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Clay Stephens, local financier and philanthropist, dies at 72

Clay Stephens, the founder of a North Bay alternative financing and leasing firm that put together $1.8 billion in deals over the past three decades, has died.

Stephens, president and CEO of Novato-based Warren Capital Corp., was 72.

The Santa Rosa resident died Monday after returning to his Bennett Valley home from an early morning walk, said his wife of 20 years, Anne Stephens.

She said the former Norte Dame football standout likely died of a heart attack.

“It came as a real shock to the family,” she said. “He exercised twice a day and was probably in some of the best shape of his life.”

Stephens founded his company in 1984 after working in finance on the East Coast for 15 years. He specialized in finding private money for startups and expansions, leasing industrial equipment and facilitating mergers and acquisitions, his wife said.

In a published report earlier this year, he said he put together $600 million in financing for North Coast businesses alone during his career.

Ben Stone, executive director of Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said Stephens excelled at getting capital when banks refused to provide it. He was respected for his sound business judgment, Stone said.

“He quietly and confidently got the money people needed,” Stone said. “He did it with good nature and a sense of style and integrity.”

When he wasn’t working, Stephens devoted himself to local economic development with the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. He was chairman of the Food Industry Group, aimed at fostering growth among food companies.

He also was heavily involved in Cardinal Newman High School, where four of his five sons went to school. He was on the board of directors and served at least one term as president.

He created the Millicent Stephens scholarship fund, named after his first wife, who died of cancer in 1981.

Principal Graham Rutherford said the school this year would establish a new leadership award in Clay Stephens’ name. A public memorial is planned for Stephens at the school at 2 p.m. Nov. 22.

“He was a person who believed in and was involved in community service,” Rutherford said. “Certainly, for Cardinal Newman he was a very important leader.”

Stephens was born Warren Clayton Stephens in Mobile, Ala., in 1942. His father, an orthopedic surgeon, moved his family to the San Francisco peninsula town of Hillsborough when he was 2 years old.

He graduated from Junipero Serra High School and went on to Norte Dame, where he played on the football team as both a defensive end and tight end.

Stephens flirted with the NFL. He was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1964 and traded to the Dallas Cowboys. Before the season started, he approached head coach Tom Landry and asked if he thought he should stay with the team or go to graduate school.

Landry said he should go back to school.

“Clay sensed he wasn’t big enough or fast enough to make it,” his wife said. “The coach agreed with him.”

Stephens was accepted into Stanford and went on to get an MBA.

“Thank God he did, because he has contributed so much to business success across the North Bay,” said Carolyn Stark, executive director of the Sonoma County BEST program.

Noteworthy North Bay customers included Frank Howard Allen Realtors, Stark Reality Restaurants and Manzana Products. He has served 4,000 clients across the United States.

“Clay will be missed,” said David Meddaugh, senior vice president of Bank of America. “He left a significant and very positive footprint here in Sonoma County.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include sons Clayton Stephens Jr. of Kentfield; Brent Stephens of Burr Ridge, Ill.; Craig Stephens of Demascus, Ore.; Keith Stephens of San Francisco; and Colby Eierman of Napa.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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