Power Players of Orange County


While Hollywood and Beverly Hills have long been known as California’s home for glitz and glam, Orange County’s emergence in recent years as a power player in the world of wealth has taken no one that lives there by surprise. With a foundation based in oil and agriculture until the 1950s, the region spent the latter half of the 20th century living in the shadows of the City of Angels as its all-American suburban sibling. (In the mid-1950s tract housing replaced Orange County farms faster than any other U.S. community.) But in the 21st century, Orange County has evolved into one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country.

In the 2008 TNS report, Orange County is listed fourth when it comes to the most millionaire households in the U.S., with more than 115,000 (defined as those with at least $1 million in net worth, in addition to their primary residence). And on the 2008 Forbes list of top 500 wealthiest American zip codes, Orange County claims five spots in the top 50, with Newport Coast’s 92657 reigning in at No. 4. Naturally several zips in Newport Beach made the cut, along with Corona del Mar, San Clemente, Trabuco Canyon, Irvine, Huntington Beach, Dana Point, and Santa Ana.

The O.C. (as it is referred to in modern pop culture) is the fifth largest county in the nation, with population estimates pinpointing more than three million residents within the 34 incorporated cities. As one of the wealthiest regions per capita in the country, Orange County’s opulence comes from more than just material wealth. Natural beauty abounds within the county’s borders, which cover 798 square miles, including 42 miles of some of the most visually arresting coastlines in the world.

 Today he owns and/or manages 400 office buildings, 40 retail centers, and 90 apartment communities, hotels, marinas, and golf courses.

Donald Bren: The O.C.’s Protector

While strategically planned commercial and residential development is essential for any community to thrive, in today’s eco-conscious society, a balance between growth and the preservation of Mother Nature’s gifts is just as genius of a strategy for success. Donald Bren, a Newport Beach resident and chairman of Irvine Company, is one of Orange County’s most notable leaders in this realm of thinking. He could be considered “The Protector” of all-things-Orange, as his real estate development company has managed to preserve more than 50,000 acres of land for environmental and natural recreational uses, all while constructing some of the most defining luxury properties in the county, including the famed Fashion Island.

The 93,000-acre master planned community, Irvine Ranch, is home not only to more than 230,000 residents, but also to various plant and animal species, who, thanks to Bren, will forever be safe in their natural habitat. The Ranch encompasses one-fifth of Orange County, and under Bren’s philosophy of purposeful and protective land stewardship only 43,000 acres will ever be available for development. The company prides itself on its legacy of conservation, and as such has worked with the U.S. Department of Interior and the State of California to have much of Irvine Ranch declared a National Natural Landmark and a California Natural Landmark. Bren’s dedication to protecting Orange County’s nonrenewable land resources is as commendable as his tenacious business ventures. His $50 million commitment to the Irvine Ranch Conservancy program will guarantee the company’s guiding principles of thoughtful development based on environmentally sound sustainability.

Bren is not only internationally renowned for his real estate portfolio, which includes Island Hotel Newport Beach, Hyatt Regency Irvine, and The Resort at Pelican Hill, he is also a revered philanthropist. In 2008, BusinessWeek magazine listed Bren as No. 9 in the nation of “The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists,” with lifetime giving estimates exceeding $1.3 billion. He is one of only 31 people to make the Forbes 400 list every year since its inception in 1982, leading one to believe that Bren is a man who knows a little something about protecting his wealth. Today he owns and/or manages 400 office buildings, 40 retail centers, and 90 apartment communities, hotels, marinas, and golf courses.

Hadi Makarechian: The Visionary

Iranian-born Hadi Makarechian also has his finger on the pulse of luxury growth in the region. When Ayatollah Khomeini returned to power in Iran in 1979 and the Makarechian family’s vast financial wealth was seized at gunpoint, Hadi fled his native land with wife and kids in tow. Though many would have been paralyzed by such a traumatic life change, leaving everything behind did not hinder Makarechian’s optimistic view of life’s endless possibilities. He instantly set about rebuilding his life and his wealth in the U.S., and less than two decades after arriving on the shores of freedom, his vision of constructing and selling more than 30,000 homes in California and the southwest had come to fruition.

He is the chairman, CEO, and president of Capital Pacific Holdings Inc., as well as the chairman of Makar Properties, where his sons Paul and Cyrus guide daily operations as CEO and executive vice president, respectively. In 2008, the Orange County Business Journal, estimated the family’s wealth at $600 million, thanks in part to their amenity-rich luxury resorts like the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort & Spa in Dana Point. In 2007, Makar Properties bought America’s largest hotel, the Hilton Anaheim, for an estimated $160 million and spent $50 million renovating it. In 2006 they added the Wyndham Orange County hotel to their list of investments, at a cost of $42 million.

With more than $10 billion currently invested in development projects, the Makarechians plan to be quite busy, despite economic forecasting. Their visions for future development include a 21,000-acre master planned community in Colorado Springs, and their largest Orange County development to date, Pacific City. Located on 31 acres in Huntington Beach, the property plans are set to include a 200-room W Hotel, and 191,000 square feet of shops, restaurants and offices and more than 500 condos. In Dana Point, Makar is building luxury coastal homes, including Pointe Monarch at St. Regis.

