OC’s Wealthiest 2023: Donald Bren



THE WEALTH: Bren heads Orange County’s largest real estate company, with one of the largest portfolios of apartments and offices in California, among other notable holdings. Holdings consist of 129 million square feet and include more than 590 office buildings, 125 apartment communities with 65,000 units, 40 retail centers, one coastal resort, three golf courses, and five marinas, according to Irvine Co. Buildings largely in OC, with about 35% of the portfolio in Silicon Valley, San Diego, West Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

BIG BREAK: Bren got his start as a homebuilder in 1958. In 1977, he was part of a group that purchased Irvine Co. from the founding family, the successor to the 93,000-acre ranch bought by James Irvine in 1864. Bren bought out most of his partners in 1983. Became sole owner in 1996. Bren has been the steward of the Irvine Ranch Master Plan, professionally planning and building the City of Irvine and the Newport Coast.

LOCAL HOLDINGS: Fashion Island, Newport Center, half of 185-acre UCI Research Park in Irvine, Jamboree Center, MacArthur Court, the Resort at Pelican Hill, and large parts of the 5,000-acre Irvine Spectrum.

PHILANTHROPY: Bloomberg Businessweek magazine ranks Bren as one of the country’s most generous philanthropists, estimating his lifetime giving at more than $2.1 billion. Over $265 million of that went toward education. He’s directed more than $70 million to the University of California, Irvine, in addition to giving to other schools. Bren also set aside 57,000-plus acres—more than half of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch—as open space and parklands in perpetuity. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the state formally designated the lands as Natural Landmarks. In 2014, Irvine Co. donated 2,500 acres of land in Anaheim Hills and East Orange where it once planned more than 5,000 homes. The land will be permanent open space.

SECTOR PERFORMANCE: Irvine Co.’s apartment division—now estimated to be its largest source of revenue—continues to thrive, though it is unlikely the company would fetch as large a price for the properties as a year ago, were they to ever sell, based on the performance of large national apartment REITs the past year, as well as rising cap rates.
Industry watchers also say that Irvine Co.’s retail assets continue to outperform the market, and the company has the financial strength to upgrade those properties when needed, and in some cases, redevelop them altogether into different products.
The company is looking to convert some excess space at the Irvine Market Place shopping center to additional apartments, for example.
While the company’s collection of high-end offices appears to have outperformed the market in terms of leasing success, thanks to investments into the newest product types and abundant tenant amenities, they too would likely trade for far less today than a year or two ago; large national office REITs have seen their stock fall 20% or more the past year. Sources familiar with the company’s operations say Irvine Co. believes their office portfolio is a clear outlier, in terms of financial performance and valuations, compared to those REITs. And it is unlikely the long-term owner would ever part with its most valuable assets.

ESTIMATE: Given challenges facing CRE owners, the Business Journal has lowered Bren’s wealth estimate this year, though not by much: as in prior years, there’s an argument that our prior estimates are well below Bren’s true valuation.
Our estimate for 2023: $18 billion, a modest decline from last year’s $18.2 billion valuation, which was our highest ever for Bren.
Other national estimates place Bren in the $17 billion range.

Space Investment Paying Dividends

In August 2021, Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology disclosed the institution has been gifted more than $100 million by Donald Bren, a university lifetime trustee, to develop technology to collect solar power in space and beam it back to Earth. The endowment was made anonymously in 2013.
“I have been a student researching the possible applications of space-based solar energy for many years,” Bren said in a statement at the time the gift was revealed.
The investment appears to be paying off.
Caltech announced that a space solar power prototype launched into orbit in January “is operational and has demonstrated its ability to wirelessly transmit power in space and to beam detectable power to Earth for the first time.”
The experiment was developed by a Caltech team led by Ali Hajimiri, Bren Professor of Electrical Engineering and Medical Engineering.
“The hard work and dedication of the brilliant scientists at Caltech have advanced our dream of providing the world with abundant, reliable and affordable power for the benefit of all humankind,” Bren said in a statement provided to the Business Journal two months ago.
Bren “has brought the same drive and discipline that he has demonstrated with master-planning communities to the Space Solar Program,” said Caltech President Thomas Rosenbaum, in 2022. “He has presented a remarkable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”

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