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Koll Steps Down as CEO of Namesake Development Firm

Management: Steven Van Amburgh is named as successor. The move is seen as a shift away from high-risk projects.


Donald Koll, one of Southern California's leading commercial real estate developers, is stepping down as chief executive officer of the company that he founded almost 40 years ago.

Koll, 67, will remain chairman of Koll Development Co. in Newport Beach, but succeeding him as chief executive is Steven Van Amburgh. The 48-year-old Van Amburgh has been directing Koll's Dallas office for 12 years, turning that unit into one of the company's most profitable divisions.

Analysts say the management changes, which were not unexpected, signal a strategic shift by Koll to put greater emphasis on more conservative projects, rather than high-risk speculative building that has been its staple in California.

"Somebody is thinking about the overall economy and saying, 'We don't want to get into an exposed position,' " said Rick Chichester, a managing director at the commercial brokerage CB Richard Ellis' office in Anaheim. "They want to be cautious."

Donald Koll has a stake in CB Richard Ellis and is part of a group that has made a bid to buy the firm, which is based in Los Angeles.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Van Amburgh said that given the prospects for slower economic growth over the next 12 to 24 months, Koll intends to create a more balanced portfolio between so-called spec buildings and those that are constructed with certain tenants in mind, or build-to-suit properties in industry lingo.

Koll currently has 49 projects under construction nationwide, half of them in California, with a total value of more than $1 billion. But about 80% of Koll's projects in California are spec building, whereas that share is closer to 50% in Dallas and Detroit, said Van Amburgh.

Koll won't be abandoning spec building in California--in fact, the company plans to announce shortly new speculative projects of roughly 250,000 square feet each in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. But Van Amburgh said that over the next one to two years, half the projects launched will be build-to-suit.

Van Amburgh, a native of the Dallas area, said the decision to shift the company's course came from Koll himself. "On a daily basis, he saw a need for more balance," Van Amburgh said.

Koll was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

Koll started the company in 1962 as a general contractor. Then, most of Orange County's commercial activity and jobs were in the northern part of the county, in industries such as aerospace and tourism. But Koll, along with the Irvine Co., was among the earliest to create mid- and high-rise buildings in the Irvine and Newport Beach areas, which in turn led to a large concentration of offices around John Wayne Airport and the development of south Orange County.

Among the company's best known buildings are Koll Center Irvine, an office, hotel and retail complex of 1.5-million square feet, and Irvine Concourse, a 1.2-million square foot office and hotel center.

"He was a major force in developing the airport area and South County," said Walter Hahn, a real estate economist at E&Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group in Irvine.

In more recent years, Koll came to be identified with the controversial proposed project at Bolsa Chica, a 1,600-acre wetland in coastal Orange County. Development efforts there were opposed by environmentalists, and long delays on that project forced Koll into bankruptcy reorganization a few years ago. Koll eventually abandoned its plan.

Overall, Koll has developed more than 85 million square feet of office, industrial and retail space throughout the U.S., Mexico and Pacific Rim. The company has seven regional offices across the nation.

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