The Irvine Co.’s chairman marks a 20-year anniversary of building, and preserving, the Irvine Ranch.
By Craig Reem, OC Metro — March 6, 2003
Donald Bren talks of the faraway, ancient city of Ephesus as he looks out from the ninth floor of company headquarters to a portion of his own kingdom – the retail jewel Fashion Island. Easily, the eye carries beyond, to the Pacific Ocean and who knows what over the horizon. Perhaps to dream.
And, indeed, to act. Bren studies historic places in hopes of developing a vast piece of Orange County to challenge time itself.
He visits European cathedrals because they have permanence, built by the best architects and artisans of the day. He travels to places where master planning lasted centuries. And he has been shaping for some time now his own signature landscape – the Irvine Ranch, the property he influences as chairman of The Irvine Co. he owns.
The man making history spends time studying it.
He finds inspiration in Northern Italy, at the Alhambra in Spain, and ancient Ephesus in Turkey – once home to 250,000 people, the seat of the Roman empire in Asia, home to Alexander the Great for a time.
Bren visited Ephesus to “stand in the center of the main street, the city center point, and look in all four quadrants of the compass and see white marble roads and marble walls and columns and portions of temples…To stand there and see that was so inspirational to me; this wonderful, classical architecture and city planning…I tried to translate some of that architecture and planning and bring it forward.”
While the world’s great cities mark time in centuries, Bren has been doing hurry-up work here.
“If you get 20 minutes with him,” one observer notes, “you’re in the company of few.” Bren has agreed to a rare interview on the eve of the 20-year anniversary as majority company owner to reflect on a footprint of land that draws entrepreneurs and residents alike. When he sits down for an interview, he is dressed well – dark suit, large-collared blue shirt, striped tie – talks deliberately and thinks deeply, furrowing his brow as he considers the work.
Two decades have branded this the most productive and busiest time in Irvine Ranch history. Growth is reflected in millions of square feet of new commercial, industrial and retail land as well as thousands of new apartments and homes from the city of Irvine to the Newport Coast. At the same time, most of 53,000 acres on the ranch – more than half of Bren’s domain – have been dedicated as permanent open space, protecting some of the most important and visually stunning chaparral and coastal landscapes in California. About 83 square miles, roughly equivalent to the combined land areas of the cities of Irvine, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, are now protected from future development as part of the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve.
Bren’s reach is even more remarkable considering the Irvine Ranch encompasses more than one-sixth of all Orange County. The 93,000 acres include the city of Irvine and portions of Newport Beach, Tustin, Orange, Laguna Beach, Anaheim and some unincorporated county land. More than 200,000 people live there with a job base of about 250,000 working in the business parks, high-rises and retail stores that fill the acreage once covered in citrus or grazed by livestock.
This combination of built land and preserved land is unique in American business history.
And so is Donald Bren.
The Bren equation comes to life
He is a private person in a public life who has long let the deeds do the speaking. Safe to say the chairman of the community developer and real estate investment company is a business leader worthy of a national magazine cover; he would shudder at the thought of appearing in People.
A builder and investor with both bricks and business savvy, Bren’s decisions help determine where people work, how they live, where they play. So while he is hardly visible, he is not invisible. For better or for worse, Bren is the architect of an awesome piece of real estate that has bloomed into a much-admired template of master-planned communities, businesses, retail centers and gifts of open space. He is, admirers say, the right man for the right job with the right piece of property at the right time.
Fortune magazine noted in a 1990 profile – one of the most recent of the media-shy Bren – “no one else in North America controls a single property of such vast size and potential as this.”
Thirteen years after the article, the built portion of the ranch includes these components, some new, some ongoing: Industrial, business and research parks, the biggest piece being the Irvine Spectrum; the coastal residences of Newport Coast and new homes in and near the city of Irvine; retail and hotel centers framed by Fashion Island and the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Center; recreation including Pelican Hill Golf Course, Oak Creek Golf Club and the private Shady Canyon course; fast-growing apartment communities; education, which includes UC Irvine and one of the country’s better public school districts, Irvine Unified; and the Irvine Spectrum Center, which mixes entertainment such as a movie palace with retail and food and the architectural swooshes that define Bren’s style.
Development on this scale does not come without opposition, it does not come without opening the purse strings of a politically active company, and it does not come without criticism – some from environmentalists who over the years fearlessly showed the company the value of protected spaces. The battle continued recently, with a legal challenge against the company and the city of Irvine for the planned Northern Sphere community that will increase the city’s population by more than 22 percent.
No one has been a stronger Bren adversary, or ally, across the past 20 years than the city’s mayor, Larry Agran, who grew his reputation on challenging the company’s development plans and who now nurtures the final pieces. There may be no more intimate, and interesting meetings, than when Bren and Agran get together, as they do on occasion.
Agran helped turn Bren’s mind on the importance of preserved land. After all, the company’s original master plan called for about 11 percent of open space, or 10,400 acres, rather than today’s 53,000. The city bore a significant portion of that original development plan.
