deferment for being the sole support of his father and sister — his mother had died previously.
“Every six months, I had to go before the draft board and show them my checks and my expenses,” Svet said. “It was very motivating to work hard.”
He told a friend who worked for an employment agency, “I need a job or I’ll get drafted,” he said. “I wanted to be a stock broker but they wouldn’t take me with a No. 87 (draft number) and 21 years old.”
When his friend asked what he did and wanted to do, Svet was told he couldn’t be placed, but instead said “Why don’t you work for us.”
His response was “Can I make $600 a month?” – the income he had to show the draft board – and, now, 40 years later, he’s still in the staffing business despite occurring rounds of challenges.
First it was the mild recession of ’72-’73, he said, when he learned that he had to pay more attention to accounting and finances rather than just driving revenues.
“I reinvented myself as a businessman,” he said.
Next came the downturn of 1980, when Eastridge shifted from a direct hire and permanent search agency to temporary staffing. Then with the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s, Svet was faced with finding another new angle.
At that time about 35 percent of what they did was provide staffing for the banking industry, so he came up with the idea of “boutique” divisions and created different brands within the company.
Not to be outdone again when the 2000 dot-com bubble burst, Svet said he realized one of Eastridge’s strongest suits was its back-office systems so they started providing support for other staffing companies around the country.
This time, when the 2008 economic crisis surfaced, the company moved into more boutique areas, adding a 1099 compliance division to help companies with IRS issues, a recycling company, and a division that provides law firms with extra help when they’re faced with big cases.
A plaque on the wall across from Svet’s desk defines the purpose of his company: “To provide people with opportunities and enrichment through work.” The company does the same in the communities where it has offices, from the new foundation to supporting the Wounded Warrior program. It also works with Hire-A-Youth programs and provides internships.
He says he’s “blessed and cursed with creativity, but it’s kept me in business for 40 years.”
He puts that creativity and his entrepreneurship skills to work as a member of the board of SDSU’s College of Business Administration, which he praises for being an “active, not a ceremonial board” that he works closely with and helped select the new dean, Rancho Santa Fe resident Michael R. Cunningham.
When asked what he enjoys besides his work and family, Svet reaches a bit.
“I used to golf until I injured my elbow,” he said. “I enjoy my work … it’s not work to me.”
He and Cary travel a lot, something she loves, but he says he does it to keep her happy.
“After traveling for business, it’s not my favorite thing,” he said with a shrug.
Even so, once he starts talking about where they go – three to five weeks every year to Ravello on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, and Anguilla and Hawaii – hints come through that it’s not such a chore for him.
The couple also likes walking the beach in Del Mar on a regular basis and Svet gets a kick out of tournament poker, which he plays five to six times a year when he visits the Eastridge office in Las Vegas.
He also gets joy from the Forget Me Not Foundation, which grew out of what he called “a profoundly sad” moment when he and the family were previewing the floral arrangements for Adam’s wedding. As he looked at the massive centerpieces – there were to be 40 large ones and many smaller ones – he asked the designer what would happen to them afterwards.
When her answer was “probably not much … we throw them out” he drove back to the office and called Stone, knowing that because he runs the TheraStaff division and works with therapists around the county he would have contacts.
The two set the wheels in motion to share the wedding flowers with Rady Children’s Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House for Mother’s Day, partnering with American Medical Response which used its ambulances to deliver them. That planted the seed for the foundation, created in May 2010. Today the arrangements are delivered to the facilities where the residents take them apart and reassemble them for recreational and occupational therapy.
Svet prides himself – and his company – for “doing a lot of good things for the staff, clients and applicants,” and with the foundation and other activities, he’s doing a lot of good for others as well.
To learn more about the Eastridge group go to eastridgegroup.com.