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O.C. ENTERPRISE / DEBORA VRANA : Latina Mixes Business, Social Responsibility : Debbie Aguirre's construction company is filling a niche for minority- and woman-owned businesses in the county.

August 23, 1993|DEBORA VRANA

It wasn't until she decided to start her own construction company that Debbie Aguirre decided that being Latina could be a professional plus in the male-dominated world of commercial real estate development.

After nearly 20 years working in Orange County real estate, Aguirre's experience--and her company's status as a minority- and female-owned business--allows her to qualify for certain construction contracts set aside for such businesses.

"It was like a light bulb going on," she said. "I spent so much time not being a woman or a Hispanic, for the first time in my life I thought it could be an asset," she said.

Aguirre, 38, has learned her craft and paid her dues. She started in the business at 19 as a real estate sales agent. Now, with several prestigious design awards under her belt, including a Gold Nugget award from the Pacific Coast Builders Conference for a housing project in Thousand Oaks, and valuable contacts in the industry, she wants to do business her own way.

About a year ago, Aguirre founded Tierra Pacifica Corp. to work on mostly public infrastructure projects, such as schools, roads and housing. But given the long-term downturn in the local real estate market, some would ask why anyone would start a construction company in this climate.

Especially puzzling is why Aguirre would give up her prestigious job as director of development for Lincoln Property Co., a national real estate development and construction firm.

"I started a construction company because I saw opportunities in the public sector that weren't available in the private sector--the opportunity to revitalize neighborhoods, schools and communities," she explained.

With her company, Aguirre as president said she not only wants to make money but guide Tierra Pacifica by certain principals. And that means abiding by her socially responsible communitarianism philosophy.

Aguirre wants to give a small portion of her profits to the needy to make Orange County a better place to live.

"It's the right thing to do. Not only are we stimulating the local economy by building something--we take on the philosophy of community and it spreads," she said. "If you don't do something to make it better, it just gets worse. I was born and raised in Southern California. I don't want to pick up and move to Oregon or Washington. I want to make it better here." The company plans to give a portion of profits to needy groups such as Project Self Sufficiency, a battered women's center in Huntington Beach that is slated to receive $1,000, and encourages its subcontractors to do the same. Tierra Pacifica also holds food and clothing drives.

But there won't be profits if business isn't going well, and that is Aguirre's first concern. The company, which now has 13 employees, expects its first annual profit on revenues of nearly $10 million by the end of 1993.

"Balancing those two motives is an art form. We think the values you hold when you go home and open the door should be the same type of values you hold when you open the glass business door and go into the work environment," said Aguirre, who oversees all phases of Tierra Pacifica's construction operations.

Current projects include a $3.5-million, 15-home single-family housing project in Huntington Beach and a $3.4-million, 133-unit senior apartment project for the city of Westminster. Tierra Pacifica is bidding on several other construction projects, including a 914-unit student housing complex at the University of California at Los Angeles and a new border crossing building at Calexico.

Tierra Pacifica has a joint venture agreement with Birtcher Construction Ltd. of Laguna Niguel, wherein the two companies bid on certain projects that require minority participation, said Thomas G. Ostensen, senior vice president with Birtcher.

"She is a marvelous person and an astute businesswoman," said Ostensen.

Aguirre was born in Long Beach and used her savings to start the company with four partners, who also contributed. Aguirre will not reveal how much seed money was raised. To form the company, she invited several people she knew might be interested over to her house for pizza.

"All were at a certain level in their careers, with a certain level of dissatisfaction. It was a few months after the Los Angeles riots and many of us had the same social concerns."

Now, Aguirre said, every day that she drives to her subleased office space at the Irvine Spectrum, she feels like a winner.

"Honestly, I feel like a success every day I get up and come to work. So many companies are folding around us, just being in the game makes us a success."

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