One of Bren’s skills is in the arena of compromise. It may explain why one of the company’s most lucrative properties, the Newport Coast, is less dense than originally planned – with 2,800 homes on 10,000 acres and with 8,000 of those acres as open space. Nestled along the coast between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, more construction might have elicited an outcry. As it is, critics of any construction along California’s coast would prefer that this breathtaking area remain undeveloped.
Grading the 20-year anniversary
To those who know Bren, he has a can-do attitude and a long-term sensibility.
“When I first met Don back in 1981, he said he was trying to build the best community in the country,” says Dick Sim, who worked 20 years fashioning the company’s commercial portfolio. “And he succeeded.”
No one leaves a meeting uncertain of what to do or how to do it. Colleagues describe him as gracious, formal (the jacket stays on at work), composed, self-assured, polite, one who eschews curse words. He knows what he wants – that’s the perfectionist in him – but is eager to surround himself with the best people he can find, quiz them, and then refine the focus as necessary. Intimates say he is a quick and polished learner. “I challenge them,” Bren says. “Learn from them. Guide them. Follow up with deep involvement in the details of the company’s projects and issues. Ultimately, I understand that I am held responsible for our decisions and our actions.”
“He is not an architect by training,” one says, “but he is an architect.”
A business professional notes that Bren follows a leadership cue: He thinks a lot. Contrast that with most CEOs, who just do a lot.
Why has he succeeded where other developers have failed? If there is a singular gift, it is explained by former Executive Vice President Gary Hunt, who worked a quarter-century at the company. “Donald has a unique ability to visualize, to bring focus and discipline to the planning, land development and business process.”
The Irvine Co. has 480 employees; some 800 work in a separate company managing the apartment portfolio; there is one boss.
“It’s all very strategic,” says Jack Kyser, chief economist for the L.A. County Economic Development Corp., a business association that helps with economic development research throughout Southern California. Kyser understands the geographic importance of a county located between the two pincers of Los Angeles and San Diego.
“He has created lasting value there. You can say, ‘He who has the best located dirt in Southern California goes home with most of the marbles at the end of the day.'”
Bren dove in where others failed to go
Back in 1977 when the ranch was for sale, the challenge of developing such a large ranch, still mostly agricultural, was daunting – even to a serious, deep-pocketed possible suitor like Mobil Corp. However, Bren joined a group of investors for the purchase that year and in 1983 he moved to buy out all but a few minor investors. Suddenly he had his challenge, and his destiny.
“When Don bought the company, people told him it would take 100 years to develop (the ranch),” Sim recalls. “He said he’d like to just cut it to 40, so he could do it in his lifetime. And I believe he will.”
While the rule of thumb is that The Irvine Co. has about another 20 years of development – from planned and under-construction communities in Irvine to the final phases of the Irvine Spectrum – it is quickly becoming an in-fill organization. The major work is now done.
Credit for this tumbles in one direction. Homebuilder Stephen Scarborough has been building homes on the ranch for more than two decades. He is chairman and CEO of Standard Pacific Corp. in Irvine. “I don’t have a strong relationship (with Bren),” Scarborough says. “But looking at it from the outside, what’s remarkable about him is that he brings a new, fresh vision to every community that he approaches. It’s not the same; he’s always willing to do it differently and to do it better.”
The company’s much-copied master plan that incorporates homes, parks, schools, employment and shopping and religious centers has been refined by Bren while making him rich. His success has made him a key player in Republican politics and created a billionaire – according to Forbes Magazine’s annual listing of the 400 wealthiest Americans, Bren was ranked 39th last year with a reported worth of $4 billion. That put him slightly behind Kirk Kerkorian ($4.5 billion) and slightly ahead of David Geffen ($3.8 billion).
At age 70, “he’s a big hitter, as big as it gets,” reports one Sacramento-based reporter who follows state politics.
But great works often include a chapter called “Irony.” It is included in the book on Bren. While business decisions and good timing fill the company’s coffers, he may best be remembered for leaving a majority of the ranch as open space: A builder who left a lot alone.
If there is a legacy staring at him, it is the land left undeveloped that distinguishes this project as much as steady, income-producing properties and profitable land sales. In fact, the pieces engage perfectly: The open space adds tremendous value to the built land, which generates added income for the company.
“They are complementary,” Bren says, responding to the seemingly contradictory hats he wears as master builder and major conservationist.
“People judge the value of open space from unique and individual perspectives,” he says. “Some want to look at it. Some want to hike on it. Some view it as relief from development. Some view it as a buffer from their neighboring cities. Some view it as important for the preservation of habitat and plant and animal species. Almost everyone, though, views open space and large parkland as important to their quality of life. And so do I.”
To the Orange County that doesn’t know him, that sounds like a CEO who embraces the things the rest of us consider important. But to those few who know him well, his everyman’s view is not surprising at all.
Many of those interviewed for this story agree he is driven with an exceptional eye on how it will all play out in the long term, this sense of timelessness that is unusual to California planning and architecture. “You can always feel Don Bren’s presence,” says someone who has worked for him. “He brings an aesthetic feel to everything.”
Unlike other developers who buy land, build and leave, Bren’s love affair with Orange County began in his teens. The Los Angeles native spent time here sailing and visiting with friends. Bren was on his father’s winning yacht, Pursuit, in the first Newport to Ensenada race – then known as the Governor’s Cup Race – in 1948. From his hometown of Los Angeles, this was a nearby, exciting world. And after the Marine Corps, it became home base. Today Bren, who has three grown children, lives with his wife on Linda Isle in Newport Harbor.
