The Greatest Story Never Told? The Irvine Company turns 150.

Larry Thomas, January 17, 2014

The Irvine Company turns 150 this year in typical low-key and modest fashion that befits a real estate power whose name is on only one building in its massive real estate portfolio – its Newport Beach headquarters overlooking Fashion Island.

Its corporate culture is proud, professional, all business – sophisticated, at that – and not very sentimental. But bragging is discouraged and even rebuked.

The company aggressively markets its products – office and retail space, apartments and homes, hotels and golf courses – but seeks no special attention for itself (the exception being its legacy of open space protection).

There’s a sense it wants to be judged by what it does, not by what it says.

The company is celebrated mostly for creating the city of Irvine, attracting and nurturing UC Irvine, and earning national recognition for its open space conservation efforts – each a monumental accomplishment.

Less appreciated and understood is the Irvine Company’s standing after 150 years as one of California’s most enduring and consequential companies, an economic giant that continues to nurture economic growth in the entrepreneurial hot spots of Orange and San Diego counties, the west side of Los Angeles, and Silicon Valley.

From its much-acclaimed roots as a master planner and master builder on The Irvine Ranch – which included Irvine, as well as important parts of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Tustin, Orange, and Anaheim – the Irvine Company has grown into the largest real estate company in California.

Its large, diverse and high-quality investment portfolio totals nearly 95 million square feet and, at last count, includes 116 apartment communities, 484 office buildings, 41 retail centers, and five yacht marinas. It also includes world-class resort properties and golf courses.

When the company was founded in 1864, Abraham Lincoln had just delivered his Gettysburg Address and California had barely achieved statehood. The Irvine Ranch was devoted to cattle, and, eventually, agriculture.

In the late ’50s, facing enormous pressure to sell off parts of the ranch to development that was oozing south from Los Angeles, its owners made one of the most important decisions in Orange County history: to transform itself into a master planner and master builder, starting with a new University of California campus surrounded by a new university-oriented city – both built from scratch.

If you think about it, only a handful of California companies have been in continuous operation for 150 years through wars, depressions, economic downturns, or seismic changes caused by new inventions and approaches that often weed out those that can’t move quickly and adapt.

Some of the most recognizable are Pacific Gas and Electric, Wells Fargo, Levi’s, Ghirardelli, San Francisco Chronicle, Shreve & Company, Boudin Bakery, and Tadich Grill. Western Title Insurance & Guaranty Company was founded in 1948, but was acquired by Fidelity National Title in 1987. Times-Mirror Co. was founded in 1884, but in recent years was purchased by the Tribune Company.

In some important respects, the Irvine Company’s evolution, success and impact is perhaps a local version of the greatest story never told.

The company’s business genius and financial success is the direct result of its comprehensive and integrated land use planning, the fresh cutting-edge appeal of its properties, timeless architecture, the highest-quality materials and design elements, lush landscaping, massive reinvestment to stay ahead of market trends and customer demands, and pursuit of excellence in all that it does.

This concert plays out at Fashion Island and Newport Center, The Resort at Pelican Hill, Crystal Cove, Irvine Spectrum, Shady Canyon, Jamboree Center, The Market Place that straddles Tustin and Irvine, University Research Park adjacent to UC Irvine, MacArthur Court, and countless other villages, enclaves and special venues.

It’s in the DNA of projects it owns and operates beyond our county line.

Decades ago, as it was in transition from an agricultural company to a real estate development company, the company boldly lured Pacific Life Insurance from downtown Los Angeles to Newport Center. This year, Pacific Life’s remarkable progeny – PIMCO – will move into its new high-rise built by the Irvine Company to keep PIMCO in Newport Beach.

This constant effort to attract new, appealing and growing companies to its properties has been an enormous catalyst for our area’s economic strength and stability, as well as a key element in the quality of life we enjoy.

It is a story of a company’s unbridled optimism about our area as well as California, a giant vision, a lofty and sophisticated sense of purpose, bold moves, huge risks, patience, and a determination to do things right and well.

Not everyone’s a fan of the company, as I learned over 20 years as its head of corporate communications. Years of corporate decisions of this magnitude are going to bruise someone. But most everyone who invested alongside the company and Donald Bren has realized outsized returns and other benefits of living and working in the clean, attractive, energetic, and appealing suburban environment they created.

Even detractors find themselves acknowledging the company’s pragmatism, responsiveness to community concerns, and sense of balance and quality in its planned communities, including abundant parks and open space. It has protected such gems as Crystal Cove State Park, Newport’s Back Bay, the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, 8,000 wild acres at Newport Coast, portions of the open space that rings Laguna Beach, and Bommer Canyon in Irvine, among others.

What I often heard was some variation of “If it had to be developed, thankfully it was the Irvine Company that did it.”


Land. Legacy. Life.®