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Oakland A’s owner John Fisher has a knack for enraging people with business deals

A man in an Oakland Athletics jacket and green Athletics cap stands to the left of a man in a blue shirt.
Managing Partner John Fisher, left, and President David Kaval, right, of the Oakland Athletics talk in the stands during the game against the Seattle Mariners. | Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

As the billionaire son of Doris and Don Fisher—the founders of the Gap—A’s owner John Fisher is about as close to San Francisco royalty as you can get. The couple’s youngest son owns 18% of the Gap, which gave him the money to take full ownership of the Oakland A’s in 2016. 

Yet when Doris and Don Fisher first tasked their youngest son, John, with taking on investments for the family, he wasn’t interested. 

“I don’t know anything about the investment business—and I don’t wanna know anything about the investment business,” John Fisher said in Don Fisher’s autobiography, Falling Into the Gap, which was first released to a small circle of friends. 

The youngest son of Don and Doris Fisher garnered the nickname “Harpo” because of his stubbornness—he’d allegedly harp on his parents until he got what he wanted. 

“I had no compunction about using whatever worked to raise money,” John Fisher said in his father’s autobiography. “I mean I was ruthless.” 

In this case, John Fisher finally succumbed to his parents’ wishes by agreeing to work on the family investments, and one of the very first projects he scouted was timberland—235,000 acres of it in Northern California. 

“You don’t really feel like you own a forest,” John Fisher recalled. “It’s something that’s part of nature. It’s fun and exciting and an interesting activity.”

It ended up being a terrible mistake. 

Activists roll out a stump of a redwood tree while protesting in front of a Gap retail store in New York City on Feb. 1, 2002. | Darren McCollester/Getty Images

The 1998 purchase from the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation that included saw mills in Fort Bragg and Ukiah spurred massive protests, with environmentalists going as far as to chain themselves to the 34th Street Gap in New York City’s bustling Midtown. They also threw black stain on the Fisher family home, which Don Fisher lamented could not easily be painted over given the mansion’s custom finish—the family ended up hiring round-the-clock security. 

“I didn’t realize how dangerous this investment could be, in terms of putting the family’s image at risk,” Don Fisher wrote of his son John’s decision. 

The timing could not have been worse, since the Gap was fighting a lawsuit alleging human rights violations at its garment factories in Saipan of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth (the case eventually settled out of court in 2002). Environmental and human rights activists joined forces to create a maelstrom over the family and its businesses. 

John Fisher had led the charge to explore timberland because it sounded “fun” and “exciting,” but it ended up being a terrible decision that hurt the family’s brand and reputation. 

Fisher has fielded his own set of controversies as owner of the A’s, everything from at first refusing to award minor league players a $400 stipend in 2020 after a pandemic-canceling season (the only Major League Baseball team owner to do so, he eventually relented) to donating some $5 million in dark monies to an anti-Obama group. 

Because of his deep Bay Area ties as an heir of the Gap’s legacy, you might imagine Fisher would want to keep his roots planted locally. Born in Ingleside in 1969, the Gap quickly became a household name and billion-dollar brand. The Fisher Family spread their vast wealth around the Bay Area, where you can see their names on everything from art collections in SFMOMA to a children’s center in the San Francisco Public Library. 

But John Fisher, living up to his childhood nickname, has his own plans in mind. 

With the public outcry about moving the A’s out of Oakland, Don and Doris’s youngest son may be making a mistake akin to his timberland decision. However, he is also fulfilling a personal dream, what he always imagined for himself, what he protested to his parents he wanted to do instead of investing. 

“I want to build things,” John Fisher said. “I want to be an entrepreneur, and I want to build businesses or build shopping centers or whatever it might be.” 

John Fisher did not respond to requests for comment via a Gap spokesperson and the Oakland A’s in time for publication.