“From my earliest days here, I loved the weather, the water, the sand, the sun and the land – all of which contributed to the unique Southern California outdoor lifestyle that we treasure as kids and adults here,” Bren says. “Like most young men, I dreamed of travel and escape. But at a fairly early age, I concluded that this may be one of the most beautiful and special places on earth, and that I felt more at home here than anywhere else.”
Bren traveled to Northern Italy to add focus for the 1989 major remodel of the company-owned Fashion Island. He flew to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, for inspiration for the Irvine Spectrum Center.
The result is a Bren ideal: What is built today on the Irvine Ranch is expected to have architectural relevance for generations – the shopping centers, the homes, the apartments, the low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise Irvine Spectrum buildings. Cathedral-like in longevity.
“I do believe if we plan well and comprehensively, commit to the highest quality design, architecture and construction, don’t be distracted by fads, and also commit to investment and renovation that keeps real estate fresh, we can enjoy our communities for ages,” Bren says. “That’s a lesson to be learned from the great cities of Europe that have survived for centuries and are so appealing.”
He has been more than a tourist.
“Early in my career, I developed a firm grounding in business, with a special passion for real estate. Over time, I have studied architecture, planning, design, landscape architecture, and the elements that make the best cities work and be livable. And I have dug deeply into finance, art, politics and public policy, and the law. I learned discipline and leadership in the Marine Corps. All have helped me succeed.”
Among his mentors is Ray Watson. The Irvine Co.’s former president – today he plays a less active role as vice chairman – preceded Bren’s involvement in the company by 17 years. Watson is credited with thinking beyond the San Fernando Valley-ization of the ranch. Rather than sell things piecemeal, and end up with a landscape of helter skelter, why not consider a grand plan? A master plan?
Years before Bren, Watson wondered about the future of what would be Irvine – the centerpiece of the Irvine Ranch – by asking, “What is a city?”
With Watson working through the initial phases and Bren dedicating a career to make the ranch whole, one of the many coincidences that have aided the company formed early, that is, Watson and Bren worked together, close to one mind.
At the beginning of the Bren years, the ranch had a master plan, but did it have a visionary? Watson says he expressed concern when Bren and a group of investors bought The Irvine Co. in 1977 for $337.4 million from the Irvine Foundation, a nonprofit formed by the Irvine family who first farmed the land when James Irvine bought it in 1864. Would this group follow and enhance the master plan in place, Watson wondered, or simply sell land to the highest bidder? Watson left the company that year – he became chairman of the Walt Disney Co. – and was lured back as a board member when Bren gained control in 1983. Twenty years ago next month, Bren secured ownership of 92 percent of the company for $518 million. Another $256 million was paid in 1991 to Irvine family member Joan Irvine Smith and her mother to settle litigation over the property’s worth at the time of the sale.
In 1987, Watson was back as vice chairman.
To Watson’s question of how the land would be developed, there was something elemental: Either way the Irvine Ranch would be a financial success because of its location – perfectly wedged between Los Angeles and San Diego – a coincidence of geography as the state exploded from a manageable, quaint 10 million residents in the 1950s to a Baby Boomer and job-heavy destination. What was impossible to know then was whether this part of Southern California’s urbanization could become a crown jewel.
What made Bren stand out, Watson now says, was his implementation of the master plan. “It was a piece of paper. It by itself does not guarantee success either as a community, as a place you like to live, to be successful financially, and it doesn’t tell you how to do it.”
Newport Center, where the company has its headquarters, is a case in point. When Watson arrived in 1960, cattle were roaming. “I built the first Fashion Island and he remodeled it in an incredible way. It’s more than remodeling: He redid it.” Fashion Island, one of the country’s most admired outdoor shopping centers, opened in 1967. An extensive remodel was completed in 1989. Years earlier it had an uninspired anchor in JCPenney, which got the boot. In the Bren years, Fashion Island became Newport Beach’s town center, from fountains and a koi pond that draw families to the guarantee of the nation’s tallest decorated Christmas tree each December.
That took money, it took time. Bren insisted on detail in the landscaping; a drive around Newport Center shows his affinity for Canary Island date palm trees. Do palm trees matter? Certainly, say those who work with him, who point out both his attention to detail and his understanding of how pieces add up to make the whole. Color matters as much to him as to the homeowner who studies the sun in choosing the most dramatic palette for an entryway. Elevation matters. Quality matters. If all of those details work, then a place like Fashion Island is not a shopping mall as much as it is a public gathering place.
Says former executive Sim: “I didn’t want to go to work for somebody who would cut corners and try to figure out how to build the least, to make the most.”
Finding a life in paradise – the Newport Beach years
Bren’s family – his late stepmother was the Oscar Award-winning actress Claire Trevor – moved to Newport Beach when he was in his late teens. It was here that his dreams took hold.
