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How America's Wealthiest Real Estate Mogul Got So Rich


Donald Bren is the country's richest real estate mogul, worth $15.2B, and chairman of The Irvine Co. But he didn't even found the company, which started about 150 years ago as a ranching outfit. So where did all that dough come from? Bisnow investigated. (Finally, an excuse to wear our spurs and chaps!)


Donald (snapped by our publisher in one of his rare public appearances in 2011) has spent his whole life in real estate, with his first project dating to the late 1950s, when he took out a $10k loan to build a house in Newport Beach. Today that won't cover the annual rent on one of those sexy Millennial apartments developers like him are salivating over. Quite the humble start for a guy who runs one of the country's largest companies, with more than 500 office properties, about 50 shopping centers and at least 50,000 apartments


Donald, 82, worked in his father's buildings as a carpenter's helper (details are slim, but Milton Bren helped develop the Sunset Strip in LA). After a stint in the Marines, he took full advantage of the WWII residential construction boom, building scores of houses (think yellow stoves and washer/dryer combos) in Orange County, CA. He went on to develop the master plan for 10,000 acres that would become Mission Viejo. All this led to Bren Co being bought by International Paper in 1970 for $34M (though he later bought it back). But the real money came in a few years later, when he took a big risk, putting a couple of investors together to buy a stake in the Irvine Co, which now owns a 97.3% stake in the iconic MetLife Building in Manhattan (recently made known—he's been quietly building the investment since it traded in 2005). Tishman, which paid $1.79B for the office that year, is still the managing partner, seemingly making it an investment play for Donald. 


After picking up a 35% stake in Irvine Co in 1977, he spent nearly two decades not-so-slowly pushing out his partners. His move for power began when he borrowed $560M to start increasing the size of his slice. An epic legal battle ensued, concluding in 1996 with Donald forcing out the great-granddaughter of the family-owned business' founder, James Irvine. Courts eventually made Donald pay Joan Irvine Smith not even half of what she wanted for the family's shares, or about $240M. And with that, Donald had the Irvine Ranch, nearly 100,000 acres upon which to build a fortune. (The life of a cowboy can be a solitary one.)


Just when you think things can't get any more dramatic, it seems Donald has his eyes on Silicon Valley. Last year, his firm broke ground on Santa Clara Square, which upon delivery will include 1.2M SF of office. In January, he also bought an office park in Santa Clara. And it's not just the coasts, as Irvine Co picked up a 1.3M SF office tower in Chicago last year for a cool $850M. Still, outside of the NYC asset and a couple other buildings in Chicago, Donald's fortune is all in California. Here's a shot Bisnow took in 2011 of Donald holding a newly minted ULI “Vanguard Award” with LA mega-developer Rick Caruso and chairman of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate Stan Ross, both friends and Irvine board members.

Fun fact: Before his time in the corps, Donald attended University of Washington on a skiing scholarship (likely partaking in some of the posh ski resorts for moguls).

No surprise here: His degree is in economics.