When people think business in Orange County, they still think developers. Half of the executives chosen as most influential by their peers in The Times' executive outlook survey are builders.
By far the biggest choice was Irvine Co. Chairman Donald L. Bren.
But many of the 562 executives who responded to the poll named nobody as most influential: 61% left that space blank.
In subsequent interviews, some executives attributed the low response rate to the diversity of the county's economy, in which no single industry predominates as the building industry once did.
The executives said the county's burgeoning high-technology and service industries tend to produce chief executives who are less flamboyant than the large developers and who have less at stake in terms of local controversies such as zoning and growth.
"The developers are influential because they get the most local exposure--they're always in front of a city council or the Board of Supervisors dealing with controversial issues," said Leland J. Hendrie, president and chief executive officer of PHD Insurance Brokers in Garden Grove.
"By comparison, the guy running a manufacturing plant is never going to get into the paper."
Said Charles Rinehart, president and chief executive of Avco Financial Services in Irvine: "I left that answer blank because in my mind nobody stands out. Maybe we don't have such a person."
Other executives said they named Bren, 55, because the Irvine Co. owns such a vast amount of local land, about one-sixth of the county's total.
A reserved man who avoids publicity, Bren was named by 22% of the executives.
"He was the first to come into my mind because of the Irvine Co. and the power he has to make things happen," said Donald Ray Williams, owner of Trail-Rite, a boat trailer manufacturer in Santa Ana.
"In this county, it's the construction industry that makes things happen."
Developers were seen by some executives as shaping not only the physical layout of the county but the political landscape as well, because they are major political contributors to the local politicians who decide planning and zoning matters.
A blunt observation from outside the building industry came from Anthony D. Christopher, president of Tustin defense contractor A & J Manufacturing: He said he named "the builders because they control all the politicians."
Another 9% of the executives named Henry T. Segerstrom as most influential. Managing partner at C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, Segerstrom is a noted contributor to the arts and developer of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa.
And 3% named William Lyon, a prominent Republican and chairman of William Lyon Co. in Newport Beach, Southern California's largest home builder.
The executives named eight other business people, but together they accounted for only 5% of the total.
Among them were four more developers:
* George L. Argyros of Arnel Development, a Costa Mesa developer and owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.
* Donald M. Koll, chairman and chief executive officer of Koll Co., a Newport Beach builder and developer that owns several billion dollars' worth of buildings on the West Coast.
* Anthony R. Moiso, president of the Santa Margarita Co., which owns 40,000 acres in Orange County and is developing the new town of Rancho Santa Margarita. Moiso is an outspoken critic of the pending slow-growth initiative.
* Ray Watson, a vice chairman of the Irvine Co. who is close to Bren and who helped set the course of the company years ago as its senior planner.
"The poll results don't really surprise me," said Roger Tompkins, regional vice president at State Farm Insurance's Southern California office in Costa Mesa.
"When you look at who's sponsoring the arts and cultural events, they tend to be the same guys, and those tend to be developers."
Those outside the building industry who were chosen by the executives as most influential were:
* Roger W. Johnson, chairman, president and chief executive of Western Digital in Irvine, a manufacturer of computer products and the county's largest technology company.
* Carl N. Karcher, chairman and founder of Carl Karcher Enterprises in Anaheim, operator of the Carl's Jr. fast-food chain.
* Arnold O. Beckman, founder and chairman of scientific instrument manufacturer Beckman Instruments in Fullerton, whose Beckman Foundation has given away more than $100 million.
* Harry G. Bubb, chairman and chief executive of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance in Newport Beach, the state's largest life insurance company.
LOCAL BUSINESS LEADERS
Twenty-two percent of local CEOs rank Donald Bren as the most influential person in Orange County business.
CEOs with In Business All CEOs Opinions Donald Bren 22% 56% Henry Segerstrom 9 23 William Lyon 3 8 Other 5 13 Don't know 61 --