Donald Bren at Irvine Co. headquarters in Newport Beach. (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
Among Donald Bren's fondest childhood memories are the weekends on Lido Isle, a man-made jewel on the Orange County coast. He'd trek down from the Westside with his best friend's family and spend long hours rowing in Newport Harbor.
As Bren reminisced nearly seven decades later, he turned to the floor-to-ceiling view from his ninth-floor conference room, taking in Fashion Island, Newport Harbor, Lido Island and the shimmering blue Pacific.
"Long story short," he said, smiling, "I didn't go very far."
Today, Bren is the sole shareholder of Irvine Co., one of the most successful real estate firms in U.S. history, owner of the Irvine Ranch and more than 600 premium office buildings, shopping centers, apartment communities and resort properties. He's also Southern California's wealthiest man and America's richest land developer, with a net worth Forbes estimates at $12 billion, twice that of Eli Broad.
At age 78, he has begun to talk openly about a reality with far-reaching implications: that, one day, all of this will be owned and run by someone else.
In a series of recent conversations, Bren said he has made plans for Irvine Co. to continue as a private company controlled by its independent board of directors, which will choose a new chairman. The beneficiaries, he says, will be a combination of public and private entities, which he declined to specify.
"This is a private company that is set up to operate in perpetuity," he said.
Bren has been more than just the owner; for more than three decades, he's been its entrepreneurial heart.
"Clearly, Donald Bren is the Irvine Co. and the Irvine Co. is Donald Bren," said John Cushman, chairman of the commercial real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield. Imagining the firm without Bren, he added, is akin to pondering what Berkshire Hathaway will be without Warren Buffett.
Over the years, Bren has sculpted the look of modern suburbia in California and, in the process, become one of the country's largest and most-copied developers of planned communities.
He's also preserved and donated to the public more acres of California's open spaces than he has developed, including 20,000 acres of pristine wilderness that he gave to Orange County last year, asking only that it remain open space forever. ("It's all yours," he told the parks chief at the ceremony, where he also donated money to help manage it.)
Along the way, Bren has given away $1.3 billion of his fortune, much of it to bolster education, including millions to public school arts and science programs and $200 million to the University of California.
"In terms of great visionaries who have influenced Southern California, I'd put him up there with Walt Disney," said Rick Caruso, who owns the Grove and other shopping meccas and is a member of the Irvine Co. board.
These days, Bren remains focused on running his company. He dresses in a suit and tie and drives himself to work for a full day of meetings with colleagues, and leaves each evening with a briefcase stuffed full of what he calls "my homework," articles on history or science that have caught his eye as well as drawings and plans for Irvine Co. properties.
Sometimes, he'll sit at his home drafting table at night, studying designs for houses, office buildings, shopping centers or resorts.
"He'll blow in the next morning with a whole wad of tracing paper and overlap drawings for all of our projects," said Robert Elliott, senior vice president in charge of the 23-person design team. "It's amazing, because hardly anybody draws anymore. But he draws very well."
The corporate ethos reflects Bren's personality, a mix of self-discipline, creativity and entrepreneurship salted with an abiding thirst for knowledge.
But the man who runs this influential company is something of a mystery. He doesn't like to talk about himself and limits his outside engagements. Those kinds of things, he said, "take focus and energy away from the challenges required to build a new city. I do limit my exposure to the public. You only have so much time."
Bren looks years younger than his age, with a ruggedly handsome face and the sturdy frame of an athlete. He was a top-flight downhill skier as a young man, and attended the University of Washington on an athletic scholarship. He missed a chance to make the 1956 Olympic team when he broke his ankle in a fall on the slopes.
Bren, his wife, Brigitte, a 45-year-old lawyer, and their 7-year-old son spend many weekends at their ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Bren still tackles the black diamond runs.
Former Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth and his wife, Ginny, have joined the family for sailing vacations on the Mediterranean, but they draw the line at the winter slopes. "We don't ski well enough to keep up with Don and Brigitte," he said with a laugh.