“As a young boy, it seems I was always good at building things, everything from models and kits to fixing and rebuilding bikes and cars,” he says. “I also had a fascination with architecture. Those interests led me toward homebuilding and community development after I served in the Marines. The process of building and seeing a finished product has always given me great satisfaction.”
The road led from an exactness with model kits to the Irvine Spectrum, today one of the country’s major job centers with 55,000 jobs and 2,500 companies. This was the place to live – a wanderlust gained from walking the same Newport beaches that teens gather on today.
The impact of the sun on his back created a sense of California Dreamin’ long before the Beach Boys put the words to music. Bren loves California’s potential as much as its weather.
Bren earned a degree in business administration and economics at the University of Washington. Influence came from his father, Milton Bren (a film producer who later was a real estate investor); Earle Jorgensen, his stepfather (the steel entrepreneur died in 1999 at age 101); and his stepmother, who helped guide his interest in art.
While enrolled at the university in the mid-’50s, Bren’s athletic abilities put him on the brink of an Olympic team. An excellent skier, he had a scholarship and finished in the top 10 at the National Alpine Ski Championships in 1956 – he also competed in track and volleyball.
“That gave me (an) academic and sports balance, which has been a balance I’ve tried to pursue throughout my lifetime,” Bren says.
He knew Billy Kidd, the American skier who would break an American medal drought at the 1964 Winter Games. But he did not accomplish the same feat. Bren was on the Olympic training team for 1956; an injury hurt his chances of making the Olympic team. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to participate at that level in any sport,” Bren now says. “It’s character-building.”
The challenge of young adulthood continued. Inspired by his father, a Navy commander in World War II, Bren joined up for three years in the Marine Corps, attaining a rank of first lieutenant through officer training. “I followed that tradition,” he says. “Wearing the Marine uniform, I just felt I could wear that with special pride.
“It’s a process; it’s a way of life. It’s an opportunity for a young man…to learn about discipline, responsibility.”
In 1958, Bren formed his first company, a homebuilding concern. He had done residential construction work in high school and college. As he prepared to leave the Marine Corps, he considered law school. A mentor, Robert Grant, an Orange County builder and family friend, encouraged a homebuilding career. Bren borrowed $10,000 from Bank of America, purchased a small, inside lot on Lido Island, built a custom home, sold it, and built more. The business grew.
More businesspeople with business sense crossed his path. One of the county’s icons, Arnold Beckman, is a mentor. He is equal parts famed scientist and noted philanthropist. His support of science education for school-age children may be as important as his inventions in that his philanthropy could be opening the mind of another Arnold Beckman. He is considered one of the top five inventors of scientific instruments.
Beckman “encouraged me to be a broader citizen who takes seriously the responsibility for philanthropy and involvement in politics and public affairs,” Bren says.
Bren has done all three – giving millions to education, particularly Irvine public schools and UC Irvine – and to Republican candidates that include another mentor, Gov. Pete Wilson.
One owner, new voices, an emerging city called Irvine
In terms of master planning, all eyes turn to the city of Irvine, a unique development in that as dirt turned into community, a single company owned the land and new voices of new residents rose to be heard, to shape their own future.
Watson, as the company’s planner, helped direct the city’s look in a series of villages, such as Turtle Rock and Woodbridge. These self-identified areas have given residents a place to call their own within a city they call home. They talk of villages, meaning neighborhood schools, nearby employment centers and a bevy of pocket and large-acreage parks that gain their own nicknames from everyday users – “Our Park,” “Far Park,” “Castle Park” and the like.
Rents and housing prices are high, a confluence of heavy demand and scant supply. The wish to live in the city of Irvine has prompted the plowing of many of the ranch’s signature crop land. Even now, change can be charted weekly on Jeffrey Road between I-5 and Irvine Boulevard. A Kohl’s store opens March 7 and an Albertson’s soon will be a neighbor on a parcel where vegetables grew just a few years ago. The view across the street is now unique – a piece of farmland still under cultivation.
The company’s architectural guidelines have taken some knocks over the years. But numerous properties evoke praise from consumers, users and designers, including the remodel of Fashion Island and the Irvine Spectrum Center. The feel of the newly developed Northpark residential area is much improved architecturally over some older neighborhoods – an example of the company’s ideas such as using a windrow of eucalyptus trees from the agricultural days to serve as the grand entrance and streets that meander rather than form straight edges.
Standard Pacific’s portfolio includes more than 4,200 new Irvine Ranch homes in the past 20 years. This includes homes in Northpark. Company CEO Scarborough believes his company has become a better builder because of the “process” and “architectural criteria” demanded by The Irvine Co.
“They truly care about creating a lasting environment that is going to be pleasant and beneficial to the community in the long run,” he says.
The city is known as a job center with fairly large homes on uniformly small lots, a growing Asian population, and a city management that flexed its muscle in the long battle over whether the El Toro airbase should become an international airport. The city won; a great park is now planned for most of that land.
“When the city was first developed, before Bren,” says one longtime observer, “Irvine was the butt of jokes because of its sameness, the putty-colored houses and cookie-cutter tracts. Now, it has become the model for similar communities across the country. What they’ve found is that in a master-planned community like this, crime is low, schools are good and streets are clean. The Irvine model has become the American Dream.”
