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John Combs: Winning the Kentucky Derby

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John Combs had a previous life before founding Irvine-based property management firm RiverRock Real Estate Group in 2003.

“My business career started when I was 15 in the horse industry,” Combs told the Business Journal.

While in high school and college in his native state of Texas, the former equestrian trained horses for high-profile individuals, including former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley.

Combs noticed that many of his wealthier clients were in real estate, in part inspiring him to pursue an MBA at The University of Dallas.

Rather than pursuing work in the oft-more lucrative market segments of development and brokerages, Combs was lured to the property management market.

“Some may have thought that wasn’t the smartest decision, but I think people are too afraid to make mistakes,” Combs said. “My decision ended up being an incredible one that’s gotten me to where I am today.”

RiverRock now counts 140 employees across 23 offices, and oversees 40 million square feet of office, industrial and retail properties in California and Arizona. It ranks fifth among property managers in Orange County, with a local portfolio of nearly 14 million square feet, and is the largest firm among local companies that only handle third-party management.

Combs was one of five honored at the Business Journal’s 21st annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards held on May 26 at the Irvine Marriott.

“I feel like how the winners of the Kentucky Derby felt,” Combs said after accepting his award.

CEO to Founder

Combs got his real estate start at a Texas development company before deciding to move to California after visiting the state on vacation.

He joined O’Donnell Property Services when it was one of the largest property management firms in OC, and worked his way up to the CEO role before the company sold in 1995 to Insignia Financial Group Inc.

Combs led the U.S. property services division at Insignia after that sale, during which he oversaw the acquisition of about 30 companies that grew the company’s footprint to 300 million square feet.

In 2003, CBRE Group Inc. acquired Insignia in a deal valued around $415 million.
“I lost my job as part of that merger,” Combs said.

Like in many entrepreneurial stories, that setback ended up pushing Combs to start his own property management company.

“I had a goal of starting a union for property managers because I felt we didn’t have any rights, but I also didn’t want to go against clients,” Combs said. “So, I started RiverRock with the intention of creating a solid company for property managers to work for, that also provided customized property services.”

Employees First

Combs has indeed created a solid workplace environment—the company has been named a Best Place to Work in Orange County by the Business Journal every year the firm has entered.

“I decided one of the key performance indicators was if we won best place to work because happy people give better service,” Combs said.

He calls employees on anniversary dates. On birthdays employees receive cards, a paid day off and a $75 gift card.

The firm also makes efforts to recruit and mentor women and people of color, and counts a 93% employee retention rate.

“Treating employees well is more important now than ever before,” Combs said.

Personalized Services

RiverRock brings that same mentality to its clients. It aims to differentiate itself from competitors by offering personalized service, not a one-size-fits-most approach.

In addition to holistic property management for retail, industrial and office properties, RiverRock provides construction management, accounting and due diligence services for its clients, which include institutional investors, commercial real estate equity funds and private owners.

“Those product lines often act as stand-alone services, and have expanded on their own,” Combs said.

RiverRock manages 13.8 million square feet locally, including the Sunwest Bank headquarters building at 2050 Main St. and the Von Karman Corporate Center.

The company reported revenue of $19.5 million in 2021 and plans to continue that growth in 2022 out of the firm’s new home base in Irvine: a 20,392-square-foot office along Morse Avenue that the company purchased during the pandemic and converted into its new headquarters.

The office is Fitwel certified, a designation for spaces that promote positive health outcomes. RiverRock’s office, for example, touts indoor/outdoor connectivity, an organic garden, outdoor patio and touchless kitchen.

The company was among the first in the U.S. to certify its policies using Fitwel, and that certification is available for implementation across RiverRock’s management portfolio.

“With this certification we can communicate publicly that RREG-managed buildings are safe and open for business,” Combs said.

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