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Brokerages Find a Gold Mine in Leisure World : Retirement Community's Affluent Residents Are Big Source of Investment Cash

February 02, 1986|JAMES S. GRANELLI | Times Staff Writer

Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. has found its Laguna Hills regional headquarters a pleasant, if not slightly embarrassing, surprise.

Some Laguna Hills stockbrokers enjoy telling how Dean Witter all but backed into its Orange County offices next to the main gate of Leisure World.

The brokerage company's regional headquarters in Laguna Beach had opened a small satellite office in Laguna Hills in 1975. When the satellite began outselling the main office, Dean Witter moved to the retirement village in 1977 to take advantage of the riches there. It closed the Laguna Beach location in 1982.

"On a per-broker basis, the satellite outsold Laguna Beach," says Thomas J. Doherty, branch manager of the Southern California region, although he says it was a combination of factors that led to the office move.

Still, the move underscores the recent rush by securities brokers and other financial institutions to the nation's largest gated retirement community.

The one-time bean fields outside Leisure World, part of the old Moulton Ranch that developer Ross W. Cortese bought in 1962, have sprouted at least nine securities brokerage houses, five banks, 12 savings institutions and numerous other money handlers. The institutions have turned a five-block area outside Leisure World's main gate off El Toro Road and Paseo de Valencia into a supermarket of financial services. And many more brokers, bankers and lenders are a short distance away.

Retirement communities attracting brokers is not unusual. For instance, Robert Thomas Securities, which has a franchise operation in Laguna Hills, and its parent company, Raymond James & Associates, are based in the nation's premier retirement city, St. Petersburg, Fla. But Leisure World, which opened in September, 1964, is different. The development has an intense concentration of money and is located in a growing part of an affluent county.

"If we had a chance to go to Leisure World or eight miles away where there is no bus service, we would be leaving a major market behind by going further south," says Michael Zaccaro, branch manager for Prudential-Bache Securities, which opened its office in February, 1984.

Most of the brokerage firms--from the huge, New York wire houses to the small, regional operations--have arrived during the last two years or so to set up shop near where they expect the center of the county's wealthier population to be in 10 or 15 years.

"It's the largest growth of upper wealth in the county," says Zaccaro. "We want to attract investors from Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo and especially Irvine. So we're as far south as we can get and still serve both areas."

The brokers could have gone to those nearby communities, but it was Leisure World that attracted them to Laguna Hills.

Doherty recalled one customer's reason for liking the financial community outside the main gate: "He said if he couldn't drive later on, he could walk over."

Just how major a market the community has become is borne out by U.S. Census and Leisure World statistics.

About 21,000 mostly retired people (the average age is 76 years old) live in 12,736 units on 2,095 acres. Their homes, from apartment cooperatives to single-family dwellings, range in price from $40,000 to $400,000--and the price does not include the land, which is owned by three Leisure World housing corporations.

Affluent Population

The per-capita income of Leisure World residents last year was about $20,580, according to the National Planning Data Corp., a research company based in Pittsburgh.

The company estimates, by comparison, that the county's per-capita income was $13,974 and the state's was $11,763. Brokers estimate the average Leisure World estate at $300,000 to $400,000.

The five bank branches in the mini-financial center outside the main gate of Leisure World collectively reported total deposits of more than $343.1 million as of last June 30.

Don McKee, manager of the Security Pacific National Bank branch outside Leisure World says his branch's $97.55 million in total deposits, as of June 30, were "one of the largest in (Security Pacific's) whole bank system." A First Interstate Bank spokeswoman says its Leisure World branch, with more than $119 million in total deposits, is one of the bank's top performing branches.

The residents often were captains of industry--retired corporate executives, bank executives, publishing executives and successful doctors, dentists and lawyers. At least three retired Army generals and two Navy admirals, along with a retired German U-boat captain from World War I, live in Leisure World.

Most of the residents in the development come from out-of-state and are more familiar with the stock market than their California counterparts, whose experience is often limited to real estate markets, brokers say.

Flush With Cash

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