Transformation of est Founder Werner Erhard


Los Angeles Times/December 2, 1988
By Iris Krasnow

His blue eyes are blazing and a vein throbs in his forehead as Werner Erhard talks up his longtime passion: coaching people in exploring life's possibilities.

For Erhard, the father of Erhard Seminar Training (est), anything does seem possible.

Despite two failed marriages and jabs about his slick packaging, this super-salesman of personal effectiveness just keeps attracting buyers. Note: the following several words are garbled Since the *~"Insformed" and talking funny, a flock of searching souls who came out of est "getting it" and "creating space for their lives to work."

At least 500,000 people stopped at the est space station, a place where participants were shredded by militant trainers and long hours of leg crossing separated bathroom breaks. And the enlightenment at the end of a grueling two weekends? Finding out you were an ass caught in a pitiful belief system.

Zealous followers who spoke the est lingo were satirized as Me Decade icons in movies like "Semi-Tough." The movement got another shot of celebrity flak when John Denver signed up and so did Valerie Harper.

"Sure, there was a certain amount of cliches people used. But you know, the so-called funny talk has now become a part of the culture," Erhard says in a raspy voice thickened by cigars.

"In the daily newspapers, you find people talking about 'space' and today everyone knows what that means. In the last few months, there have been four major business books talking about 'transformation.' There's no question that a lot of the principles that we developed in our work in the '70s have found their way into the mainstream."

He points to the buzz line of a MasterCharge ad campaign, "master the possibilities."

This is the former car salesman who left his first wife and three children in Philadelphia and changed his name so they could not trace him. It was 1960, and Jack Rosenberg became Werner Erhard, taken from theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and Ludwig Erhard, the West German minister of economics.

In his new California home and identity, Erhard became an avid growth groupie himself, devouring a range of human potential movements and Eastern disciplines. As the story goes, the est training came to Erhard one day on a crowded freeway when he "got it" -- the awareness he was not his emotions and beliefs and intellect. Rather he was the creator and the source of his experience.

Today he's an executive in a sleek European jacket with a reach that extends far beyond an est clubhouse with its own secret code. His organization has spawned a multimillion-dollar network centered on the principles of transformation. Erhard views the enterprises as a "pie cut in thirds," and they're fat, lucrative chunks.

The slice bearing his signature is Werner Erhard & Associates, a San Francisco company that stages The Forum, est's successor, and various workshops such as one on relationships. WE&A projects gross revenues of $39 million for 1988.

When est was "retired" in 1984, The Forum was launched with a goal of giving "a decisive edge in your ability to achieve." While it sprang from the same seeds, The Forum deviates from est's rigid authority and high theatrics. It's also more expensi ve, running $595 a session compared to $475 for est. Since it began in January 1985, 100,000 people have gone through the program.

The second slice is Transformational Technologies Inc., a group of independent management consulting firms that lists corporations like Allstate Insurance Co. and Monsanto as clients. Co-founded by Erhard in 1984, TTI's annual income is about $25 million.

Lastly, there are nonprofit humanitarian agencies rooted in Erhard's teachings, yet operating as independent entities, legally and financially. The Breakthrough Foundation falls in this category, working in the area of juvenile delinquency, as does the more widely known Hunger Project, a grass-roots commitment to end hunger by the turn of the century.

Critics have called Erhard a healer bearing quick-fix solutions, yet dozens of vintage esties have stuck loyally in his camp, swearing his system works. The majority of Forum leaders are ex-est trainers and the pie is filled with layers of old-timers .

"Werner's programs deliver on what they say they're going to deliver," says Gary Arnstein, who left his Chicago hometown and dental practice in 1984 to move to San Francisco and become a senior manager of Werner Erhard & Associates.

"Although I consider him to be a powerful leader, I consider myself a full partner as opposed to a follower," says Arnstein. "The shared goal is about opening up possibilities in peoples' lives."