The roots of the community began in 1960 when The Irvine Co. donated 1,000 acres of land for what would become UC Irvine and planner and architect William Pereira laid out work for creating a city. Watson came aboard that year and, in time, he met Bren.
It was on a 1965 trip to newly developed European communities – those connected by public transportation to Stockholm or distinctly self-contained in Great Britain – that several American builders received an education on what might work if they dedicated their lives to the effort. Among the self-described New Community Developers Group were Watson and Bren, then president of the Mission Viejo Co.; Bren was helping with the finishing touches on the county’s first master-planned city, 11,000-acre Mission Viejo. From Scotland to Helsinki to Copenhagen, this group saw what was taking shape, hoping each could take a piece of that knowledge to apply back home.
“It was a bringing together of a group of people in the industry struggling to do the same thing in the United States,” Watson recalls. Well aware that more goes into the building than the building, Watson and the others were curious: “What can we do? What can’t we do? What’s distinctive about our property?”
Watson knew the answer to that last question. The Irvine Ranch, at 93,000 acres more than three times the size of San Francisco, was much bigger than other New Community Developers Group members’ land (second came Columbia, Md., at 15,000 acres). The trip also was the cementing of a more than 35-year friendship. “Don and I shared all kinds of things – how to deal with developers, how to manage them so they contribute to the community,” Watson says.
Walter J. Richardson is the dean of Orange County residential architects who founded what is now known as RNM, Architects and Planners in 1958 in the ranch town of Tustin. He has designed homes and communities for 45 years across the Irvine Ranch. He says Watson set the standard for “controlled development quality” and recalls how Watson decreed that design had to come from architects rather than builders or engineers.
“Bren and The Irvine Co. get knocked around in the press sometimes by people bitching about overdevelopment,” Richardson says. “But the big picture is that everyone in Orange County is lucky that the Irvine Ranch – that huge chunk of land – was under the control of Bren instead of a bunch of different developers or someone with less vision.”
In Richardson’s view, there has been some disagreement about the Bren look over the years. “Back in the early days, we had freedom to do more contemporary design. I think of Promontory Point and some of the work we did in Turtle Rock. Bren brought an insistence on a Mediterranean style that stifled architectural creativity on the ranch. The Irvine Co. put out design guidelines having to do with using stucco and certain types of roof materials and certain color palettes that led to a sameness in the architecture that was frustrating to architects. We would have liked to see more variety.
“Things have loosened up a bit recently, with Bren allowing more Craftsman-style and Tuscan-type architecture and I think that is a very healthy thing.”
When Bren sold his interest in the Mission Viejo Co. in 1967, he focused his attention on his 9-year-old Bren Co. – today known as California Pacific Homes. Watson recalls, “He was one of the most imaginative homebuilders in the industry, and we invited him onto the ranch.
“It’s been a career sharing with each other of a challenge – to remind ourselves that we’re in the community development business, and Donald today is without peer. He has a single devotion to that challenge. The canvas is what is talked about, and it is what he will be remembered for.”
Bren as a military man
In October 1998, Bren, who served three years as a Marine officer in the late 1950s, and invited guests looked out to sea from the Pelican Hill Golf Course clubhouse, where Bren was being honored by the Marine Corps. A Navy ship, returning to San Diego after maneuvers, flashed a dash-and-light signal, congratulating him on the special night.
What is learned from war can be applied in peacetime. Gen. Carl Mundy, chairman of the Marine Corps University Foundation, wrote in his book, “The Marine Corps Experience”: “The aura (of a Marine) is of one who is different and of whom more is expected.”
Brig. Gen. Francis E. Quinlan, USMC reserve (ret.), helped arrange the evening to present the Semper Fidelis Award to Bren for his support of the Marine Corps University Foundation. The nonprofit helps the campuses that comprise the university, such as Officer Candidates School and Command and Control Systems School. It is the foundation’s highest award, with past recipients including the senior President George Bush, Gov. Wilson, Sen. John Glenn and the late Orange County Supervisor Thomas Riley. The Traditional Mess Night, as it is called, was attended by Gen. Charles C. Krulak, commandant of the Marine Corps, and then-Gov. Wilson.
Quinlan, an attorney with Kester & Quinlan in Corona del Mar, sees the Marine ethic in the businessman Bren.
What makes a Marine, he says, “is essentially getting through the first test, which is boot camp or Officer Candidates School. There is no certainty in finishing; the dropout rate and rejection rate are very high. Just to finish and be commissioned a second lieutenant is a huge achievement for a young person, because it’s a difficult process. At the ripe old age of 22, you realize you are one of the very few who have ever done this in history. And all of a sudden, you are no longer a callow kid thinking of yourself first. It’s your duty to seek to their needs, their care, to mentor them, to discipline them. It’s almost an overnight shift in adult responsibility. And it is one that you are trained to take seriously.”
Quinlan refers to an officer’s ability to care for the “critical details.”
He says that when a Marine goes into business, the ethic is deeply, permanently ingrained. You are not the same person, because you cannot be.
“You hold others to a high standard, but more than that, you hold yourself to a high standard.”