Henry Segerstrom: The Giver

When legends are told of the transformation of Orange County from a farming town to one that embraces the luxury lifestyle, Henry Segerstrom’s name will be on record as “The Giver.” Segerstrom and his late wife Renée pioneered the advancement of arts in Orange County in 1979 with a five-acre donation towards a central arts venue. In the subsequent decades, the Segerstroms would give six more acres and more than $60 million dollars to the Orange County Performing Arts Center’s expansion project, which includes the Concert Hall, designed by Segerstrom family friend, architect Cesar Pelli. After a $200 million fundraising campaign, today’s campus houses Segerstrom Hall, a 3,000-seat opera house, the 2,000-seat Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, the 500-seat multi-functional Samueli Theater, 250-seat Founders Hall, and 46,000-square-foot community plaza.

Henry Segerstrom is not only revered in Orange County for giving to the arts. As the managing partner of C. J. Segerstrom & Sons, a real estate development and management firm headquartered in Costa Mesa, he also gave America one of its largest shopping venues, South Coast Plaza. The 2.8 million-square-foot retail center opened in 1967 on the family’s former lima bean farm and today is home to everything high-end, leading Segerstrom to view Paris’ Champs Élysées and London’s Bond Street as some of his elite competitors. Nordstrom and Saks, Baccarat, Bulgari, Cartier, Tiffany, Burberry, and Chanel are some of the luxury brands that have attracted more than 24 million annual visitors to South Coast Plaza. With more than 280 stores, sales figures are in the $1.5 billion range, annually.

John McMonigle: The Seller

If Orange County developers can build it, then John McMonigle can certainly sell it.

In the past five years, his firm, the McMonigle Group, has sold more than $2.1 billion in real estate. With their new 20,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Newport Beach (they just moved in this past January), McMonigle is expecting to break more records in 2009, just as they did in 2008. McMonigle is one of the elite sellers of mega mansions for Irvine Company, not to mention that through his partnership with development company, Monarch Estates, he is overseeing the construction of a $90 million spec home in one of Donald Bren’s luxury developments. He is often called upon by the media as the foremost expert in residential real estate and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Access Hollywood, The Insider, and HGTV. In 2007, the McMonigle Group was named the best-selling real estate team in the nation by LORE Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.

Igor Olenicoff: The Risk Taker and George Argyros: The Ambassador

Naturally, exploring the growth of Orange County would not be complete without a mention of Igor Olenicoff and George Argyros, who rank at 522 and 559 on the 2009 Forbes list of world billionaires. Russian-born Olenicoff runs Olen Properties’ 6.4 million square feet of commercial space and 11,800 residential units. He risked the loss of his fortune when he paid $52 million in back taxes as part of a plea deal with the U.S. government in 2008.

Argyros, the former U.S. Ambassador to Spain, operates Orange County real estate ventures through the 40-year-old privately owned Arnel & Affiliates. He made his fortune by selling and leasing land to oil companies to set up gas stations, and is currently the chairman and CEO for the real estate investment firm that owns and manages 5,200 apartments and 2.5 million square feet of commercial space.

David Sun and John Tu: The Creators

While development is the first and most obvious category to consider when delving into Orange County’s growth, the power players are not limited to real estate corporations. Take, for example, David Sun and John Tu, creators of high-tech memory modules and co-owners of Kingston Technology Co., in Fountain Valley. In a year when most of the world’s wealthy are seeing their portfolios plummet, Sun and Tu’s estimated earnings jumped, placing them above Henry Samueli and Henry Nicholas of Broadcom Corp., according to the 2008 Orange County Business Journal report. The computer memory products creators posted record sales of more than $4.5 billion in 2007 and in September 2008, Forbes ranked the co-owners at $2.5 billion each.

Sun, born in Taiwan, and Tu, born in China came to the United States in the 1970s. They spent the following years creating Kingston, so they could sell it in 1996 to Softbank Corp. for $1.5 billion. The pair garnered national attention when they shared the wealth from that sale by giving company workers $100 million in bonuses. Perhaps this act of generosity contributed to their inclusion on Fortune magazine’s “Best Companies to Work for in America” list. Three years later they bought Kingston back at a discounted rate. Today the technology giant creates more than 2,000 memory products for various technological devices including computers, servers, printers, MP3 players, digital cameras, and cell phones.

Kobe Bryant: The Entertainer

While these corporate tycoons are leading their industries from behind the desks of their corporate offices, another Orange County resident makes his power plays on the hard court, entertaining not only Southern California residents, but basketball fans across the nation. NBA phenomenon Kobe Bryant owns a Mediterranean-style home in the Newport Coast gated community of Ocean Ridge, with his wife and Huntington Beach native, Vanessa. At the time of print, the L.A. Lakers guard is hoping to entertain hordes of Lakers fans in a victory against the Houston Rockets in the playoffs and once again go on to a national title. Bryant is considered to be such a pivotal personality in the world of entertainment that he attracted the attention of movie producer and director Spike Lee, who just premiered his documentary, Kobe Doin’ Work, at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Lee employed the use of 30 different cameras to capture Bryant’s every move in an April 2008 game against the San Antonio Spurs. Bryant then recorded a commentary for the film, describing his thought process behind each shot, screen, and pass.

With these power players living in Orange County and masterfully leading its growth and development, it is clear that the success of their entrepreneurial efforts is a source of pride in the region. No longer living in the shadows of its Hollywood neighbor, there is no mistake that in the 21st century, Orange County has defined itself as a luxury destination, fully capable of supporting and catering to the whims of the wealthy.