When Arnstein did est in 1976, the biggest effect was on his relationship with his family. "It went from black-and-white to Technicolor, good to great."

Washington psychotherapist Brad Blanton, a graduate of est and The Forum, incorporates many of Erhard's principles in his own work. When clients complete therapy, Blanton often recommends they enroll in The Forum.

"I'm a Gestalt therapist, and we're all coming from the same stream -- Alan Watts, Fritz Perls and Martin Heidegger," says Blanton. "They were Werner's teachers and they were a lot of our teachers, too. Werner stands in company with a large number of very wise people.

"The people who run the training are worthy of great respect, whereas most of my colleagues, I don't have much respect for. It's been a heartening experience to find other people in the world who have some kind of idea where the ball is."

Others are turned off by the exuberance that engulfs devotees, known for their intense and smiley demeanors. "It doesn't seem authentic to me. Nobody could be that happy all the time," says a New Jersey consultant who recently took The Forum.

Follow-Ups Urged

Once people complete the course, they are then urged by volunteer staffers to sign up for follow-up seminars. Those phone calls can come off as relentless and pushy.

"I'd like not to be quoted by name because then they'd start calling me again," says a Chicago lawyer who did The Forum last year. Yet, desiring no further relationship with the organization doesn't mean she didn't "get it."

"I have absolutely no regrets about taking it," she adds. "You go into The Forum when you're ready to make changes, and I think it enabled me to make some major decisions I've been avoiding," like severing a dead-end relationship and getting into a healthy one that ended in marriage.

Chris Ruys, head of a public-relations firm, was in the first wave of Chicagoans to do est in 1973. She, too, has mixed reviews.

"The best thing it gave me was self-esteem," Ruys says. "But, like just about everyone else I know who took the training the time I did, I've pretty much dropped out. I don't think people are negative about it. We all acknowledge that at one time it wa s very beneficial. But it's almost as if we outgrew it."

While some graduates have outgrown Erhard's old schoolhouse, the teacher is just hitting his stride. His bulging pie is ripe for the 1990s with programs that hit hard on bolstering big business and individual empowerment.

He would like to be finally understood, and freed from what he terms "the burr effect," a bum rap that has stuck.

"One of the fundamental misinterpretations is that the work we did in the '70s was part of the Me Decade, when we were actually countercultural in the '70s," Erhard says. "When rather than becoming self-centered, people who have been through our programs began to look outward, because they got a sense that they could intervene in the circumstances of life.

"People came away with a more profound sense of responsibility, a sense of potency. That they could actually create breakthroughs."

Lean from jogging and tan from living on a 96-foot classic fantail boat docked in Marin County, it is clear that while Erhard is reaching out to the world, he is also taking good care of himself.

Puffing away on a slender cigar, he says, "My commitment is to be healthier this year than I was last year, and I intend to keep that commitment for the rest of my life. My theory is that a person's vitality will generally be equal to their commitments , and if you'd like to have more vitality, make bigger commitments."

This man, whose seminars have helped tens of thousands of couples make their relationships work, had two marriages that didn't. On that irony, Erhard is unflinching.

"My relationship with my first wife Pat (Campbell) is just an outstanding success," he says. "She is just a remarkable human being.

"First off, to be big enough to have forgiven me. She and I have a profound support for each other and love for each other. So to that extent, while I was married to Pat I could not in any way have said our marriage was a success, our relationship now is a success.

"Ellen (his second wife) and I, from my perspective, had a very successful marriage. The marriage was certainly nurturing for me, our family was really the roots from which I sprang, it still is.

"Part of the reason for separating was Ellen's growth. She came to the place where she felt in order to be herself, she really needed to be on her own. She couldn't do that in the circumstances of our life together. You know, our children were grown up , there was no longer that aspect to her life, and my life has got enormous demands on it. I'm probably home 30% of the time." On marriage to Werner Erhard? "I think it would be extraordinarily difficult," he says. The seven children from his two unions are ages 20 through 34

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