From The Marine Officer’s Guide, which Bren would have memorized, is a bit on the attributes of a leader: “…Some (leadership) qualities are industry, energy, initiative, determination, enthusiasm, firmness, kindness, justness, self-control, unselfishness, honor, and courage.”
The whir you hear is the Irvine Spectrum
Within the Irvine Spectrum, a signature piece called the Irvine Spectrum Center may be the best example of the Bren architectural influence. Phase I of the entertainment/retail complex opened in November 1995 with Moroccan touches; Phase II followed with the Moorish influence from the 13th century Alhambra citadel, palace and gardens; Phase III continues the character from the two but borrows from some of the villages surrounding Spanish architectural landmarks. Another developer may have thought, “cost-saving strip mall.” The company considered a way, as former retail division chief Rick Evans once put it, to “defy all the rules.”
That may define the business center as a whole. The Irvine Spectrum is key to the Irvine Ranch business world. A close associate marvels that what has emerged today is close to what Bren drew on the back of an envelope two decades ago.
Making it work meant hiring well. Dick Sim had been building business parks for most of his career when he joined the company in 1981, as the period of time when Bren would control the company neared. Those executives who would share the company’s ninth floor emerged: Bill McFarland, who oversaw the residential communities; Gary Hunt, who focused on government relations and communications; and Sim, who ran the company’s investment properties group – office, industrial, retail and apartment companies. Each served more than 20 years. (In the past three years, a new executive management team has been put into place, mostly executives who have been with the company for years.)
Sim, who retired in 2001 as chairman/investment properties group, helped shape the evolution of the Irvine Spectrum.
The plan was to create a steady, reliable stream of income. Sell the land outright and you’re left with nothing. Manage land well and you set the trend. The Irvine Spectrum was key.
“What he wanted to do was create an income property portfolio where he could take the profits from selling residential land, but keep the apartment land and the bulk of the commercial land and create a portfolio that would reinvest the profits back into the community, rather than taking those profits somewhere else,” Sim says.
“Eventually, when all the housing is sold, what’s left are the income properties. If you didn’t have those, there’d be no company. Now, there will always be a company.”
The 5,000-acre high-tech job center, bounded roughly by Bake Parkway, Jeffrey Road, Lake Forest Drive and the former El Toro Marine base, rivals, and in many ways exceeds in terms of diversity such giants as Silicon Valley, Route 128 in the Boston area, the Research Triangle in North Carolina, and the Tech Center in Austin, Texas.
The diverse job mix is key, in Bren’s view, and also passes the test he puts to any project – that of long-term viability.
“Rather than being too reliant on a single industry, a variety of business clusters have gained a solid foothold in Irvine Spectrum, and are recognized nationally,” Bren says. “Clusters like medical devices, biotechnology, computer hardware, computer software, telecommunications, and automobile design. This is significant because many companies want to be in close proximity to similar companies for the synergies and collaborations that are possible. That, of course, helped drive the creation and sustained growth of Silicon Valley. Thus, a significant cluster today becomes a magnet in the future.”
The Irvine Spectrum employs 55,000 people at some 2,500 companies. That’s about 20 percent of the employment base on the Irvine Ranch. In this 20-year company cycle, few things have turned out so well. Including the 7 1/2-year-old Irvine Spectrum Center, which has tweaked the retail universe by integrating entertainment such as the 21-screen Edwards Theatre and Dave & Buster’s, the Spectrum area has grown from 250 companies and 2,500 workers in 1984 to today’s numbers.
“Our strategy was to create jobs,” Sim says, recalling that the Spectrum two decades ago was mostly a bunch of bean fields. “If we created the jobs, that would provide a market for our apartments, our offices, our R&D, for our golf, for our marina, for our housing.”
That remains the company goal as the Spectrum continues to grow: A job creator near a large, talented work force. It’s Southern California, without the confusion of L.A.
Says Bren: “I am particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing more people to live in and near Irvine Spectrum. It’s a priority for us.”
The Spectrum has helped put Orange County on the map. The county is now known for other master-planned projects such as those on Rancho Mission Viejo in South County. And the South Coast Metro area that the Segerstrom family has developed through the leadership of Henry Segerstrom mixes retail giant South Coast Plaza with businesses and the county’s cultural center – the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory.
Both Bren and Segerstrom have made Orange County cool – for business, for work, for play.
“That’s important,” says Esmael Adibi, an economist and professor at Chapman University. “People like the headquarters of their business to be in a city that is recognizable to others. There’s been a stigma here. The Irvine Co. has helped move Irvine in the right direction, with the Irvine Spectrum as a high-technology growth area, and in the meantime developing planned communities that enhance both quality of life and also the living standard. That’s a positive.”
Says Bren: “In the end, of course, great communities are the product of the people who live in them. For us, the ultimate test of our success is whether people – who can live and invest anywhere – choose to live in communities on the Irvine Ranch.”
A campus becomes a university
Besides the land itself, the biggest opportunity Bren inherited when he bought into The Irvine Co. was UCI. He has been a major benefactor of the campus, which opened in 1965 to become one of the leading public research universities in the country.
What benefited Bren – every community of note needs its university – turned into a passion. He has donated more than $19 million to buildings and endowed chairs.
Why give at all, to any group? “First, because I believe we have an obligation to give back to the world when we have succeeded,” Bren answers. “Second, because I am able to. And, third, to make a difference in areas for which I have an interest and passion. For me, that is education, conservation, and the visual and performing arts.”
The Donald L. Bren Foundation focuses a majority of its funding on educational pursuits. These include UC Santa Barbara – in 1997, his $15 million gift created the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management – and Orange County school districts, where awards nights turn the spotlight on outstanding teachers and students. The foundation and the company have committed more than $140 million to K-12 schools and higher education over the past 20 years; Chapman University and Caltech also have benefited. Bren’s tremendous wealth could continue to deeply feed his interests.
Bren also is a leading UCI cheerleader.
“I’m not certain many people in Orange County fully appreciate the economic, intellectual, artistic and social stimulus that UCI represents in our region,” he says. “It really is a remarkable institution.
“Over time, I believe UCI’s prominent role as a major catalyst for economic growth will be better understood and appreciated. It will make contributions in medicine, computer science and the natural sciences that we can barely conceptualize today. I see its importance to our local economy as parallel to the role Stanford University played as the catalyst for the Silicon Valley. When that occurs, the world can look back to the early 1960s and document that that outcome was the early dream of William Pereira and The Irvine Co.’s first planners.”
It takes vision to create leadership, Jack Peltason believes. He is the former president of the UC system and a current board member of the Donald L. Bren Foundation. He met Bren in 1984 when Peltason was appointed UCI chancellor.
He says Bren saw the importance of education to the community because he understood that UCI “could serve the role as a cathedral of learning.”
“He’s a builder, but his building is more than just buildings. He wants to create an environment where people can live, grow and educate their children and live a positive life. He is a long-term, strategic, trend thinker. Quiet. But he has very high standards. He wants it to be not just a good university but a great university.
“He knows the difference between a good and great university is quality of staff and the students.”
Along with the growth of the University Research Park – another company idea to sell land to the campus, which now attracts businesses that want to develop partnerships and take advantage of faculty talent – the university serves as an incubator for new, entrepreneurial businesses. It owns a wealth of knowledge in fields such as science and medicine, and serves as a recruitment center: Each year, more than 6,500 undergraduates receive degrees.
Says Bren about education: “It is the foundation to enjoying a constructive and satisfying life in a complex, difficult world.”
Peltason expands on that. “He realizes that knowledge is the foundation of not only how to produce our wealth in the future, but how to live with each other. It is to the next century what raw materials were to the previous centuries.”
All politics are local: Donald Bren and company involvement
When one company owns the land and one city emerges from it, alliances, passion, and familial infighting become entwined. So it is with the 32-year-old city of Irvine and a company with roots going back to the 1800s.
Mayor Larry Agran says his relationship with Bren “divides conveniently into two periods I served on the City Council.” In the 1980s, the fight was to preserve open space.
“At that time, there was no open space agreement and so with every development proposal brought by the company we would slug it out because of all the uncertainty people felt about the vanishing open space.
“Donald Bren naturally was focused on development and the built community and my focus was on open space.”
Agran was mayor from 1982-1984 and then again from 1986-1988 at a time when the title was rotated among council members. He was elected mayor from 1988-90, defeated, and elected to four-year terms in 1998 and 2002. His power rests in the majority he shares with council members Chris Mears and Beth Krom.
“The big change in my relationship with Mr. Bren and The Irvine Co. came when I returned as mayor in 1998 and by this time the Open Space Agreement was in place, had worked well and was being honored by both sides,” Agran says about the 1988 voter approval to preserve more than 13,000 acres throughout the city. “The dominant issue was El Toro. The Irvine Co. stayed neutral during the fight over El Toro but in the ’90s I always characterized their neutrality as tilting toward an airport. At that time they expected an airport was going to be built. By 2000, the company was still neutral but it began to see that the fight against an airport was going to succeed and they were attracted to the idea of a great park. In the end they were neutral but tilting toward a great park.”
Agran finds it interesting that the two men’s roles have flipped. “Now it seems like 80 percent of the energy and focus of the meetings with Mr. Bren is on open space. He is very knowledgeable and proud of the open space that the company has dedicated. In the ’80s, my focus was open space; today I have shifted to overseeing the buildout of the city.”
The huge planned city development called the Northern Sphere is a case in point. With the defeat of an El Toro international airport, some of the land near the closed Marine base can develop with homes as much of the El Toro land is set aside for a great park. The city and the company faced a lawsuit last year in which Defend the Bay, an environmental group created to protect the Newport Bay and public areas, argued that the 7,743-acre project to build more than 12,000 homes for 35,000 residents – along with 7 million square feet of commercial space – was too dense. Defend the Bay Founding Director Robert Caustin says the size of the development reflects a company that does not consider the best interests of the city. “It will increase traffic and decrease the quality of life,” he says. “For (Bren) to think he’s creating a future utopia, it’s not a utopia for the people who live there now.” Caustin believes the company flexes its political muscle to get local officials elected who will support projects such as this.
In December, a judge threw out the lawsuit, saying the city’s environmental impact report was adequate. Planning moves forward; no appeal is planned.
Says Agran: “In 2020, if my health holds out, I will be able to see the buildout of the city. It will all work.”
While Agran works through the prism of a politician, he sees the result as businessman Bren does. “I think Bren really does think of himself as an artist painting this vast mural that is the Irvine Ranch. He is a very good planner and sets very high standards. He has a good eye; just look around Irvine at the built environment.”
A point person covered the political landscape
No one was closer to the government relations and political support of the Bren years than Gary Hunt, who worked for his boss even predating The Irvine Co. years. Among numerous duties, Hunt helped with major entitlement projects, guided strategic planning and served on the company board of directors and executive committee.
His government relations role provided entrée to several duties. For example, he was the deputy director of the Republican National Convention in 1980 and was a delegate and alternate delegate to the 1996 and 2000 Republican National Conventions. He was state finance vice chairman for Gov. Pete Wilson in 1990 and 1994. The landscape felt familiar; Hunt had been director of the California Republican Party in 1974 when he met Bren; he was hired two years later.
Hunt was key to government relations and political activism for more than two decades. The then-executive vice president took volunteer time from the company in 2000 to be state vice chairman for George W. Bush’s presidential campaign. (Hunt retired from the company in February 2001 and now is partner of California Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm. He works from the Irvine office.)
Bren, a Republican, has supported local, state and national figures with money, advice and people. He also understands from a business standpoint that both parties matter. The California Secretary of State reports that Bren gave nearly $140,000 in the election year of 2000, most to the state Republican Party. The Irvine Co.’s donations (more than $735,000 from July to December of last year) are decidedly more bipartisan. The company contributed to Republican state Sen. Jim Brulte, but also to Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat. According to a Los Angeles Times report from last November, The Irvine Co. and Bren were Orange County’s third-largest political donator from 1991-2002, at more than $810,000 – a total that only includes funds funneled to the Republican Party.
Hunt points out that Bren’s focus isn’t to burnish party loyalty but to be a business pragmatist. Bren’s “underlying philosophy, how business interacts with government, is the word partnership. In all of the aspects of his business, partnership runs throughout it.” In fact, Hunt adds, it is a three-pronged approach: “There is partnership; a responsibility to participate in the democratic process; and the third word that jumps out is quality.”
Bren can sit with someone like Agran. Agran once ran for U.S. president as a Democrat but is first and foremost the mayor of Irvine.
“If one of the components isn’t adequately weighed in the equation, you don’t end up with the win-win for everybody,” Hunt says. “So when you go on to the next effort, you’ve created an imbalance in the system.”
And what of the 40-year anniversary?
Some two decades of new development remains; the 40-year anniversary of the Bren years may be marked by laying the final brick on a high-rise, or the cornerstone for the last newly built home.
“We’ll celebrate at that time what we built in the way of new communities, planned communities, and that that we didn’t build, meaning the open space and parks,” he says.
Today, the company is run by key managers who are a combination of longtime employees and youthful leaders: Vice Chairman and COO Michael McKee; Community Development President Joseph Davis; Investment Properties President Clarence Barker; Urban Planning/Design Senior Vice President Robert Elliott; Corporate Affairs Senior Vice President Monica Florian; Entitlement Senior Vice President Dan Young; and Public Affairs Senior Vice President Larry Thomas.
Businesspeople who work with The Irvine Co. use this description: It is always a tough negotiation. But builders continue to put up homes, people buy them, and companies move into the Irvine Spectrum.
“I’m particularly proud of the team of people here at The Irvine Co., the people whom I work with on a daily basis,” Bren says. “They are exceptional, they face the challenge of dealing with the 20-year buildout, the balance of the master plan.”
Is he one of those people who can retire at some point and still have a meaningful life?
“I’m not sure,” Bren responds. “I don’t think about retirement. It doesn’t appeal to me as much as my work here.”
By opening his own cloak of privacy a bit, Bren unveils a human touch behind the famous name while being who he is: a very powerful person who very few know well.
As Jim Doti, Chapman University president, recalls from a luncheon together: “He’s not a real talkative guy, but he listens very well. I could sense that when I had something to say, he would listen, absorb it and have follow-up questions.” In fact, Doti, who holds the Donald Bren Distinguished Chair of Business and Economics, believes Bren’s staying clear of the limelight can do nothing but help his company.
“You look at those who really do their job for their shareholders…in this case with a major public impact…and the most successful ones are the ones who let the organization speak for itself,” Doti observes. “Actions speak louder than words.”
Says Irvine Mayor Larry Agran: “I think Mr. Bren is in that phase of life when you start to add it up and ask what’s it all been about.”
And longtime associate Gary Hunt says: “The question is, has everyone benefited from his vision? The families who live here, the businesses that are located here, the environment, and future generations? And clearly, the answer is yes.”
To put into a phrase Bren’s special business ability, those interviewed essentially tell the story of two roads converging on the Irvine Ranch that brought inspiration to many who touch it: One is that a single owner controlled the land, escaping the pell-mell of competing development interests that show no focus, rhyme, reason or care.
The other is that the owner was Donald Bren.
OC METRO Editor Kevin O’Leary and Senior Writer Steve Thomas contributed to this report. Writer Sandy Bennett provided online research